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In Defense of Women in Combat

Commentary | ROSA BROOKS

July 03, 2005|ROSA BROOKS

The deaths of five female soldiers in Iraq this month have fueled a new surge of opposition to allowing women to serve in the military in combat roles. But it's based on some pretty dubious claims.

"Women aren't big and strong enough for combat." I'll buy this when someone explains why the Marine Corps will cheerfully accept a 4-foot-10 male recruit who weighs 96 pounds.

Sure, the Marines will make a man out of him, but even if they water the guy with Miracle-Gro, they won't be able to turn him into a 6-footer. The average man may be bigger and stronger than the average woman, but plenty of women are bigger and stronger than many men. Why discriminate based on gender when you could have straightforward, task-specific strength requirements?

In any case, in a war that mixes high-tech weaponry with low-tech hazards, being big and strong isn't all it's cracked up to be. You don't need to be big and strong to fly a modern combat jet, and size won't help when you're up against suicide bombers and improvised explosive devices. Why do we believe that bigger people make better soldiers? In Vietnam, an army of big, strong American men fought an army of small, slender Vietnamese men -- and lost.

"Allowing women in combat will hurt military morale, cohesion and readiness." On the contrary, studies suggest that the presence of women has a neutral or positive effect on military morale and cohesion. Maybe that's why support for women serving in combat positions is stronger in the military than in the general population: Two-thirds of military personnel support allowing women to serve in combat, compared with roughly 50% of the general population. The more familiar people are with the military, the more they support full participation for women -- which ought to tell us something.

"We can't let women into combat because they might be taken prisoner and raped." Male prisoners can be raped too. And how exactly is rape worse than the numerous other horrors (such as beatings and torture) to which prisoners of either sex might be subjected? Anyone who volunteers for combat needs to be prepared for possible mistreatment if captured. If women understand and accept the risk of rape, that should be the end of the debate.

"We can't let women into combat because they might get killed." They surely will, but so what? Women die in car accidents and from heart attacks, but though these deaths too are cause for sorrow, we still let women ride in cars and super-size their fries. And contrary to near-universal belief, even if we allowed women to participate in the full range of combat positions, women in the military would probably be no more likely to die than women in civilian life.

In 2002, the death rate for full-time military personnel was 64.4 per 100,000, a rate substantially lower than for civilians with the same age breakdown. (Why? Military personnel get good healthcare and keep fit). The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have increased the military death rate, but not by as much as most people assume. Crunching available numbers from the last three years suggests that the current death rate of military personnel deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan is roughly 150 per 100,000.

Whether you consider that high or low depends on what you compare it with, but here are a few data points: the 2002 civilian death rate for 15- to 24-year-olds was 171 out of each 100,000 in Washington, D.C., 131 per 100,000 in West Virginia, and 119 per 100,000 in Louisiana. For 25- to 34-year-olds in those same states, the death rates were, respectively, 158, 173, and 134 per 100,000.

In contrast to the bogus arguments against women in combat, there are strong arguments in favor. Locking women out of combat positions makes it harder for women to advance within the military, limiting their opportunities to attain more prestigious jobs and higher salaries. This in turn hurts their families and increases gender inequalities in society as a whole.

Denying women the opportunity to take on combat roles also reduces their future ability to shape national policy. In the post-9/11 world, credibility on military and security issues is increasingly necessary for those who hope to succeed in important public positions -- and if only men can occupy combat roles, that gives them a substantial edge.

With the rise of terrorism and asymmetrical warfare, the distinction between "front" and "rear" has eroded. In Iraq, women in noncombat military jobs, such as escorting cargo convoys or serving as military police, are in harm's way. And here at home, hundreds of women lost their lives in the wreckage of the twin towers.

Locking women out of combat positions may help a few American men maintain the illusion of gallantry, but it's time to acknowledge reality. Women will die alongside men in any terrorist attack on U.S. soil, and women, like men, are affected by our national defense policies. It's time to give them the right to fight for their country.

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