Academic journal article Military Review

Women in the Infantry: Understanding Issues of Physical Strength, Economics, and Small-Unit Cohesion

Academic journal article Military Review

Women in the Infantry: Understanding Issues of Physical Strength, Economics, and Small-Unit Cohesion

Article excerpt

On 24 January 2013, Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta rescinded the 1994 rule prohibiting women from assignment to combat units. Panetta cited the "great courage and sacrifice" by women on today's battlefield and the goal of finding the "best-qualified and most capable people, regardless of gender" to perform the mission as justification for this change. (1) Under the previous rule, women were barred from assignment to units below brigade level that had a primary mission of direct ground combat. (2)

Today, only 7 percent of Americans have any direct military experience. (3) Understandably, many civilians, including members of Congress, view this issue in the context of equal job opportunity rather than military effectiveness, and they are unlikely to realize any negative military consequences. (4) No military justification exists for this change. More important, this change will be detrimental to military readiness and combat effectiveness. Accordingly, the military community must distill the issues and explain, from its perspective, the ramifications of this policy change to the American public.

Panetta's Invalid Rationale

Secretary Panetta's first justification for rescinding the 1994 rule is the courage, sacrifice, and contribution of women on today's battlefield. In essence, he argues that women have earned the right to serve in combat arms. However, serving in harm's way is not the issue. Being on the receiving end of incoming fire does not qualify anyone to be an infantryman. Nobody questions the courage or patriotism of women who enlist and place themselves at risk. However, such qualities alone do not endow them with the abilities required to serve in the infantry. (For this discussion, "infantry" includes ground personnel such as medics and engineers who accompany the infantry into close combat with the enemy.)

Second, Panetta states the goal of rescinding the prohibition as ensuring "the mission is met with the best-qualified and most-capable people." (5) This too is flawed reasoning. If "best-qualified and most capable" is the true test, then Panetta would have lifted the age restrictions as well. Indeed, men over and under the current enlistment age parameters have proven themselves capable in all types of combat, to include underage personnel being awarded the Medal of Honor. (6) Arguably, there are more 40-year-old men and 15-year-old boys physically capable of performing the tasks of an infantryman than 20-year-old women. (7)

Allowing women to serve in infantry or other direct combat positions constitutes a change in policy with ramifications beyond today's current conflict. Any such change has implications for women's assignments in the next war as well as conscription and the involuntary assignment of women to ground combat duties. Therefore, any such policy change must be accomplished with a view toward future wars.

The Full-Spectrum Conflict Baseline

Supporters of the Panetta position assert that women are already serving in combat situations in Afghanistan, as they did in Iraq. (8) They argue that although women are prohibited from participating in offensive combat, the proximity of support units (in which women are allowed to serve) to combat arms units and today's nonlinear battlefield not only have placed women in harm's way but also have proven they are capable of successfully engaging in combat. (9) However, this view only applies to today's counterinsurgency fight.

In Afghanistan, female soldiers accompany their male counterparts in order to interact with local civilians, leveraging their gender to calm the women and children residents during operations. (10) Their presence fills a critical gap in a counterinsurgency strategy that emphasizes the protection and engagement of the civilian population. Likewise, women have served in military police, motor transport, and other supporting units that have participated in firefights although without generally engaging in "closing with the enemy. …

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