The Magazine

Congress Goes AWOL

Over women in combat.

Mar 18, 2013, Vol. 18, No. 26 • By JOHN MCCORMACK
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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.”

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