The Pentagon to declare lifting a ban on women serving in combat. How revolutionary is this act and what added value it may give to military? And BTW, is it a right decision in your opinion?
Richard Stoll, Professor of Political Science, Rice University
I don’t think it’s revolutionary because through time the US military has opened up more and more jobs to women. As well, the nature of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan (there was not a clear distinction between the front line and the rear areas) meant that more than ever, women in the military were put in combat situations, regardless of their job in the military.
As well, because women score higher than men on the various intelligence type tests given by the military, restricting them for various jobs may in fact result in a lower quality person in some jobs.
Before I answer the final part of your question, let me review the 3 standard objections to women serving in combat:
1. Moral objection: “it is not right that women serve in combat.” Some people may argue that because of their religious and/or moral beliefs, they do not accept women serving in combat. These people will never be persuaded. I don’t know what proportion of the US military feel this way.
2. Women are not as good in combat as men. Some people argue that women are “different” from men and cannot function well psychologically in combat. I don’t know of any serious evidence for this, but it might exist. Others argue that women are less able to operate in combat because of physical limitations. For example, women have something like 40% less upper body strength then men. And no matter how much high tech we have, ground combat will always depend in some significant way on physical strength. Now, we could test for this and not allow women who cannot meet certain physical standards into combat (or at least some types of combat units). But this raises the question of whether we should do the same thing for men and keep some of them out of combat positions. And as far as I know, there are no well-defined physical standards that could be applied, but one could develop such standards.
3. Problems of interaction. The presence of women in combat units will distract the men. The men will not do their jobs; instead they will act to protect the women in the unit and therefore the unit will be less effective in combat.
I think overall it’s a good thing. The moral objection issue has been raised about blacks, then about gays and I think this can be overcome.
As for interaction, I think that is a matter of men getting used to women in their combat units. There’s a lot of research that shows if there are only a small number of people of a certain characteristic in a group, these people are singled out and treated differently. But if the number of people of that characteristic rises (it does not have to reach anything like 50%), then this problem disappears. So that is a matter of having more than a small number of women in the unit.
In my opinion, the only legitimate issue is the ability of women to actually perform all the things that are needed in combat. That is, her physical abilities. The solution is a rigorous program to evaluate everyone for those combat slots that require a great deal of physical effort (this is primarily ground combat). As long as someone is able to do well in the evaluations he — or she — should be allowed in the unit.
Michael O’Hanlon, Senior Fellow, The Brookings Institution
I can’t argue against this move but also can’t argue for it. Integrating women into front-line combat positions is a very delicate matter. To me, the right process seemed more incremental, perhaps starting with the special forces, where individual women or women in small numbers can be more smoothly integrated than they can be, for example, in the Army or Marine Corps infantry combat ranks. But perhaps this decision still allows for that gradual approach.
Michael Desch, Professor, Department of Political Science, University of Notre Dame
This is the culmination of a process that has been going on for sometime. First, given the changing nature of modern war, the old distinction between combat and combat support/service support is eroding. Second, the changing nature of military technology means that for at least some combat roles — aviation, armor, artillery, ship/subs — the physical differences between men and women are not that important. The big question is infantry, where the physical element still matters. You may have heard about the effort this summer by the Marine to see if women could make it through their Infantry Officer course. Only two tried and both failed. I think if the military takes a pragmatic approach — performance-based criteria and equal treatment of men and women — it will be fine.