Women in Combat? Let’s Reframe the Debate

Defense Secretary Ash Carter is due to receive from his military leaders their recommendations on ending policies that exclude women from combat. His decision on the matter is expected by the end of the year.

Public opinion of the policy has changed in recent years in response to women’s rights advocates contending that exclusion is a form of sex discrimination. Additionally, military readiness of late has been diminished by falling recruitment and retention rates, a problem that women in the ranks helps solve. Available data, moreover, says women can meet the standards for combat preparedness. Both positions are supported by academic studies, such as Megan MacKenzie’s Beyond the Band of Brothers: The US Military and the Myth that Women Can’t Fight. A February 7, 2013 Quinnipiac Poll found up to 76 percent of Americans favoring the integration of women into combat roles.

But are the questions about discrimination and combat capability the only ones we need to ask? I’m remembering the 1980s, when workplace limitations on allowable weights for women to lift were being challenged. Men were allowed to lift heavier weights, making it legal for employers to prefer men over women for certain jobs. Citing the discrimination in those practices, some feminists favored raising the weight limits for women; some labor activists, meanwhile, said the standard for women was actually safer for everyone, so equality should be achieved by making it the standard for all – lower weights for men and women both.

Mindful of that history, the debate over allowing women in combat has me wondering: Are the should/shouldn’t and can/can’t questions the only way to frame the debate? Is there an antiwar voice comparable to that of labor 30 years ago on the issue of workplace standards?

A no-combat position would be politically impractical, of course, unwise, even, in the current geopolitical environment. But a strategical use of the issue, just as some union members used concerns about weight limits in the 1980s, could leverage more serious thinking about the militarization of our culture and economy. With a few months to go before Secretary Carter rules on the issues, the non-combat status of women can still be used to renew a national conversation about the costs of US wars – human and otherwise – in the 21st century.

It would be easy enough, for example, to argue that all soldiers under the age of 21 should, like women, be exempt from combat. Whereas the combat exception for women is based on physical qualifications, evidence that the still-developing minds and emotions of young adults – both men and women – make them especially vulnerable to the stresses and traumas of war provides a basis upon which to keep them away from combat. Such a policy would not only not deprive young recruits of the income, job-training opportunities and post-service benefits like education – that, for some advocates, justify military service – it would likely channel them into military occupational specialties that transfer more readily to future civilian employment.

The age limitations on combat experience would protect teenagers from military recruiters who prey particularly on young men’s machismo and fantasies of war-front valor. Those youthful expectations of prideful martial accomplishment are fed by film and veteran folklore, but they are seldom met with satisfaction by real-world military experience – a fact that is a likely contributor to the despondency of returnees from the new wars that is sometimes lumped in with other ailments for PTSD diagnoses. It is sickening that anyone under the legal age for drinking in most states is lost in battle, making the demand for a wider combat-exemption policy, leveraged by the non-combat standing of women, a priority for reform movements.

Setting an age standard for combat eligibility may be disputatious, but a standard of parental-status should be a no-brainer. Mothers and fathers with dependent-aged children should, of course, be welcomed into the military for whatever occupational, career and economic benefits they may anticipate. But the interests of their children, and the society ultimately responsible for those children, should be protected by legislation keeping parents out of harm’s way. One would presume that most parents, in the military or not, would support the law makers who advance such measures – a no-brainer.

Legislation to that effect could easily be extended to cover all family members with dependents, be they young, old or disabled. Exemptions like that for the “sole surviving son” that enabled farm families to keep a young breadwinner at home during World War I might provide a model for new legislation.

The lack of imagination coming from the liberal antiwar community on this issue is concerning. The clamor for equal opportunity to kill and be killed or even to be in closer proximity to the ignominy of armed conflict – in the name of women’s rights, much less the needs of the military – misappropriates and redirects the US instinct for betterment onto a path that levels us all at a lower level. While there is still time to rethink where the demand for women in combat takes us, let’s do that.