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.