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Rich Hailey is a technical writer and industrial training professional who lives and works in East Tennessee. In addition to blogging for Babble, he covers high school sports for the local paper, and maintains a blog at www.shotsacrossthebow.com. When not writing, he can be found in his garage woodworking, or in the backyard stargazing.

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Women in Combat: A Very Bad Idea

By Rich Hailey |

Screen Capture from Fox News showing female soldiers on the firing line. Until now, these women would see combat only in a supporting role. Now they are cleared to be on the front line. But is this a good idea?

Leon Panetta announced today that he is lifting the ban on assigning women to direct combat units. As a Navy vet who has served on a mixed ship, I can’t tell you just how bad of an idea this is.

But I’m going to try.

First of all, this is not about whether a woman is capable of performing the job. I know several women who I firmly believe could handle combat every bit as well as a man. In fact, a couple of them could certainly handle it better than I could. Second, it is not about whether a man can function in a combat unit with a woman beside him. Again, I am certain that there are men who can adapt to just about any condition or handicap and still perform their duty.

The problem comes from the incredible costs that will accrue, not just to the military, but to our society if we truly want to make this work. To see what I’m talking about, let’s just start with a few basic propositions and see where they lead us.

First of all, let’s consider the draft. Historically, only men have been eligible for the draft, based on the now outdated notion that soldiering is a man’s job. If women are eligible for all roles in the military, then there is no real reason to exclude them from the draft, or from registering for Selective Service. So my first question to you all is “As parents, do you want your daughters to face the possibility of involuntary military service in times of war?”

Next, consider the fact that traditionally, men have not been able to selectively choose non combatant roles. Sure, you can ask for those duties, but the military places you where they need you. Again, until now, women have had to push to get assigned to combatant roles. Now, there’s no reason why they can’t be assigned to those roles, whether they want them or not. It’s the exact same scenario men face when they volunteer. So my second question for you is “As parents, are you comfortable with the idea that your daughter may be assigned to a combat role, even if she doesn’t want that?”

Finally, consider training. Up until now, women have been assessed at  lower physical performance standard than men. For example, men aged 17-21, the minimum number of pushups is 42. Women in the same age group only have to complete 19. This difference was based on the recognition that women as a rule have less upper body strength than men, but also on the acknowledgement that women were not going to be in direct combat. Since the latter is no longer true, it would not be fair to the men on the front line to have to rely on a platoon mate that could not meet the same physical standards. So my final question is “Are you as parents willing to accept that your daughters will have to meet the same physical standards as men in order to join the military, no matter how difficult that might be?”

Now, as you read through the above points, I am certain that some of you came up with all kinds of reasons why my points shouldn’t apply, which brings me to the next point. What do you think the effect on the men will be when they are forced to go into combat with women who can’t measure up physically, who aren’t required to make the same sacrifices, who are treated as ‘more equal’ than they are? A unit is built on trust; then you know you have a weak link, how can you build that trust? The true answer is that you can’t. Not only can’t you build trust, you have created a breeding ground for resentment.

I know what I’m talking about because I’ve seen it in action. I spent nearly three years on a support ship. the USS Shenandoah. As a non combatant vessel, the Shenandoah had a mixed crew and I saw first hand the corrosive effects of a unit where there were different standards for men and women. I can only imagine how much worse those tensions will be in a unit facing actual combat.

But let’s assume for a moment that none of this matters, that all of these problems can be overcome through mandating equal physical standards and intensive training and conditioning of our soldiers. Let’s consider the cost to our culture.

It may not be politically correct today, but I was raised to celebrate the differences between men and women. I was also raised to believe that men have a responsibility to use our greater physical strength (Yeah I know. Some women are just as strong or stronger than the average man. See my first point above. But the fact is that on average, men are larger, stronger, and more aggressive than women.) to protect those who are weaker than us, and that includes, on average, women. In fact, I believe the best parts of our culture are based on the idea that the strong act to protect those who are less strong.

It’s the whole Camelot ideal.

What happens when we lose that ideal?

And sure, there’s a pride component to this. I will not have a woman fighting my battles. Call me a sexist or a chauvinist and I won’t disagree with you, but the fact remains that there are some very sound evolutionary reasons why I feel this way, not the least of which is that, speaking strictly in terms of species survival, men are more expendable than women. One man can produce a virtually unlimited number of babies in a very short period of time, meaning that our survival requires more women than men.

What happens when we mortgage that survival by sending our women to fight?

One last thought and then I’ll go. Why is domestic abuse considered so heinous? When two men fight, strangers, brothers, friends, whatever, we see it differently than we see a man beating up a woman. Are we wrong for doing so? Is there no difference between a man beating another man and a man beating a woman? If women are capable of holding their own in combat along side of men, then why should assaulting a woman be any different than assaulting a man?

And make no mistake, as we send women into combat, that idea is going to permeate our society. How many ideas that we now take for granted will disappear as unintended consequences of this action?

UPDATED!: In the comments below, one person suggested that since I was on a ship at sea, and not on the front lines, I probably shouldn’t be sharing my thoughts on this issue. While I disagree with her premise completely, and explain why in my reply, I thought I’d add this link to the post, demonstrating that my observations are shared by other military veterans. The author, Mackubin Thomas Owens, served in Vietnam, and was awarded the Silver Star and Purple Heart. His reasons for saying putting women on the front line is a bad idea?

First, there are substantial physical differences between men and women that place the latter at a distinct disadvantage when it comes to ground combat. Second, men treat women differently than they treat other men. This can undermine the comradeship upon which the unit cohesion necessary to success on the battlefield depends. Finally, the presence of women leads to double standards that seriously erode morale and performance. In other words, men and women are not interchangeable.

Sound familiar? (Hat tip to Powerline Blog)

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Rich Hailey

Rich Hailey is a technical writer and industrial training professional who lives and works in East Tennessee. In addition to blogging for Babble, he covers high school sports for the local paper, and maintains a blog at www.shotsacrossthebow.com. When not writing, he can be found in his garage woodworking, or in the backyard stargazing. Read bio and latest posts → Read Rich's latest posts →

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19 thoughts on “Women in Combat: A Very Bad Idea

  1. I know you’re going to get flak for this. I agree with you, however. Just judging on biological body composition alone, women do not measure up to men physically. Not saying that NONE do, but do we really expect every female who enlists to be body builders? Women who are stronger than men are the exception, not the rule. That’s not sexist, it’s just the way it is. I say if women want to be in the military, fine. But they need to be able to do everything the men can do in order to be treated equally.

  2. Jenny says:

    My love, if you think 42 push ups constitutes difficult, you haven’t met ANY woman currently enrolled in the armed forces.

    Your arguments are outdated, offensive and probably most damning of all, ill thought-out.

    Finally your attempt to draw a link between domestic abuse and combat action is tenuous at best.

    1. Rich Hailey says:

      Easy or difficult, the fact remains that the physical standards are different. Behind the lines, this doesn’t make much difference. On the front lines, it can make the difference between completing the mission and failing. Failing means dieing and possibly taking your teammates with you.

      You also fail to address the corrosive aspects of preferential treatment for women, or will you agree to women being assigned to combat units regardless of whether they volunteer or not? More to the point, since any soldier, male or female is now apt to find themselves on the front lines, shouldn’t we put identical physical standards in place for both sexes, and discharge everyone who can’t cut it? That’s already what the men face. Is it fair for the women to face the same?

      As for the link, let me put it a little differently for you. Is a man who targets and beats up women any different than a man who targets and beats up other men?

  3. Charlotte Silverman says:

    you say: “I believe the best parts of our culture are based on the idea that the strong act to protect those who are less strong.” That may be true, but that is why I want the strongest people possible fighting on the front lines in the military, no matter what gender they are.

    Also, your points about how parents feel about their daughters entering the military are not just sexist, they are irrelevant. Anyone who is protecting our country needs to be capable of making their own choices, and any woman who enlists will be aware that there is a possibility that they will have to go into combat. If you don’t want your daughters fighting, then try to stop them from enlisting, but you certainly shouldn’t prevent them from making their own choices.

    Along the lines of your ‘parent points,’ why should parents be more hesitant to send their daughters into combat than their sons, if both are being held to the same physical standards. The pentagon has stated multiple times that they will not lower the physical standards for women to ensure that everyone who is being sent into combat is capable.

    1. Rich Hailey says:

      So Charlotte, if there are women in the military who cannot meet the same physical standards as men, are you willing to see them discharged? Because right now, as I documented, women are not held to the same physical standards as the men, regardless of their position. And I would love to see any official statement to the contrary. AS I said, I’ve been there; I know that women are not required to meet the same physical standards.

      I also disagree with your statement about making their own choices. Anyone who is protecting their country needs to be capable first of holding their own physically so as not to be a burden to the rest of their unit, and second, have the ability to follow orders. Men are not given the choice to avoid combat units. Are you in favor of requiring all women who serve to be capable and eligible for combat assignment, regardless of their wishes? Because that is exactly the situation that men face.

      As soon as you start to make ‘allowances’ for females and not males, you are damaging the effectiveness of the unit. The only way this can work is if men and women are treated exactly the same and held to the same standards.

      So again, I ask you, are you willing to hold female soldiers to the exact same physical standards as the men, and discharge those who can’t measure up?

  4. Katherine says:

    I’m an engineer and while I don’t do military related work, I have friends that do. And the consensus seems to be that technology is largely making the number of push-ups you can do an irrelevant point. Guns are getting lighter and more compact and there is a need not just for macho machine gun wielding soldiers, but also tactical ones running GPSs and whatnot. I think it is about time we allowed women equal opportunity for employment. I mean, isn’t that what we have been aiming for as a country for decades?

    1. Rich Hailey says:

      To your first point, physical strength is not just used to hold, aim and fire a weapon but to carry supplies, gear, and most importantly, your buddy out of harm’s way if he or she takes a hit. Upper body strength is still crucial on the front lines. Even if it weren’t, you are missing the point that there are two different standards of performance for the same job based on the sex of the soldier. As an engineer, would you accept a higher standard of performance for you simply because you are female while males could get by performing at a lower level? By the way, scores on the PFT are included in the calculations for promotions. How would you like to see men less qualified than you promoted over you because their requirements are lower based simply on their sex?

      It’s this kind of thing that makes putting women on the front lines so toxic.

      I’ll ask you the same question I’ve asked the previous commenters: Would you be willing to hold female soldiers to the exact same physical standards at male soldiers, and to discharge those who could not meet the minimum standards? This is the same exact scenario that men face. Also, would you be willing to allow women to be placed into front line units even if they didn’t volunteer to be there? Because again, this is the scenario that men face when they join up. And if you want to make exceptions for women, while at the same time demanding equal treatment where convenient, how do you justify this to the men in her unit, who are now required to make up for her deficiencies?

      Because that is the precise situation we have now.

      I’m really interested in getting some answers to these questions. I’ve got a lot of people who disagree with me, but so far, nobody has proposed a solution to the issues I’ve raised.

  5. Matt says:

    I have to agree with the author, combat is not a place to test women and men in the workplace, its not fair to the men that are already there whose lives are in danger. I read that Israel tried this and it didn’t turn out well, not sure if that is true or not. What if you are in the field for a couple months and you have your menstrual cycle? Maybe that isn’t a big deal for a woman to deal with that in the field, but that’s one example of something a male doesn’t have to contend with. There are, like the author said, women who can certainly meet the physical requirements, but I think its much more complex than that. Compromises are made with men and women working in the work place at a normal job… rightfully so. Those compromises can not be made in a combat situation where everything is amplified.

  6. Maria says:

    Whatever arguments you want to make, the fact is that lifting the ban is simply acknowledging what’s already happening on the ground. Women are essentially on the front lines in Afghanistan, and they certainly were in Iraq.

    As for the draft, of course I wouldn’t want my daughter to face that possibility. However, I also wouldn’t want it for a son. I would be more concerned for a daughter I suppose, not because of the threat of combat but the threat of her fellow soldiers. Given the current attitude of many men in the military towards women based on the epidemic of sexual assault and the failure to do anything about it, I wouldn’t want her anywhere near the military at all.

    Also, you seem to be unaware of this, but the term ‘domestic abuse’ covers women who abuse their husbands or boyfriends (yes, it does happen; no, it’s not funny) and violence within same-sex relationships. It’s not the fact that it’s a man hitting a woman that makes it awful; it’s the fact that violence permeates a relationship that should be based on love. It’s the same reason why child abuse is awful even when it’s a petite mother abusing her larger teenage son.

    1. Rich Hailey says:

      Maria, I served on a mixed crew ship. I don’t know of a single case of rape during the three years I was assigned to the Shenandoah. And I find it interesting that you are more concerned about female soldiers being raped by their fellow soldiers than by the enemy. As for domestic abuse, you are saying that a man who beats up on a woman is no different than a man who beats up on another man. Our judicial system does not agree with you a the penalties for spousal abuse are far worse than for simple assault. And yes, the law does go both ways; however a woman who abuses her husband is usually given sympathy by our society and there is no end to the supported who will come out for her, saying the man must have deserved it.

      As for your first point, it is true that women are being placed into combat situations even in support roles. I am against that as well, and for the same reasons. Normalizing a mistake does not make it any less of a mistake; it just makes it more prevalent.

  7. Chelsea says:

    Great article! I love that you mentioned celebrating the differences, I myself am a stay home mom and I love it. God has provided for me to fulfill my roll and calling in my home and I don’t have to depend on someone els to raise my kids. My husband is a great provider and protector and I wouldn’t want to exchange rolls for a second. My brother serves in the army and is being deployed with a group of men he can count on to have his back. Another thing to consider is the peace that brings to us families when our men go into battle, it would give us no comfort to know that they have to depend on weaker vessels.

  8. jam24u says:

    I have had men fail me, moaning and wringing their hands in defeat and a woman step forward to help when the situation was deteriorating.

    This has been an observation I have had more than twice.

    But, I do not know about combat. I know about fighting to stay alive. It is a strange experience and I still fight with the confusion that I have had with it. It haunts me.

    But if female soldiers cannot meet the same physical standards that are set for combat soldiers (men), then they must not be qualified for combat duty.
    The fiscal situation with the nation is dangerous. Our greatest threat. Now if Sequester is activated. Not only is the fat being cut off the military, but huge cuts in the military’s operational budgets are going to be historic. So how can the military take this PROJECT on at this time even is Sequester is not activated.
    I(t is money folks. Why do we have to kick out the men who have trained to protect this nation to make room for the women warriors…. because it is STYLISH. Because lets face it, that’s what this actually is.

  9. Stav says:

    I’ve been hearing this same old argument since I was a kid. It’s still sexist, demeaning, and narrow minded. However, I moved to a country that already has woman in the military, every one serves, and the army is one of the strongest in the world. Glad the US is finally catching up with the times.

    1. Rich Hailey says:

      You know, calling an argument sexist, demeaning, and narrow minded is really just a simple way to say you are unable to refute it logically. I get that you don’t like the points I’ve raised; what I haven’t seen yet is anyone willing to refute those points based on facts and/or logic.

      For example, I’m assuming that the army you are referring to is the Israeli Defense Force, which, since 2000, has opened virtually every position to women. As far as I know, the IDF does not specify different levels of fitness for men and women, instead basing their physical requirements on the minimum acceptable levels for the job of combat. Another crucial difference is that service in the IDF is compulsory for native born Israelis; immigrants may elect not to serve. Since service is compulsory (And I’d be very interested to hear your thoughts on applying that ‘modern’ concept here in America) it is only fair that all roles be open to all those required to serve.

      And again, I’ll ask you the same questions I’ve asked every other commentor: Should the US military require all female members to meet the same physical standards as the men, and discharge those who cannot reach that standard?

  10. Army Girl says:

    Women having the same physical fitness standards- yes. Being discharged if they don’t meet it – yes. You want a sure fire way to get women out of the military, then this would be the way to do it. My question is whether or not your recruiting process in the USA is based solely on physical fitness, or is there an apptitude test involved for job selection purposes? Because putting the two together and filling spots with people who are capable of both doing the job, AND meeting A physical fitness standard (even if it is lower for women) might just be the way to go. If all you have is strength and not the apptitude to be, say, a technician, then chances are, you would be selected for a combat trade. The right person for the right job. Just sayin’. And just a point of interest here, you say you served on a non-combatant ship for 3 years, but I don’t see where you have served with the front line soldiers that you are so adamantly saying would be impacted by this decision. I figure maybe you should stick with a blog about your own personal “behind the front line” experiences. Let the combat soldiers speak for themselves on this issue.

    1. Rich Hailey says:

      So you agree with me; you just don’t think I have a right to express my opinion? Curious. But to answer your objection, I spent 5 years on the USS Nimitz prior to being transferred to the Shenandoah. At the time carriers were not mixed crew as they were defined as combatant vessels. However, during pre-deployment workups, we often left port for 3-6 weeks with Navy reserve air groups on board to support their carrier qualifications, and they were mixed sex crews.

      As for your question about recruiting, there are two parts, physical and aptitude. Every recruit must meet basic physical standards in order to get through boot camp. Additionally, an aptitude test is given to every recruit before going to boot camp to determine what ratings they were fit for. I was designated as a nuclear plant technician by that test, then was assigned to become an electronics technician while in boot camp.

      Additionally, my son is currently in the Army and has completed to tours in Iraq, and in our discussions on this issue, he tells me that the impact I see is a concern to him and his buddies.

  11. Leslie says:

    I agree with you on every point. This sounds just like the conversation that my husband and I had when he told me this news. I’m glad to hear it confirmed by someone who actually has military service.

  12. Lissa says:

    What I am hearing/reading from most people who think the idea of women serving in combat position is just ducky is that they want women to be treated as equal until they don’t.

    When men join the military, there is the possibility that they will have to serve on the front lines. If called up to do so, there is no out, with the exception of conscientious objector – but that’s a whole ‘nother can of wax, or ball of worms, or something. I digress. If called to serve on the front line, serve they will or go to Leavenworth. Period.

    Are women will to apply the same rules to themselves? Are they willing to accept the possibility that any one of them might find herself on the front line someday? No way out of it, except CO or Leavenworth?

    If not … if they insist that combat duty remain voluntary for them, but not for men, how is that equal treatment?

    It isn’t … it yet another one of those many situations in which women want to be equal until they don’t.

    And then, if in the name of equality, the same physical fitness standards and front line duty are then applied to all, that would then put service in the military out of reach or undesirable for probably the vast majority of women.

    This is what is known as a Lose/Lose/Lose proposition … Men lose, women lose and ultimately the military loses.

  13. Evan says:

    I agree with the author 100%. The mere fact that women’s shoulders and hips aren’t designated to be able to carry a 200 pound man not to mention the remaining gear the wounded solider has on. And as for women being on the frontline well my response to that is this. When you say they’re on the frontlines that means that they may have gotten a few pop shots and maybe a small firefight or 2. I’ll give u an example of the physical demand of being in the elite front lines in particular the rangers. You see a little shoot out with some local taliban or farmers while on a village is “on the front lines” sure but that doesn’t mean you can handle anything. Take operation redwing for example. Some rangers and seals where cashed on top of a afghan mountain top and were out numbered by the 100s. Many or these men had to be carried away (all these soldiers being pound for pound) mussle). Many rangers and seal died and almost all were hit at least once by good sized bullets coming from an AK or shrapnel from grenades and RPGs. Now if your a 130 pound women who is say 5 foot 2 a shot that wouldn’t be fatal to that women be cause of how big the bullet is in comparison to her body. Another example would be gothic serpent AKA black hawk down event. I would go into details of that event as well but I’ll let you google that one if you’re really interested because I think I’ve made more than my point.

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