The Case Against Women in Combat

by William P. Hoar

New American, Vol. 9, No. 3 (February 8, 1993)

In November 1992, the 15-member Presidential Commission on the Assignment of Women in the Armed Forces issued its report to President Bush. Included in the report was an Alternative View Section, made available to our Washington editor, which outlined the case against using American women in combat.

This section was signed by five Commissioners: Samuel Cockerham, a retired Army brigadier general, who was a combat veteran of Korea and Vietnam and who served in the offices of the Joint Chiefs' of Staff and Secretary of the Army; Elaine Donnelly, a former member of the Pentagon's Defense Advisory Committee on Women in the Services who has written and researched widely in the area; Kate Walsh O'Beirne, vice president of government relations at the Heritage Foundation, who is a syndicated columnist, has served with the Department of Health and Human Services, and is married to a retired career infantry officer; Ronald Ray, a Vietnam veteran and lawyer, who served in the Defense Department and is also an historian with the Marine Corps Historical Center; and Sarah White, a master sergeant in the U.S. Air Force Reserve with 17 years of service, who has been honored as Airman of the Year and was a former legislative analyst with Concerned Women for America.

Excerpts from this section of the report follow:

"Service members are encouraged to pursue opportunities and career enhancements in the Armed Forces, limited only by the needs and good of the Service. But when it comes to combat assignments, the needs of the military must take precedence over all other considerations, including the career prospects of individual service members. The military service is not a corporation, and being a soldier, sailor or airman is more than just a job. Civil society protects individuals' rights, but the military, which protects civil society, must be governed by different rules.

"That is why Congress and the courts have held that Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which ensures all individuals are treated equally before the law with respect to civilian employment, does not apply to the military profession. No less than seven major Supreme Court decisions are distilled in these words from Goldman v. Weinberger: "[T]he military is, by necessity, a specialized society [separate] from civilian society .... The military must insist upon a respect for duty and a discipline without counterpart in civilian life, in order to prepare for and perform its vital role .... The essence of the military service is the subordination of the desires and interests of the individual to the needs of the service."

The Alternative View

... A reasonable conclusion against assigning women to combat is drawn not from any single factor in the Commission's record, but from the cumulative body of evidence suggesting such assignments would adversely affect military readiness, cohesion and effectiveness. Although some have argued that adverse effects and additional burdens on combat units are justified on grounds of equal opportunity, virtually no one has argued that they are justified by military necessity. Centuries of military experience should not be disregarded if the burden of proof has not been met. It is not up to the skeptics to disprove a case that has not been made.

This is why the Commission voted, on two out of three major issues, to maintain the exemption with respect to the assignment of women to close combat in ground troops, combat aviation, amphibious ships and submarines. The signers of this section maintain, however, that the Commission's limited support for the assignment of women to some combatant ships is inconsistent with the other major recommendations the Commission submitted for the consideration of the President. ...

Quotas and Goals

... The Commission heard no evidence of serious or systematic discrimination against women serving in non-combat positions in the military. To the contrary, DoD figures show that the Armed Forces are promoting women officers and enlisted at similar or faster rates than men based on time in service at the time of the promotion ....

The Army presented evidence to the Commission that it cost 50 percent more to recruit women than men. Women leave the service at a faster rate than men ....

At the Naval Academy, Commissioners learned that Navy pilot billets are reserved for women at the time of service selection in the senior year. These positions cannot be claimed by men unless the women pass them by. Thus, even lower ranking women can claim the reserved positions over male midshipmen of higher class standing ....

Basic Training Standards

The Majority of the Commission recommended, and the alternative view concurred, that entry-level training may be gender-specific as necessary, and that training for combat specialties shall be governed by policies which are consistent with laws and policies regarding the use of women in combat.

MGen Gene Deegan, Commanding General at the Parris Island Marine Corps Recruit Depot, told the Commission, "If I were to maintain the same intensity for [women in training as] the male recruits, I would have a very difficult time recruiting any females, and if my recruiting mission remained the same, I would fail in my recruiting mission."

Pre-Commissioning Standards

The Majority recommended, and the alternative view concurred with reservations, that pre-commissioning training "may be gender-normed in as much as post-commissioning training is designed specifically for individual specialties, combat, combat support and combat service support."

An important issue brought to the Commission was the impression among servicemen that grades are awarded under a different standard, giving unfair advantages to women at the expense of men. This impression creates morale problems and may lead to inappropriate expressions of resentment. The GAO's survey on sexual harassment at the service academies found that most incidents described as sexual harassment were related to complaints about dual standards ....

Parental and Family Policies

There were several recommendations concerned with the member of children who were left behind by parents, including single mothers, who were deployed during Persian Gulf operations. One of the discussion points follows.

Dr. Jay Belsky, a psychologist at Penn State University, told the Commission on June 9 that the needs of the children must be addressed: "[T]o voluntarily send off single parents or both parents, and psychologically, from the child's perspective, abandon them, I contend is immoral, and nobody has the right in a nation that's not being attacked to do that. And I guarantee you that if the children were up here, they would tell you that loud and clear." ...

Pregnancy and Deployability Policies

Some of the discussion points follow.

• According to the Roper Poll of the Military, "56 percent of those who were deployed in Desert Shield/Desert Storm with mixed gender units reported that women in their unit became pregnant just prior to or while deployed in the Gulf." Forty-six percent of that group reported that pregnancies had a negative impact on unit readiness, and 59 percent reported a negative impact on morale.

• Nondeployability briefings before the Commission showed that women were three times more nondeployable than men, primarily due to pregnancy, during Operations Desert Shield and Storm ....

Combat Roles for Women

The Majority determined that military readiness "should be the driving concern regarding assignment policies: there are circumstances under which women might be assigned to combat positions." The alternative overview did not concur.

The assignment of women to combat could be justified only in the most dire emergency where the nation's very survival is at risk and there is no reasonable alternative. Absent these conditions, there is no military need at any time to assign women to combat ....

The issue of violence against women was crystallized when former prisoners of war appeared before the Commission, including one of the two women captured during Operation Desert Storm. Testimony about the indecent assault on one of the women drew further attention to POW training programs already in place that "desensitize" male POWs to the brutalization of women with whom they may be held captive. An interview with trainers at the Survival, Evasion, Resistance and Escape training center at Fairchild Air Force Base uncovered a logical but disturbing consequence of assigning women to combat:

"If a policy change is made, and women are allowed into combat positions, there must be a concerted effort to educate the American public on the increased likelihood that women will be raped, will come home in bodybags, and will be exploited. The consequence of not undertaking such a program would be large-scale disillusionment with the military should the United States get in a protracted military engagement." ...

Ground Combat

The Majority recommended, and the alternative view concurred, that not only should women be excluded from direct land combat units and positions, but that existing service policy on such exclusion should also be codified into law.

Based on the testimony presented to the Commission, the exclusion policy should continue to include multiple-launch rocket systems and field artillery units. Despite technological advances, ground combat is no more refined, no less barbaric, and no less physically demanding that it has been throughout history. The ground combatant relies heavily on his physical strength and mental toughness for survival ....

• The Commission heard an abundance of expert testimony about the physical differences between men and women that can be summarized as follows:

– Women's aerobic capacity is significantly lower, meaning they cannot carry as much, as far, or as fast as men, and they are more susceptible to fatigue.

– Women are shorter, have less muscle mass, and weigh less than men, placing them at a distinct disadvantage when performing tasks requiring a high level of muscular strength and aerobic capacity, like ground combat.

– Women are also at a higher risk for exercise-induced injuries than men, with 2.13 times greater risk for lower extremity injuries, and 4.71 times greater risk for stress fractures.

• In his testimony before the Commission, Dr. William Gregor, LTC, USA (Ret.), a military science professor at the University of Michigan, elaborated on the following differences:

– In terms of physical capability, the upper five percent of women are at the level of the male median.

– This means that in the very physically demanding ground combat environment, as a unit extends the physical envelope of its members, the men have room to improve, whereas the women have already reached the upper end of their limits.

– The average 20-to-30 year-old woman has the same aerobic capacity as a 50-year-old man ....

Lt. Col. Stephen Smith, a Gulf War mechanized infantry commander, told the Commission in Los Angeles: "By introducing women, even women who have the physical capability to lift the rucksacks, walk the distances, raise the hatches, load the TOW missiles, break the track on those vehicles and put it back together again, you are still introducing into that equation other factors that weren't there before: sexual jealousies, intentions, our own social or moral values come into play, and they make more difficult that job of that commander who is forward.

"It has been said that in combat the important things are simple, and the simple things are difficult. We are making this more difficult by doing that .... I believe that women in those squads would reduce the combat effectiveness of those squads, and I think we would pay for that in lives."

Combat Aircraft

Agreeing with the Majority of the Commission that some women who fly combat aircraft in non-combat missions fly them quite well, the alternative view was nonetheless that the combat-exclusion policy should be maintained and codified. Concerning the nature of air combat, several discussion points were raised, including the difference between flying an aircraft and flying a combat mission.

Navy Lt. John Clagett, a Top Gun instructor, told the Commission at hearings in Los Angeles:

"[Y]es, we do have women flying F-18s today, and that is a fact. They are certainly not flying the F-18s that any of us have flown in the fleet or out in the combat missions. To compare the missions that they are doing today to what we are doing is like comparing driving on the LA Freeway to driving in the Indianapolis 500. It's just not the same. We are out there max performing the greatest airplane in the world every day, or attempting to. The women are not asked to do that. That is not their job. They have not been trained in the missions that we have been trained in. They have not performed the missions that we have been performing. And I just really object to the news or whatever coming out and saying, 'Oh, they're already doing that job.' That's not true. Yes, they are flying F-18s. They're not flying combat mission F-18s, you know, and to put them in the same role is just ludicrous." ...

• Allowing women to fly combat missions would dramatically increase the probability the United States would have women become prisoners of war. In Vietnam and Operation Desert Storm, the great majority of POWs were combat aviators. Col. John Ripley, USMC, told the Commission in June, "When that airplane, with its female pilot, returns to earth or collides with earth or she must bail out of it, she is no longer a female pilot; she is now a victim." ...

• The presence of women would increase morale problems for male prisoners, as well as their vulnerability should the enemy torture women prisoners to coerce cooperation from the men, as highly decorated American aviators who spent years of captivity in Vietnam told the Commission ....

• Instructors at the SERE school for pilots have observed a protective response among men when a female trainee was threatened. A survey at the school also noted that were a female POW to become pregnant, there would bc a negative impact on morale and discipline in the POW camp ....

• The Commission heard no evidence that placing women in combat squadrons will increase combat efficiency. With the current drawdown, some pilots are placed in non-flying assignments from one to three years until combat aircraft become available.

• Potential pregnancy of female aviators must be considered. It costs the Air Force $3 million to train one pilot for fighters or bombers. The cost to retrain aviators who have been off flying status ranges from $70,000 (helicopters) to $247,847 (fighter pilots).

• The Commission also found that the Air Force restricts assignment status for six weeks after childbirth, which translates into more than nine months away from flying combat aircraft ....

• The Commission found that pregnant females may not fly in ejection seat aircraft, which encompasses all fighters and fighter-bombers.

Combatant Vessels

The Majority on the Commission recommended repealing existing laws and modifying two service policies to allow servicewomen to serve on combatant vessels except submarines and amphibious vessels – but the alternative view dissented from that recommended change.

Those who would assign women to combatant ships are suggesting that this policy can be justified by political expediency rather than the needs of the military. This proposition creates an inherently unstable situation that could unravel the principle on which other exemptions are based, including exemption from the draft. It is not enough to exempt women from service on amphibious ships and submarines because such an exemption, if enacted into policy or law, cannot long stand. The Majority Recommendation is not only inconsistent but also imprudent and irresponsible ....

The Robertson and Trent study of 1985 ... "found significant male/female differences in emergency shipboard task performances." While clear majorities of women (more than 90 percent in some cases) failed to meet the physical standards for eight critical shipboard tasks, virtually all the men passed (in most cases 100 percent) ....

In at least two areas, earlier arguments against women flying combat missions reinforce arguments against their assignment to combat ships. As with air combat, women at sea might quickly find themselves thrust into circumstances where physical strength means the difference between life and death.

Cited was the USS Indianapolis, sunk during World War II. Of 1,199 crewmen, some 800 successfully abandoned ship, but only 316 survived three-and-a-half days in the water.

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President Bush passed along the Commission's report to Congress without comment. Now this matter of policy is up to the new President and Congress, and what they hear from the American electorate.