Women in Combat: Gender and the Cost of War

Jill Zabel

In January 2013, the Department of Defense officially opened combat roles to women for the first time. To some degree, this policy change is merely a formality: women have long been serving in combat roles, particularly in the Iraq and Afghanistan conflicts, out of necessity. But in other ways, this policy is a fundamental shift and has touched off a justifiably rigorous debate on whether women should be in combat roles and the nature of the differences between men and women. I think it also opens the need for discussion of the draft and war costs on all Americans more generally, which is the thrust of the latter half of this post.

What are the pros and cons of having women in combat? The key pros boil down to fairness and facing reality. Many people, myself included, applauded the change to allow women in combat. No one should be barred from doing something they are capable of doing regardless of gender—with the implicit understanding that the bar should also not be lowered to allow women to participate. To my second point, women currently fight, and we need a wider and better pool of people to defend our interests. Women’s differences in thinking and communication may even be strengths, not weaknesses, in combat.

Allowing women in combat is not the same as engineering the force to be equal parts male and female. Indeed, affirmative action for women should not play any role whatsoever. Women, like everyone else, are best served when they earn their position and rank by their own steam: competence and merit must thus be front and center in order to raise the place of women on the battlefield. If a woman cannot make the combat cut physically, mentally, or emotionally, she should not be in combat; the same holds true for her male peers. This probably means that some elite segments of the military like the Navy Seals will remain off limits because of the intense physical requirements even if they are theoretically opened to women. There is no shame in this either: over 70 percent of men who try out do not make the cut. It is much more important for such groups to maintain their fitness than to have a few token women who cannot do the job.

Have standards been lowered to allow women in the military? The honest answer is yes, but mostly because of physical differences between men and women. Because they are smaller and built differently, military women have their own separate standards for everything from weight and height requirements to acceptable run times. (Modern warfighting technology also helps balance out these differences, making ladies as lethal as their male counterparts.) Standards slippage cannot be pinned on women alone either. As Americans have grown up leading more sedentary lifestyles with less educational mastery, the military has lowered its physical and intellectual ideals to swell its ranks; thus, the U.S. military has grown a bit pudgier, shorter, and slower over time.

Unlike some (primarily male) commentators, I do not see an unresolvable tension between women’s tendency to nurture and the ability to fight successfully in combat. It is an overgeneralization to assume women are maternal and nurturing anyway; there is a spectrum. Not all women are warm and fuzzy, just like not all guys are ruthless and tough. The complaints that women in combat would increase the rate of sexual assaults in the military frankly call into question the discipline and ethics of our combat forces. When detractors charge the psychological dynamic would change from a “band of brothers” mentality in the presence of fighting females, what I hear is “the real military is an old boys’ club— and we like it that way.”

Arguments about women’s greater need for hygiene for health reasons have some legitimacy, but the sheer and utter horror of men having to use the bathroom in front of ladies is less compelling. (A female veteran friend told me that one of things she was looking forward to the most as a civilian was guys not going to the bathroom in front of her!) In case anyone missed this fact, everyone poops. The harrowing conditions described in former Marine Ryan Smith’s Wall Street Journal op-ed do not militate against women in combat. Instead, they underscore that we are all human, and war is hell. It is gritty, messy, horrifying, and should never be entered in lightly or without purpose. Thousands of brave men and women will never come home to their loved ones, and war’s consequences can leave returning warriors broken in body, mind, and spirit.

This brings me back to the draft and how we as Americans should grapple with the cost of war. In an ideal world, no person—man or woman—would have to shoulder the burdens of war. Since we are dismally far from that peace, the opposite is true: everyone should share the burden of funding US military engagements. If one does not know soldiers or follow the news regularly (hard to imagine in DC, I know), it has been far too easy to forget that our people are fighting and dying on our behalf in what is now the longest war in our history. Everyone knows on a theoretical level, but it has no almost palpable impact on one’s life safe at home. If a war is worth fighting and funding, it is worth at least a financial imposition—war tax—on everyone across the board. It is the least we can do when our fellow Americans are in harm’s way and could stand as a proxy for the weightiness of waging war. In addition to increasing Americans’ burden sharing, it would also add gravity to the decision to resort to war at all.

Now that women are allowed in combat—traditionally the argument against their participation in the draft—should the United States revise its draft policies? I think the answer is probably so. We could introduce either national service of some sort for all or do away with the draft altogether. The argument that adding women to the draft would forever tie our hands from using war as a policy option seems paternalistic and false: after all, sons are every bit as precious as daughters. Given the types of problems we use force to confront, it seems extremely unlikely that the United States will ever use the draft again. When we fight second-class militaries or overrun the likes of Afghanistan, we do not officially declare war. Our modern enemies are more likely to be shadowy non-government actors like al Qaeda, and our battles are more likely to be cyberwar than a full scale ground invasion. This is not to say we do not face threats. We do, but we have chosen to confront them in ways that have obviated the need for tremendous force on the ground like in WWII. This is a positive change because it has resulted in a professional military that is unmatched in human history, thanks to its sons and daughters.

Jill Zabel is an international security analyst with a BA from Vanderbilt University and an MA from Georgetown University in International Security. She is a regular contributor to the WIIS blog.

Selected Sources:

Jezebel. “Women Have Been in Combat all Along.” January 24, 2013.
Psychology Today Blog. “How the Navy Seals Increased Passing Rates.” (November 9, 2009)
The Atlantic. “The Feminist Objection to Women in Combat.”  January 25, 2013.
The Wall Street Journal.  “Ryan Smith: The Reality That Awaits Women in Combat.” (January 23, 2013)
YouTube. “General Robert H. Barrow’s June 1991 Testimony before the Senate Armed Services Committee.”