Females At The Front

In this ongoing thread stretching back several years, the Dish looks at the role of women in combat.

The first segment of the thread, “From Lady To Lioness”, which covered the Lioness Program allowing female Marines to serve in combat units to interact with Muslim women, is immediately below.

The next segment from Feb 2012, “Women Closer To Combat”, which follows the lifting of some restrictions on women in combat, is here.

And the latest segment from Jan 2013, “Females At The Front”, covering the announcement that the US military was lifting its ban on women in combat roles, is here

Sun Aug 23, 2009 – 12:46pm:

From Lady To Lioness
by Chris Bodenner

Silbey has a great post on the slow but steady integration of blacks and women in the military. For the latter, the only remaining barrier is serving in combat units. But Iraq and Afghanistan are quietly undermining that:

First, because in a war with fluid front-lines–if any at all–even women
supposedly out of reach of combat find themselves in the middle of a
firefight. Second, and more importantly, the need for certain
capabilities, skills, and warm bodies, has overridden military
reluctance to put women in harm’s way. The New York Times recently published two substantial articles (1, 2)
on the latter. […] :

As soldiers in the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, women
have done nearly as much in battle as their male counterparts:
patrolled streets with machine guns, served as gunners on vehicles,
disposed of explosives, and driven trucks down bomb-ridden roads. They
have proved indispensable in their ability to interact with and search
Iraqi and Afghan women for weapons, a job men cannot do for cultural
reasons. The Marine Corps has created revolving units — “lionesses” —
dedicated to just this task.

Read the rest (which addresses, among other things, sex in combat zones). Colbert also did a great service when he interviewed Sgt. Robin Balcom on his USO show; she earned a combat badge in Iraq as an MP (military police), which isn’t technically a combat unit.

The Colbert Report Mon – Thurs 11:30pm / 10:30c
Tareq Salha & Robin Balcom

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Mon Aug 24, 2009 – 9:19am:

by Chris Bodenner

A reader writes:

I think it’s a great thing that women are (slowly) being incorporated into the military establishment. I believe the American military should reflect the nation it protects. But one needs to remember, that only males are required by law to register for Selective Service when turning 18, or face the loss of any college scholarships, loans and possibly his freedom. If women are becoming fully integrated members of the U.S. military, then shouldn’t girls register as well? Or should we abolish this Cold War atavism entirely?

Great point.  The fact that the government can force men into war, but not women, is a bit of a civil rights travesty.  With equal rights comes equal responsibility – and there’s no greater responsibility than national security.  Some conservatives will freak out and think that half the draftees will be women, and thus half of the people on the frontlines will be women. But of course only individuals physically capable of combat will be sent to the battlefield, and women, on average, are not as capable as men. However, with our ever-increasing reliance on technology for combat, physical prowess is becoming more and more obsolete. In fact, given the rapid dominance of women in higher education, the battlefields of the future – reliant on robots – could be dominated by women as well.

Tue Aug 25, 2009 – 10:02am:

Should There Be A Lioness Program?

by Chris Bodenner

A reader writes:

You wrote, “But of course only individuals physically capable of combat will be sent to the battlefield, and women, on average, are not as capable as men.” I’m sure you’ve received complaints about this line. Indeed, the anticipation of complaints is why you italicized “on average.” It is simply impolite to say it: vanishingly few women are capable of the physical performance that the mission requires for infantry combat.

The military actually takes this into account: promotion scores in the Marines depend on physical fitness test scores, and they are curved for women. Heavily. If not for the curve there would be hardly any females in the Marines at all. Men are held to a higher physical standard to get promoted. Is this fair?

How much more so is this important in the infantry? Is it fair to ask infantry Marines to go into combat with a fighter on their left who isn’t carrying the ammunition for the machine gun she needs to, because, well, it’s too heavy for a woman? Or to go into combat with a compatriot who isn’t able to carry him to safety if he is wounded, because she’s not strong enough? Does egalitarianism entail no responsibility to be qualified for the position sought, when lives are at stake?

I have served in Iraq; I know Lioness Marines; I completely object to the program. It is one thing to say that we will overlook the reduced combat capacity of a woman in order to be able to search a female Afghan without offending a local sheik. It is another thing to say we will categorically lower the physical standards of a physically-intense, life-threatening field because almost no women would qualify otherwise. I will not let Marines die so that ERA supporters back home can hug themselves and say that patriarchy is dead. And I say that as an ERA-supporting, single-payer advocating, atheist socialist democrat.

Actually, I haven’t received any complaints about that line, presumably because most readers agree that while the average woman is not as strong as the average man, there are certainly scores of extraordinary women who are stronger than many men – including many in the military.

But to the reader’s larger point: I agree there should be one physical threshold for both men and women in combat units. And yes, currently they are different standards in place. For example, biannual physical training (PT) tests in the Army require men aged 17-21 to complete a 2-mile run in at least 15:54, while the female equivalent is 18:54. However, these are requirements for all Army personnel, not combat units (remember than women are still formally blocked from combat units). So while that different standard isn’t technically “fair,” I don’t see a problem with it, since the typical Army job is unrelated to combat and thus not based on physical prowess. When the military does finally allow women into combat units on a formal basis, only then are equal requirements essential.

However, the Lioness Program – which allows female Marines to temporarily serve in combat units for the purpose of searching Muslim women – seems to muddy that distinction. So I can understand why the reader would object to the program. But would his objection – that a woman, in a rare instance, would have to carry a man to safety – really outweigh the overall need for female-searching females? Also, I’m guessing there are other temporary positions in combat units filled by people who don’t have the same strength as combat Marines. Some translators? What about embedded reporters?

Despite all the reader’s objections, he still doesn’t seem to reject the idea of women in combat units. He wrote: “[V]anishingly few women are capable of the physical performance that the mission requires for infantry combat.” Few, but still some.

Wed Aug 26, 2009 – 8:11am:

by Chris Bodenner

A reader writes:

As someone who’s also served in Iraq, I’m disappointed by your reader who “completely objects” to the Lioness program. Having female search teams is not just a matter of avoiding “offending a local sheik.” It is critical to preventing the offending and alienation of the vast majority of the Iraqi population. And that, in turn, is crucial to counter-insurgency efforts, and other long-term U.S. goals in Iraq. You know, the goals which Marine combat operations are designed to support, and for which Marines frequently risk and sometimes lay down their lives.

The risk that one of these Lioness Marines may not be able to carry them to safety would surely be one of the minutest portions of the enormous risks that Marines willingly take for their country. I’ve signed the death certificates of more than a few Marines killed in Iraq, and I’m strongly in favor of doing all we can to protect them while performing their duties. But to myopically focus on such a small risk, to the clear detriment of the larger military mission in Iraq, is no way to honor or protect the Marines.

Regarding your discussion of Army physical training tests, I’d just like to add that there are not just different standards in place for the two sexes–there are different standards for each of ten different age categories (the Marine Corps also allows slower running times with increasing age, but has only four age categories). Furthermore, those age differences apply to combat and non-combat units alike. It seems to me that the arguments against different standards for females also apply to different standards for older males, but I don’t hear anyone arguing that all males who can’t meet the minimum standard for 17-21 year-olds should be banned from combat.

(The Army PT charts I consulted in my previous post are here.)

Thu Sep 8, 2011 – 10:35am:

Why Shouldn’t Women Serve In Combat?

Megan H. MacKenzie undermines the foundation of the case against women joining infantry units:

The cohesion hypothesis remains as the most significant set of arguments against GI Janes. There are two main premises to the cohesion hypothesis: 1. cohesion is causally linked to group (in this case military unit) performance; 2. women negatively impact cohesion and thereby negatively impact troop effectiveness. The trouble with these two premises is that they both have been largely discounted by researchers.

In her 1998 article on the Don’t Ask Don’t Tell policy in International Security, Elizabeth Kier concludes that “the results from more than five decades of research in group dynamics, organizational behaviour, small-group research, sports psychology, social psychology, military history, and military sociology challenge the proposition that primary group unit cohesion enhances military performance.” Some research even indicates that high levels of cohesion can be detrimental to military performance as it results in conformity, groupthink, and a lack of adaptability.

The parallels with DADT are obvious. MacKenzie previously discussed the issue here.

Fri Feb 10, 2012 – 2:34pm:

Women Closer To Combat


by Chris Bodenner

Some social progress out of the Pentagon yesterday:

The new rules, slated to go in effect this summer, will open up about 14,000 additional jobs to women and reflect the realities of asymmetrical warfare in Iraq and Afghanistan where there are few “safe jobs.” In some cases, the Pentagon is simply lifting restrictions on jobs women have already been doing. As ABC News explains, “Typically, these jobs have been made available at the combat brigade level, but not at the lower battalion level, which was deemed too close to combat situation.”

Rick Santorum responded to the new regulations:

I think that could be a very compromising situation, where people naturally may do things that may not be in the interest of the mission because of other types of emotions that are involved. It already happens, of course, with the camaraderie of men in combat, but I think it would be even more unique if women were in combat.

Pundits on the left and right are interpreting those ambiguous words to mean that he thinks women are simply too emotional to deal with combat. It seems more likely, however, that Santorum is saying that male soldiers will have to endure a new kind of emotional stress seeing women face death and dismemberment on the battlefield.

But that of course plays into the sexist notion that women should be uniquely protected against harm. So regardless of the interpretation, Santorum’s words condescend to the professionalism of female or male soldiers, who successfully control all kinds of emotions under extreme duress and danger.

(Photo: Female Marine Corps recruits listen to instruction during hand-to-hand combat training at the United States Marine Corps recruit depot June 23, 2004 in Parris Island, South Carolina. Marine boot camp, with its combination of strict discipline and exhaustive physical training, is considered the most rigorous of the armed forces recruit training. By Scott Olson/Getty Images)

Mon Feb 13, 2012 – 7:56pm:

Santorum clarifies to his initial comments regarding the Pentagon’s new policy:

When you have men and women together in combat, I think men have emotions when you see a woman in harm’s way. I think it’s natural. It’s very much in our culture to be protective. That was my concern. I think that’s a concern with all of the militaries.

Will Wilkinson unpacks this quote:

It’s really is amazing how far we’ve come in such a short time, equality-wise. Within the span my own lifetime, it was thought that women ought to be barred from the Olympic marathon due to the inherent fragility of the female. Now we’ve got Haywire and an unreconstructed, full-on patriarchal, old-school Catholic, Republican office-seeker saying maybe women shouldn’t go to the front-lines because men are too hopelessly emotional.

Caitlin Fitzgerald scrutinizes Santorum’s concern:

Some men would have a harder time seeing women hurt or threatened in combat than other men. This is hard to refute. It’s ‘women and children first,’ or chivalry, or manners; or on the flip side, it’s condescension, or infantilization, or minimization. Whether it comes from a place of honor or a place of diminution, and whatever you want to call it, there’s no denying this could be an issue for some men.

That being said, so what? It is incumbent on those men to be grown-ups, to be professionals, and to get over it and do their jobs. People adapt. Men will see women in different roles more often, they will become accustomed to it, the culture will change. The more common it is, the more normal it will become and the less of a potential issue it will be. In the meantime, we can rely on training and professionalism to carry people through.

Joshua Keating, noting a mistake in Santorum’s words about women in the Israeli Defense Forces, takes a comparative look at female combatants around the world. A roundup of commentary on the overall debate here.

Tue Feb 14, 2012 – 3:00pm:

A reader writes:

I want to comment on Santorum’s overreaction to the increased role women may have in combat. I think it shows he may not have been paying attention to how the last two 2193035wars have been fought. We no longer fight linear battles with clearly defined front lines and areas to the rear devoid of enemies. Now there are no front lines, and every area can be vulnerable to attack.  A supply convoy comprised of men and women is just as likely to be attacked and forced to fight as an infantry patrol comprised of all men. In some cases insurgents are more likely to attack the supply convoy because they know they are not trained to fight as well as an infantry unit might be. I serve in a Military Police unit and women have been able to serve in the MP Corps for quite some time now and they regularly see combat, yet the MP Corps has been able to survive and function without all the men becoming emotional messes.

Another adds:

Women have been assigned combat missions without the training that the military requires for male soldiers to do the same actual job. This is pure negligence. There is effectively no question as to whether America will allow her daughters to fight for her; the question is now will America train her daughters thoroughly to fight for their own lives and others’?

(Photo: A US military police woman stands guard close to a gutted car with diplomatic plates, destroyed after a hand grenade was thrown at it close to the US-controlled central press center in Baghdad on July 14, 2003. The vehicle, which bares Tunisian plates, was parked when the grenade was thrown. No one was injured in the incident. By Marwan Naamani/AFP/Getty Images)

Wed Feb 15, 2012 – 6:04pm:


A reader quotes another:

Women have been assigned combat missions without the training that the military requires for male soldiers to do the same actual job. This is pure negligence.

I have no idea what this even means. As some of your other readers have noted, almost every mission on the modern battlefield is potentially a combat mission. I served as a signal corps paratrooper in XVIII Airborne Corps and in a signal unit in the Republic of Korea. Signal is considered a “combat support” branch, so there are lots of opportunities for contact with the enemy, either because what passes for a front has shifted and signal stations have found themselves in newly unfriendly territory, or because someone’s decided to go after a unit’s signal assets.

At both duty stations, there were women in my units (serving as small unit, company and battalion level commanders, for that matter), and they were getting the same training as the rest of us: what to do if you get hit with chemical agents, what to do if the enemy sends a squad around to attack a given node, what to do if it looks like your site is about to be overrun and you have a choice between shooting back or taking an axe to the gear and burning all the crypto. In fact, my (female) company commander told me she picked the Signal Corps because it was a chance for her to get actual combat experience instead of languishing in the rear echelon.

At Fort Bragg, women were jumping out of the airplanes with the rest of us. The plan was to land in an area that had been secured, but doctrinally everyone is aware that you might end up jumping into a hot DZ, and that’s included in the training.

In Korea, my platoon’s M203 gunner, the one with the cool over-and-under grenade launcher? She weighed 100 pounds dripping wet, kept up with the rest of us on ruck marches and qualified “expert” on the firing range. She was out there at the 3 a.m. for the chemical attack drills with the rest of us, practicing site defense with the rest of us, and generally training to fight just like the rest of us.

None of us were as well trained for combat as a platoon of infantry or cavalry scouts, but we were as well trained as the army could make us to defend ourselves on a shifting battlefield. Nobody was making the girls go hang out in the barracks while the boys played with the guns, and the commander I followed out the door on jumps was a woman, trained to fight just like me.

Another writes:

There was an excellent discussion regarding this topic on “On Point with Tom Ashbrook”. It covered the viewpoints in your thread, but also included multiple call-ins from active-duty military members and veterans from all branches of the armed services. The old fashioned viewpoints were represented, as well as more modern takes from people just back from the front lines (if there are any anymore) in Iraq/Afghanistan.

Another story:

My youngest sister served in the Army in Iraq in 2004 and 2005, driving trucks between the rear and the front. She carried a rifle and wore the Army’s Expert medal. She served mostly with men and lost some good friends while she served. One of her best stories was the day an enemy fighter appeared from out of nowhere and fired an RPG at the armored truck she was driving. The rocket struck the driver’s side, disabling the truck but sparing the lives of both her and the male soldier riding shotgun. After shaking off the noise and shock from the rocket grenade’s impact, without thinking twice my sister and the male soldier got out of the truck, chased the Iraqi down and beat the shit out him.

In Rick Santorum’s world, that does not happen. No, my sister’s squad mate would’ve been reduced to a sobbing mess, sitting in a puddle of his own tears or something, because an enemy fighter could’ve hurt a woman. Dumbass.

I’ve attached a couple of pix. I don’t have permission from my sister to publish them, but just thought you guys would like to see who I’m talking about. I’m enormously proud of her, to the point of tears as I type this.

(Photo: A US female soldier from Alpha Company, 2nd Battalion, 7th Cavalry Regiment secures the area during a joint house-to-house search operation between Iraqi and US forces, in the northern Iraqi city of Mosul, on April 15, 2007. Insurgent gunmen attacked an Iraqi army checkpoint and killed 13 soldiers on a road in northern Iraq, in an area where Iraqi security forces often clash with Sunni insurgents linked to the Al-Qaeda network. By Mauricio Lima/AFP/Getty Images)

Thu Feb 16, 2012 – 10:25am:


A reader complicates the thread:

As a woman and veteran, I struggle with the idea of women on the front lines. There is a battle between the pragmatist in me and the idealist. Before I joined the US Army, I was much more able to side with my idealist self. Several weeks of basic training in a co-ed cohort is how my internal conflict started.

I was one of the most physically fit females in my unit – easily in the top 5% of my company, which had 60 women in it. There were the chivalrous men not wanting to see a woman struggle to carry a sandbag, or get over a wall, or that fall behind in a run … which happened more often than not. Actually, it wasn’t that the men felt solely compelled to help us as women, but as soldiers. They didn’t want to leave us behind. We slowed the men down. We did. It was a harsh reality to face and it hurt my idealist heart and mind, but it’s the truth.

I thought about what it would be like in the heat of a battle and couldn’t imagine putting my fellow male soldier’s life at risk for my ideals. If we had to carry a wounded soldier much larger than me, I wouldn’t be able to! If we had to build a bunker quickly, I could manage one sandbag for the weakest male soldiers four sandbags. If we would have had to run long distances or go on long patrols I – again, at the top 5% of physical fitness standards in the military for females – would have fallen behind. I struggled to even carry the tripod of a M60 during our practiced road marches, so I could have never carried an actual M60. Thirty pounds of my own equipment was about all I could manage for 12-miles hikes.

I am sure there are women who can do these things, but in my experiences in the military (4.5 years) I can only recall one woman who was up to that standard, and even then she was barely stronger than the weakest of the males soldiers. It’s just biology; men have more muscles in their bodies. It may seem unfair, but physical fitness matters in battle.

There have to be some instances where we say yes, you have to meet a physical standard to do this position. My guess is though, if we force women to pass physical fitness test, the same test men do, very, very, very few will pass. Then the military will be blamed for denying women the opportunity to serve on the front line.

(Photo: Israeli Army female soldier Yael Suissa competes in a push-up competition with U.S. Army sergeant Aaron Thomas during a joint U.S.-Israeli military exercise in the Negev desert in southern Israel on February 4, 2003. Israeli and American forces fired a salvo of Patriot missiles as part of their joint exercise, codenamed Juniper Cobra, to test air defenses ahead of a possible U.S. war with Iraq. By Alberto Denkberg/Getty Images)

Fri Feb 17, 2012 – 7:34am:

A reader writes:

The female veteran wrote: “It’s just biology; men have more muscles in their bodies. It may seem unfair, but physical fitness matters in battle.” Yeah, and solving the problem is not excluding women from certain roles, but those who can’t meet the standards. If that means few women make it, so be it. But the test should be based on standards, not gender.

Another is on the same page:

This last reader’s comment seems to call for the institution of a Bona Fide Occupational Qualification (BFOQ) for certain combat positions. As someone who is completely in favor of women’s participation in combat (if they so wish), this seems completely reasonable to me. In the field of employment discrimination law, if an employer can prove that a certain occupation absolutely requires certain physical attributes, and can test for those attributes in a neutral way, that is a BFOQ, and is a legal defense for accusations of employment discrimination. No doubt the armed forces would be able to make good cases for a BFOQ for certain combat positions.

A few readers questioned the veracity of the veteran:

I just read the supposed testimonial from the person who claims to be a woman veteran who was in the top 5% of her company, and I call bullshit. I am not a veteran and have never done basic training, but this line is the giveaway: “Thirty pounds of my own equipment was about all I could manage for 12-mile hikes.” I am a 44-year-old working mother, 5’2″, and 110 lbs. I am much smaller than most women. I have been active and athletic my whole life, but I work in a professional office in front of a computer. With very little advance prep, I can (and do) easily backpack for multiple days carrying a 40-50 lb pack.

I expect you’ll see a lot more from active duty men and women on this. It just reeks of how someone against this policy would like to prove themselves right.

Update from a reader:

The response to the vet who speaks of carrying a 30 pound ruck is wrong and obviously, as she admits, from a civilian. A 12-mile march in the Army is not the same as a 12-mile stroll through a national park. Along with that rucksack, the soldier will also carry her weapon (7 pounds minimum), a gas mask, load bearing harness, a couple quart canteens of water or a full Camel Back, possibly body armor, a Kevlar helmet, and any other gear in her numerous uniform pockets. Oh yeah, she’s also wearing combat boots. These marches – also known as forced marches for a reason – are often done in extreme types of weather with few occasions for rest. The soldier marches at a very quick pace, stretching her stride as long as physically possible. It’s hardly a walk in the park.

Fri Feb 17, 2012 – 8:17pm:

A reader notes something that counters Santorum, who opposes women in combat but dogmatically supports everything Israel:

Women have always been trained for combat by the Israel Defense Forces.  (And of course, Israel has had openly gay men and women in its armed forces throughout its history.) In the 1948 War of Independence and the 1956 Sinai War, women actually saw combat as much as men did.

Another reader makes the same point as this update but with extensive firsthand experience:

In case this isn’t a dead issue, I’m calling bullshit on the lady calling bullshit. I did go through Basic Training, spend six years in the Army and Reserves, including a tour of Desert Storm back in ’91.  Backpacking is in NO way comparable to marching.

First off, it’s a 30-lb ruck sack you’re carrying on your back, not a custom-built, perfectly-balanced backpack; you’re in combat boots and whatever battle dress uniform is appropriate for your unit, not LL Bean’s latest fashions with breathable fabric and removable pants legs; you’re on a march with a deadline to meet, not a leisurely stroll checking out the scenery; you don’t get to snack when you’re hungry, you don’t get to stop when you want a breather – you eat and you rest when the sergeants allow you to eat and rest, and not a moment sooner; and if the unit commanders decide that this particular march shall be under “battlefield conditions,” you’re not just suffering under the weight of that uncomfortable as hell ruck sack, but your web gear, ammo, M16 rifle, grenades, bayonet, protective mask, and helmet as well WHILE only having about six hours of sleep the night before. And Lord help you if you’re the radio operator or one of them big gunners – your load just went way up.

Yes, it IS biology – with a 30-lb ruck sack, a 120 lb woman is carrying an extra 25% of her body weight, while a 150-lb man is carrying an extra 20%; a 5’3″ woman is going to take six steps to match the distance a 5’8″ man takes in 5. But this IS the 21st freakin’ century, where a lot of warfare is a matter of pushing the right button on the missile or using the joystick to control the drone. It’s about who can handle the mental and emotion strain and still make good decisions – and I served with many women who could more than hold their own in that arena.

A 5’9″ 145-lb female soldier who cranks out 100 push-ups and runs 2 miles in under 10 minutes wants to go Infantry? Sign her up. Only 5’3″ and 110 lbs? She can run radio wire with me in Commo.

Thu Jan 24, 2013 – 7:34am:

Females At The Front


The outgoing defense secretary is lifting the ban on women in combat roles, thus expanding and formalizing the reality that women already fight on the front-lines:

Women currently serve in a number of combat positions, including
piloting warplanes or serving on ships in combat areas. Since the start
of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, 292,000 women have served in those
combat zones out of a total of almost 2.5 million, Pentagon records
show. In both wars, 152 women have died from combat or noncombat causes,
records show, and 958 have been wounded in action.

Milblogger C. Blake Powers applauds Panetta, noting that the “efforts to restrict or remove them when someone suddenly realized that there was no rear area have cost time, money, and sometimes even blood needlessly.” Ackerman connects the big news with the DADT repeal:

Reminiscent of the drawn-out effort to remove the ban on gays and lesbians serving openly, the different military services will have a long time to open their most dangerous tasks to women. Initial plans from the services for implementing the repeal are due on May 15. Reportedly, the services have until January 2016 to seek exemptions for positions they believe should remain closed to women. Still, as CNN notes, eliminating “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” might have taken a long time, but when it ultimately ended in mid-2011, it happened all at once, with all military positions open to out gays and lesbians.

The Pentagon official who leaked the news made that connection explicit:

It’s likely to have the same effect as the repeal of Don’t Ask, Don’t
Tell, the policy that allowed gays and lesbians to serve but required
them to hide their sexuality. “The effect of that?” the official said. “A big zero.”

Previous Dish coverage of women in combat here.

(Photo: Female Marine Corps recruits listen to instruction during
hand-to-hand combat training at the United States Marine Corps recruit
depot on June 23, 2004 in Parris Island, South Carolina. By Scott Olson/Getty Images)

Thu Jan 24, 2013 – 11:31am:

Heather Mac Donald complains about the military ending the ban on women in combat roles:

Any claim that our fighting forces are not reaching their maximum potential because females are not included is absurd. The number of women who are the equal to reasonably well-developed men in upper-body strength and who have the same stamina and endurance is vanishingly small. Because the number of women who will meet the military’s already debased physical-fitness standard will not satisfy the feminists’ demand for representation, the fitness standard will inevitably be lowered across the board or for women alone, as we have seen in civilian uniformed forces.

Ambers rebuts her:

The worry that standards will be relaxed for women is more appropriately expressed as a desire to make sure that the standards for the job are exacting and right; that means that some may be relaxed, and some may be tightened. Equality of condition in the military for men and women is not a goal of this policy. An end to discriminatory policies that have no rational basis while preserving military readiness — a readiness that still does incorporate a recognition of gender differences — is.

A reader sounds off:

One thing that always chafes at me is the way in which the military term “non-combat” is portrayed by the media, almost always in relation to the (correct) inclusion of women in combat roles. I’m a soldier in the Military Police, a branch within the Army that’s often jokingly derided by the Infantry and Armor types as “women’s Infantry” (emphasis on jokingly). My sense is that soldiers in the Maneuver branches (Maneuver is the Army term that replaced ‘CombatArms’ – Infantry, Field Artillery, Air Defense, Armor, and Special Forces) seriously acknowledge that non-Maneuver soldiers, especially MPs and Engineers, provide a combat capability that’s vital to the fight and that they themselves could not provide. The MP branch in particular has been seen as the go-to destination for female officers looking to lead soldiers in combat.

It’s great that those women will now be able to test their mettle in the Maneuver branches of the Army. One key thing that I think is lost on the civilian world though is that there is going to be fierce resistance to women being held to different physical standards in these new roles.

In the military, men and women are scored on different scales for their branch’s particular physical training test, and their scores greatly impact their job evaluation. The tests also serve as a sort of pass/fail barrier to entry to some elite military schools like Ranger School in the Army, seen as the ‘must-do’ for all junior Infantry officers wishing to make it past captain. In the Maneuver world, where leaders are expected to score above the 90th percentile on these physical tests, you’re going to see fierce resistance from male soldiers and Marines who dislike their female competition being graded on a different (easier) scale. I wouldn’t be surprised if they make the women who try to get into these units meet male physical standards.

These courses are incredibly physically demanding, and most men fail. It sounds bad to say it, but it might be a long time before we see a woman graduate wither from Ranger School or the Marine Corps Infantry Officers Course. The women who were handpicked by the Army and Marine Corps over the past few years to test the waters by going through those schools all failed, and failed badly. And they were real-life G.I. Janes. Today’s a victory for women in the service, but the true victory is going to come when we see Ranger-tabbed female Infantry captains.

Thu Jan 24, 2013 – 4:44pm:

Serwer responds to the churlish tweet:

Carlson is a political journalist, so he might be expected to know that
there is a woman US Army veteran amputee named Tammy Duckworth currently
serving in Congress. Duckworth, who represents Illinois’ 8th District,
lost her legs after an attack brought down the helicopter she was piloting in Baghdad.

The new policy that Carlson mocks takes account of female soldiers like Duckworth:

Because women have not been eligible for “combat role” positions—even
though they were shooting and being shot at—they were denied access to
certain career opportunities. The plaintiffs in a lawsuit the American Civil Liberties Union filed against
the Department of Defense over the exclusion of women from combat roles
offer great examples of this discrimination. Two of the plaintiffs in
that case have received Purple Hearts, and two have received combat
medals. One of the plaintiffs, Air Force Major Mary Jennings Hegar, a
helicopter pilot, was shot down in Afghanistan attempting to evacuate
wounded US service members. She engaged in a firefight with enemy forces
and was shot before escaping.

Women are already “getting their limbs blown off in war.” Panetta’s announcement will ensure they are recognized for it.

Thu Jan 24, 2013 – 8:34pm:


Adrian Bonenberger, a former “executive officer (second in command) of a mixed-gender logistical unit in the 173rd Airborne Brigade for seven months,” says, “watching women do CrossFit at strength levels beyond anything I achieved as a soldier have convinced me that women are capable of meeting the challenge of infantry training and infantry missions as well.” His perspective on lifting the ban on female troops in combat positions:

There are two truths functioning in parallel here. The first is that women are different from men. The second is that in modern warfare, women may in many ways be as good as men at fighting. Some evidence suggests that women may be better suited than men to be pilots, for one thing, and may be as capable as or better than men as snipers and marksmen. Rather than ignoring the differences (the current method) or trying to make women into men, or vice versa (the proposed future method), the military should be looking for ways to maximize the capabilities of both.

Here’s what I’m worried about: that the military will let women fail, that it will change the standards to allow unqualified candidates to succeed, then stand around with crossed arms waiting for a chance to say: “You see? I told you. Women can’t do it.” Instead, it should be taking all measures necessary to ensure that qualified women succeed.

(Photo: Female Marine Corps recruit
Megan Shipley, 17, of Kingston, Tennessee, lets out a yell during
hand-to-hand combat training at the United States Marine Corps recruit
depot June 23, 2004 in Parris Island, South Carolina. Marine Corps boot
camp, with its combination of strict discipline and exhaustive physical
training, is considered the most rigorous of the armed forces recruit
training. By Scott Olson/Getty Images)

Fri Jan 25, 2013 – 8:28am:

A reader highlights another reason why ending the ban is so crucial:

Without the combat designation, women veterans can be denied the benefits they need, particularly medical and psychological, because they were designated non-combat while serving. Receiving many benefits from the VA is dependent on “if the veteran engaged in combat with the enemy.” A critical part of the approval process is what was the veteran’s designated military occupational speciality. If women will have noncombat MOS even if they engaged in combat because they are women then that means the VA might not approve them for combat related requests for benefits.  Women are not being treated equally under the law because of the noncombat designation.

I expect there will be a massive  lawsuit on behalf of all the female veterans of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars to be retroactively reclassified as having served with combat duty in order to get the medical benefits they will need from the VA for the rest of their lives.  Because right now, that shit is being denied and will continue being denied for the entirety of their lives, all because they were designated ‘non-combat’ when they served.

Fri Jan 25, 2013 – 11:05am:

Empirical Equality


Kayla Williams, who served in the 101st Airborne Division, had doubts about the idea of women serving in combat roles – until she found herself in Baghdad:

Suddenly, my skills as an Arabic linguist were more important than my gender: On combat foot patrols with infantry troops, my ability to help successfully accomplish the mission was the only thing that mattered. During major combat operations, the fact that I was a woman was only meaningful if my presence made it easier for the guys to interact with local women. Some Iraqi women were prevented by custom or religion from talking to men; others were simply terrified of huge soldiers strapped in military gear suddenly appearing at their door. The presence of another woman sometimes calmed them and give them the comfort level to tell us about threats in their neighborhood. …

Those who served in Iraq and Afghanistan came to understand that in complex counterinsurgency operations, especially in Muslim nations, the presence of women troops is a vital way to interact with the civilian population—so important, in fact, that military leaders have long been skirting the old regulations by placing women in combat units.

Previous Dish on the Lioness Program – which allowed female Marines to serve in combat units to interact with Muslim women – can be read at the top of this thread page. Will Saletan draws a larger lesson from the Pentagon’s decision this week:

This is what happens to warnings about social experiments. Officially or not, the experiments take place. Sometimes, as in the case of single parenthood, they fail. Sometimes, as is in the case of gay marriage, they succeed. When they succeed, we lose our fear. And when they involve bravery, service, and sacrifice, we’re moved. We aren’t talking about experimentation anymore. We’re talking about experience.

A reader broadens the scope to black soldiers and gay soldiers:

What many folks don’t understand or appreciate when they try to justify the lack of roles available to women in combat is that military service has always been a dominant avenue of advancement in America.  Not just military service – combat service.  The history of black advancement is as much driven by war and military service as churches and social protest. Perhaps more. Black advancement in the military was always towards combat. “Let us fight.” Combat is the crucible that proves military – and, often, social – status.  Without the 54th Massachusetts, without the 369th New York, without the Tuskegee Airmen, we would not have had the landmark desegregation of the US military for God knows how long.

For women to be denied combat roles is holding a capable group back and doing so for structural reasons, not merit.  For LGBTQ service members, it is the same issue.

(Photo: Female Marine Corps recruits
pratice drill at the United States Marine Corps recruit depot June 22,
2004 in Parris Island, South Carolina. By Scott Olson/Getty Images.)