When news broke that the Obama administration was lifting the rule excluding women from combat units, the rare sound of bipartisan applause reverberated on Capitol Hill. Kelly Ayotte of New Hampshire, one of two conservative women in the Senate, said she was “pleased” with the change, issued in late January: “I’ve seen firsthand servicemen and women working together in a range of dangerous operations to achieve our military objectives—and today’s announcement reflects the increasing role that female service members play in securing our country.”
To the extent that opposition to the Obama administration’s policy was even acknowledged, it was portrayed as irrational and patriarchal. “Women in combat . . . that’s something I think a lot of older conservatives had a really gut reaction to and didn’t like,” Buzzfeed editor Ben Smith said in a February 5 interview with Florida senator Marco Rubio.
“The reality of it is that women are already in combat roles whether we admit that or not,” Rubio replied. “I think that we need to have our best people doing the job, and if that person happens to be a woman, then why would we not want that?”
Had members of the Senate and House taken the time to ask this question before endorsing the administration’s new policy, they would have learned there are many legitimate reasons to keep combat units exclusively male. The big divide on this issue is not between the young and the old or women and men, but between the political class and the infantrymen who have seen combat. Although they’ve been largely ignored by Congress and the media, a number of Marines and soldiers have spoken out since the policy change was announced.
One is Sergeant James Robert Webb, who served as an infantryman in Ramadi in 2006 and 2007. The 31-year-old son of former Democratic senator, secretary of the Navy, and Vietnam war hero Jim Webb took to his blog to describe how the change would harm combat effectiveness and unit cohesion. The Marine explained that a noninfantry convoy unit engaging in combat if attacked—returning fire and getting to safety—is different from the infantry fulfilling its mission to “close with and destroy hostile forces.” Furthermore, the infantry demands the utmost from Marines in terms of physical strength, endurance, attitude, and group loyalty and bonding. “More to the point, if the calculus is altered, our people, my peers, die,” wrote Webb.
“The major concern is with women in infantry units,” Webb tells me in an email. “This is a subject which comes up every time I get together with combat veterans—from any branch of service. The message is an unequivocal ‘No, this should not happen.’ I have yet to receive an email, comment, text message, etc. from anyone who has served in a combat unit who supports this decision by DoD.”
The public supports the change—66 percent, according to a Pew poll—but the view from inside the infantry is very different. “The overarching opinion is one of confusion and disillusionment with the decision, not just in my age group, but among those who fought wars before us in Vietnam as well,” Webb reports. “Guys just don’t understand the rationale behind it, and moreover, there’s a general feeling that those who have been fighting our wars weren’t consulted on the decision.”
Not only did Congress and the White House fail to hold a serious public debate on the issue, “the Department of Defense has done no evaluations on the long-term impact upon [women] medically,” notes Gunnery Sergeant Jessie Jane Duff, who served 20 years in the Marines. A woman might make it into a ground combat unit, but “is she going to have a shot at making it 4 years, 10 years?” asks Duff, a member of the advisory committee at Concerned Veterans for America. She points to Captain Katie Petronio, a combat engineer officer who served in Afghanistan alongside the infantry and wrote in the Marine Corps Gazette of the severe physical deterioration, including infertility, she suffered as a result. Duff observes that “hand-to-hand combat is still inevitable,” and that even some of the most muscular women will be at a distinct disadvantage against an athletic man.
Another Marine, a combat veteran of Afghanistan, raises the matter of men’s natural instinct to protect women. “Would you be prepared to let a woman bleed to death in front of you because she is less likely to survive than another male casualty, in circumstances where you only have one medic?” he asks in an email. “If you do that, what are those nightmares going to be like for the rest of your life?”
Given these concerns, and many more, within the military, why have Republicans in Congress been so quiet? Polls show the public supports women in combat, and Republicans are afraid of being seen as antiwoman. “You know, battered politician syndrome,” a Republican congressman tells me. “They actually believe the Democratic rhetoric that we’re waging a war on women and therefore we have to be cowering anytime an issue like this comes up.”
“A lot of people who might otherwise be more outspoken adopted more of a wait-and-see stance,” because of the gradual approach the Department of Defense says it will use in implementing the change, the congressman adds. According to the Pentagon, the armed services will have until 2016 to develop “gender-neutral” physical standards for the 237,000 positions previously closed to women, and the services may petition the Pentagon to keep some assignments all-male.
But in reality, the military is expected to release new standards for many positions as early as May, and it’s not clear that “gender-neutral” will mean what a normal person thinks it means.
The law already states that physical standards for the military must be “gender-neutral,” but the government has a very peculiar definition of the phrase. “A plain reading of the term suggests that men and women would be required to meet the same physical standards in order to be similarly assigned,” reads a report by the Congressional Research Service. “However, in the past, the Services have used this and similar terms to suggest that men and women must exert the same amount of energy in a particular task, regardless of the work that is actually accomplished by either.”
For example, the CRS notes, in the Air Force the “minimum number of push-ups for males and females in the same age group is 33 and 18, respectively. In the case of push-ups, males and females who achieve the minimum passing number of push-ups receive the same score.” Such disparities exist in all branches of the military.
“That’s not going to cut it when it comes to combat,” declares Rep. Duncan Hunter, a three-term congressman from California and one of the few members of either house of Congress to raise concerns about the issue. “You’re going to have to judge not on an effort standard, but on a work-accomplished standard.”
Hunter plans to do more than speak out. He intends to introduce an amendment this spring that would require the military to establish uniform physical standards for the positions previously closed to women: “All it says is that we’re not going to lower standards, but if we do, we are going to lower them for everybody, not one group of people.”
“There’s going to be extreme pressure to lower the standards to make
sure there’s a quota met in these combat units,” says Hunter. “I think that’s unavoidable. I think that pressure is going to exist, and our military leaders under this administration are going to acquiesce to that pressure.”
General Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs, has already suggested standards might be lowered if women can’t meet them. “If we do decide that a particular standard is so high that a woman couldn’t make it, the burden is now on the service to come back and explain to the secretary, why is it that high? Does it really have to be that high?” Dempsey said during a January 24 press conference.
The 36-year-old Hunter, who as a Marine served two tours in Iraq and one in Afghanistan, worries about 18-to-22-year-old men and women serving in combat units together for reasons beyond physical ability. “When you have a bunch of young men like that who are made to believe they are the absolute finest fighting machines in the world, it’s hard enough to control them just with them, when there are no other outside factors. They get in fights. They’re a pretty rough-and-tumble group,” he says. “When you insert women into that equation, I think it just makes things more complicated, and it
makes it harder to keep that unit cohesion and harder to keep good order and discipline in those units.”
But the amendment he’ll introduce deals strictly with physical standards, a concession to the reality of a Democratic Senate and White House. “We don’t talk about gender in any way,” Hunter says. “The point of the military is to fight and win wars. Does this make it more effective at its job? If the answer is no, then change shouldn’t take place.”
John McCormack is a staff writer at The Weekly Standard.