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Coed Combat Units

A bad idea on all counts

Feb 4, 2013, Vol. 18, No. 20 • By MACKUBIN THOMAS OWENS
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The physical differences between men and women have, unfortunately, all too often caused the military to, in effect, discard the very essence of philia: fairness and the absence of favoritism. This is the crux of the problem. As Webb has observed, “In [the military] environment, fairness is not only crucial, it is the coin of the realm.” The military ethos is dependent on the understanding that the criteria for allocating danger and recognition, both positive and negative, are essentially objective.

Favoritism and double standards are deadly to philia and the associated phenomena—cohesion, morale, discipline—that are critical to the success of a military organization. Not surprisingly, double standards generate resentment on the part of military men, which in turn leads to cynicism about military women in general, including those who have not benefited from a double standard and who perform their duties with distinction. 

The military has created two types of double standards. The first is the tendency to allow women, but not men, to take advantage of sexual differences. For instance, morale, trust, and cohesion have suffered from the perception among military men that women can use pregnancy to avoid duty or deployments. A very contentious debate over favoritism arose some years ago over the claim that some women had been permitted to advance in flight training with performances that would have caused a man to wash out. 

The second type of double standard is based on differing physical requirements. Last week, after Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta announced that the ban on women in combat would be lifted, my good friend, retired Air Force general Charlie Dunlap, a former JAG and the director of Duke Law School’s Center on Law, Ethics and National Security, weighed in: “Secretary Panetta’s decision to lift the ban on women serving in certain combat roles makes sense so long as there is no lowering of the physical or other standards required for the new positions.” 

The trouble is that the desire for equal opportunity is, in practice, usually translated into a demand for equal results. Consequently, there has been a watering down of standards to accommodate the generally lower physical capabilities of women. This has had two consequences. 

First, standards have been reduced so much that, in many cases, service members no longer are being prepared for the strenuous challenges they will face in the fleet or field. Second—and even more destructive of morale and trust—is the fact that when the requirement can’t be changed and the test cannot be eliminated, scores are “gender normed” to conceal the differences between men and women. All the services have lower physical standards for women than for men. Two decades ago, the U.S. Military Academy identified 120 physical differences between men and women, not to mention psychological ones, that resulted in a less rigorous overall program of physical training at West Point in order to accommodate female cadets. 

For instance, the “USMA Report on the Integration and Performance of Women at West Point,” prepared for the Defense Advisory Committee on Women in the Services in February 1992, revealed that scores for physically demanding events were gender normed at the academy: A woman could receive an A for the same performance that would earn a man a D. Navy women can achieve the minimum score on the physical readiness test by performing 11 percent fewer sit-ups and 53 percent fewer push-ups and by running 1.5 miles 27 percent more slowly than men. There is immense political pressure to prevent women from failing to meet even these reduced standards. 


To argue against women in combat is not to deny the significant contributions women have made to the nation’s defense. For the last century, women have served honorably, competently, and bravely during this country’s wars. It is my experience that the vast majority of women in today’s armed forces are extremely professional and want nothing to do with the two extremes of feminism that Jean Bethke Elshtain described several years ago in Real Politics: At the Center of Everyday Life and that the military spends time and effort trying to appease: the “feminist victimization wing” and the “repressive androgynists.”

I doubt that there is a huge push on the part of female soldiers and Marines to join the infantry. Captain Petronio makes the same point. The impetus comes instead from professional feminists still living in the 1970s and a small number of female officers who believe that serving in the infantry will increase the likelihood that they will become generals. But the Pentagon itself points out that military women are already promoted at rates equal to or faster than men. 

In short, there is no reason for this change. It doesn’t make the military stronger, and risks making it weaker by undermining the factors crucial for combat effectiveness. 

Mackubin Thomas Owens is editor of Orbis, the journal of the Foreign Policy Research Institute, and a Marine infantry veteran of Vietnam.

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