Online, Student Articles — January 30, 2013 at 5:30 pm

Women in Combat: Ready, Willing and Able?

By Laura Johnston*

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The Pentagon announced on Thursday that it will for, the first time, allow women in the United States Military to officially serve at the front lines of combat, bringing to an end its long-standing combat exclusion policy for women.  That policy, which dates back to 1994, prevented women from being assigned to units below brigade level “whose primary mission is to engage in direct ground combat.”  According to the announcement, the policy change will open approximately 237,000 additional armed services positions to women.

While the timing of the announcement was unexpected, it follows a recent intensification in the debate over whether women should be allowed to take up combat roles.  That debate has been fueled by a complaint filed in late 2012 by four U.S. servicewomen in the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California against the Department of Defense [DoD].  The servicewomen, represented by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) and a private firm, allege that DoD’s combat exclusion policy is unconstitutional because it violates women’s right to equal protection under the Due Process Clause of the Fifth Amendment.

On Thursday, the DoD rescinded the 1994 combat exclusion policy, effective immediately, but in practice the policy change will take effect incrementally between now and January 1, 2016.  The more gradual approach will allow the armed services time to implement any accommodations required for men and women to serve together in combat situations.  The bulk of combat positions in each of the services will be open to applications from women, but certain jobs or units may remain closed with the approval of the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and the Secretary of Defense.

Combat inclusion has long been a subject of debate in the United States.  The Final Report of the Military Diversity Leadership Commission presented to President Obama in 2011 explicitly recommended that the DoD and armed services phase out combat exclusion.  Similarly, the Pentagon announced in February 2012 that it would open additional roles to women, following a Report to Congress on restrictions on women’s participation in the military, yet it kept the broader combat exclusion policy in place.  During the press conference accompanying the release of the Report, Major General Patton would not be pressed on a timeframe for when the Pentagon would reconsider the policy, noting only that “this is the beginning, not the end.”

In opening combat roles to women, the United States is following a trend amongst comparable democracies.  This month, the Australian Army will, for the first time, allow currently-serving women to apply for combat roles, a part of a five-year Implementation Plan that will culminate in the direct recruitment of women to combat roles by 2016.  In taking these steps, the United States and Australia join New Zealand, Norway and Canada as countries that allow women to apply for the bulk of their combat positions.

Notwithstanding the international trend towards ending combat exclusion, the policy has its detractors.  At the time the Pentagon’s 2012 review was released, then-candidate for the Republican presidential nomination, Governor Rick Santorum, argued that combat inclusion would jeopardize missions because of men’s “natural inclination” to protect women from harm.    Governor Santorum’s comments reflect a certain moral squeamishness about exposing women to the dangers of combat, even on a purely opt-in basis.

However, that squeamishness is arguably out of date.  As the Military Diversity Leadership Commission noted in its Final Report, “policies that bar women from certain combat-related career fields, specialties, units, and assignments are based on standards associated with conventional warfare and well-defined, linear battlefields,” characteristics that do not apply to most conflicts in which the United States is currently engaged.  Accordingly, the Commission notes, “some of the female servicemembers deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan have already been engaged in activities that would be considered combat related, including being collocated with combat units and engaging in direct combat for self-defense.”

The Pentagon’s announcement tackles the heart of the complaint before the U.S. District Court:  Women serving in the U.S. military have faced the worst of both worlds.  They have been exposed to the dangers of combat, by serving in officially non-combat roles in active theaters like Afghanistan and Iraq, yet they have been denied the training and benefits for which they would be eligible if formally serving in a combat position.  The complaint alleges that women are “denied the official recognition they need to advance their careers,” because they cannot apply to combat training schools, they receive no formal recognition for their unofficial time in combat, and the military promotion system privileges those who have spent time in combat over those who have not.

However, the Pentagon’s announcement leaves some questions unanswered.  Prime amongst them is whether the progressive opening of combat positions to women will come at the cost of the military’s rigorous physical fitness standards.  The Center for Military Readiness, a vocal supporter of the combat exclusion policy, cites a number of studies suggesting women would struggle to meet the rigorous physical demands of combat readiness.  Some point to the process of “gender norming” at West Point — according to which female cadets are expected to meet lower physical standards than their male counterparts — as evidence that opening combat positions to women will undermine the exacting physical standards expected of combatants.

Opening combat positions to women does not necessarily entail lowering standards, but it may prompt a rethink of what combat readiness requires.  The Australian Defence Force (ADF) recently completed a review of its Physical Employment Standards, explicitly linked to the removal of Australia’s combat exclusion policy.  Following the review, ADF personnel will now be assessed on simulated combat skills (such as the leopard crawl and casualty drag) rather than their raw strength (measured through push-ups and chin-ups).  The new regime does not create lower or different physical requirements based on gender, and it does not guarantee that women will be able to meet the new requirements.  It does, however, ensure that those women who fail do so because they lack essential combat skills, not simply because they lack the raw strength of their male counterparts.

The decision to open combat roles to women is, of course, only half the equation;  the other half is women’s willingness to apply for those roles.  A recent article in the Huffington Post claims, on the basis of interviews with a dozen female military personnel, that most women in the military have no desire to apply for combat roles.  Nonetheless, it does not follow from the fact that many women are uninterested in pursuing combat roles that all women should be unable to do so.  The women campaigning for the right to serve in combat may be outliers, but the same might have been said of the first women to challenge gender restrictions in any other profession.  Women who serve as professional warriors will now have the same opportunity that women in any other profession have come to expect: They will not be entitled to a position, but they will be entitled to compete.


* Master of Laws (LLM) Candidate, Harvard Law School, 2013; Bachelor of Economic and Social Sciences, University of Sydney, 2007; Bachelor of Laws (Honours Class 1), University of Sydney, 2009.

Photo courtesy of Reuters.

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