Should Women Serve in the Infantry?

January 24, 2013

I worked in the Pentagon during the Clinton Administration, when the opportunities for women in the armed forces greatly expanded. Women were allowed to pilot combat aircraft, serve on fighting ships, and compete for thousands of other positions previously closed to them. There was lots of loud opposition to the moves, but all of it seemed to me based on speculation rather than facts. Opponents worried that standards would be lowered for female fighter pilots, but no one provided a rational reason why a qualified woman shouldn't fly a jet that could fire missiles.

The changes in the 1990s still left ground combat and elite special operations units closed to women. And while I agree with yesterday's decision -- to essentially let anyone compete for a job they think they can do -- I don't think opponents of the move should be dismissed simply as dinosaurs, particularly those who have served in combat. I disagree with them, and perhaps more than a few are motivated by old fashioned sexism, but those of us who have never fought should recognize that there are things we don't know.

Here's my argument in favor of the move: If rigorous physical standards are maintained, then only women strong enough for the job will be admitted to combat units; and readiness will not suffer. If a military unit in combat is a harsh, vulgar, un-private place to be, then only women who are comfortable in harsh, vulgar, un-private places will sign up for it. If there's sexual tension in the unit, I suspect it will take a pause during a firefight. And, finally, many women have already proven themselves when the enemy ignored the fact that their jobs were supposed to be “non-combat”.

But if opponents of the move worry that men and women are different in many ways, they’re right. And if those who have been in combat situations believe it will be a difficult transition from an all-male atmosphere to a mixed one, we should listen to their experience and make adjustments in determining how to make the changes. If they are concerned that standards will inevitably be loosened, we should not ignore that worry -- it is not inconceivable that there will be pressure on units to integrate; and when there is pressure, something yields. If they say that serving as a military policeman in a combat zone is different from being in an infantry unit, we should listen to their experience of how and why.

That doesn't mean accepting unfair sexism as an excuse for avoiding this change.  The part of gender integration that is analogous to racial integration should be dealt with the same way -- it is the responsibility of those with the irrational prejudice to adjust, not the victims of it. Service members should be judged by their actions, and it is their duty to follow all legal regulations issued by their superiors -- in this case, to fully accept women assigned to their units.

But there the analogy between gender and racial integration is not perfect. There is no fundamental difference between black and white soldiers, any more than there are fundamental differences between Italian-American and Norwegian-American soldiers. But men and women are, in general, different in many ways --  one of them being men's much higher propensity towards violence, which is at the heart of war-fighting.

So let's cheer the opening of most units to anyone qualified to do the job -- after all, the positions are going to individuals not "most women" or "most men" – but we should not be so quick to dismiss the reservations of those who have been in combat.* We can learn from people of good will on both sides of the issue.


* Of course, I'm sure not all those who have been in combat are opposed to the move.

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