Women in Combat Roles: The Changing of the Guard

With US women now being allowed to participate in combat roles, the US military can be applauded for its move towards gender equality. But its driving imperative must remain a commitment to military effectiveness, and to the lives of the men and women who serve.

Barely into the first week of President Obama's second term in office, and his Administration continued a march of change within the American military. On 24 January, Secretary of Defense Panetta and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Dempsey signed away the ban against women in front-line combat roles within the US military.

The order overturned the Direct Ground Combat Definition and Assignment Rule ruling instigated in 1994 which deliberately excluded women from direct combat engagement on the ground. It has potentially opened the door for women to take up around 237,000 jobs previously out of their reach because of their gender.

Secretary Panetta's decision was made not only with the support, but also upon the recommendation of the Service chiefs, and the military will now have until 2016 to finalise the shape of the decision. During this time, the Services will have the opportunity to earmark jobs that they feel should remain male-only, but it will be incumbent upon them to prove why women cannot participate.

Will Military Effectiveness be threatened?

As with the overturning of the policy of 'Don't Ask, Don't Tell', the removal of gender restrictions with regards to combat roles has brought to a close yet one more strand of segregation within the American military, a victory for equality campaigners. But beyond these plaudits, condemnation of the change is based on a serious argument: that it will damage the military's effectiveness in achieving its ultimate goal, that of winning wars in defence of the nation.

Women currently make up 15 per cent of America's 1.4 million active troops, of whom over 280,000 have seen active duty in Iraq and Afghanistan since 2001. Of those, 800 were wounded whilst 152 were killed. In part, this has supported the arguments in favour of the changed policy as simply a reflection of reality: current military engagement no longer obeys the laws of history and women are dying in theatre alongside their male counterparts. No longer are there clearly demarcated front lines, nor rigidly recognised boundaries to a battlefield, and no respect for gender is shown by the enemy - the indiscriminate targeting of an IED blast speaks volumes of the danger women face whatever their official combat status.

Yet with the entry of women into combat roles that require them to deliberately engage with the enemy, one raised concern has been how the wider public would deal with the increased number of female deaths that could follow. This is a question pertaining less to national defence, and more to America's cultural identity and perception of gender roles. More crucial is the question of whether women would have the 'killer instinct' when it comes to close-quarter encounters for executing the enemy.

Physical Capability and Unit Cohesion

Two of the biggest concerns cutting to the heart of the impact on military effectiveness are those of physical capability and unit cohesion. The former speaks to the persistent belief that women will simply not be able to endure the same harsh and exacting physical demands as men, and that pressure for the policy's success would necessitate a lowering of physical standards. Secretary Panetta was emphatic in his announcement that there would be no lowering of standards, and that although every person was entitled to the opportunity to apply, combat roles would be the preserve of those who could meet the requirements.

This entails the production of gender-neutral conditions of entry for all roles currently closed to women, tailored to the demands of the individual role. Yet while the principle is sound, the potential to renege on the promise remains. In 2012, two physically competent female Marines were allowed to become the first women to partake in the Infantry Officer Course. That they failed to complete (along with one in five of the male Marines) is a stark reminder that not only will the numbers of women applying for the positions be low, their success rate may be even lower. Compromising on standards to allow some, if any, women to pass, will reflect a policy enacted for policy's sake, and it will be imperative to show that there will be no lessening of physical requirements even in the face of a zero-female pass rate.

Concerns relating to unit cohesion, meanwhile, look beyond women successfully passing the training requirements, and ask what their presence within a combat unit would mean. It has been argued that any female member(s) within a 'band of brothers' would endanger a mission, either by shattering the intimate male bonds that produce team unity and therefore success, or by shifting male focus away from completing an operation to protecting a female team-member.

Examples in Other Countries

It was this uncertainty regarding the impact on operational effectiveness that a mixed-gender combat unit could have that led the British military to decide against a similar decision in 2010. However, other nations, including Canada from 1989 and most recently Australia from 2011, have women operating in combat roles and their experience has been carefully scrutinised. These countries, and several other nations similarly without combat restrictions, have pointed out that training and professionalism mitigate many of these concerns. There have also been, across all nations, numerous medals awarded that highlight the point that 'leave no man behind' or self-sacrifice for ones' comrades is already being practised - it would  not be a new concern specific to female colleagues.

It will be a measure of the military's ability to train its troops to rigorous standards that will pave the way the way for mixed-gender units to succeed. But alongside this, American cultural perceptions of the need to protect women have helped foster the view that they would make for less than adequate combat troops. It may therefore be that nothing but the passage of time, along with their training, will help male troops move past the cultural norm of stopping to help and protect a fellow soldier simply because she is female.

The rescinding of the ban has met with approval, in part because it is seen as finally removing pay and promotion barriers that have frustrated many women in the course of their military careers. Where previously advancement to more senior posts had a tendency to exclude women because of a lack of combat experience, the change has made for a more equitable footing. Yet there are other issues to be factored into the combat change beyond a championing of equal opportunities, including the questioning of whether, in the current economic climate, this reform will be worthwhile.

Not only are there logistical challenges - shared bathrooms or separate? - but with a prevalent belief that women will fail the physical tests. It is also argued that the attempt to equip, house and train such limited numbers is a wasted investment of scant resources. Money would be better spent where the likelihood of failure was not so high. Perhaps the only answer to that point is the reminder of the ratio of male Marines washing out of the Infantry Officer Course. No one has questioned the monetary value of investing in those men who failed to pass.

There is also a concern of overachieving, pertaining equally to men and women in combat roles. Those desiring to operate on the front line will be of the mind-set to succeed. But a combat unit's effectiveness is about teamwork, not an individual's determination to prove themselves and shine. It will be a fine line to balance. The US military can be applauded for its move towards gender equality. But its driving imperative must remain a commitment to military effectiveness, and to the lives of the men and women who serve. Any fudging of standards would be an immense betrayal - it must be defence policy first, equality second.


Joanne Mackowski

Researcher, Defence, Industries and Societies

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