Women in Combat

April 29, 1993

Secretary of Defense Les Aspin said yesterday that he has ordered the military to drop many restrictions regarding combat assignments. This is a welcome and wise first step, but it is only that. Policy differences among the services remain, and some roles that women could easily assume are still closed to them for the time being. The Army, Navy, Marines and Air Force should have policies as similar as possible, and ultimately all the military services should open all assignments on a non-gender basis.

Opposition to this approach inside the military is widespread. Also heartfelt and honest. Opponents of women in combat should not be demeaned for their views. The Marine Corps commandant recently said this of combat, "It's debasing. It's something I do not want women involved in." An Air Force general said, "I have a very traditional attitude about wives, mothers and daughters being ordered to kill people."

Those views are widely held outside the military as well. Thousands of years of tradition are on their side. But the tide of opinion is running the other way. Seven of 15 members of a presidential commission voted last year to give women aviators more combat chances. The Navy's top leadership favored this idea. The Air Force, meanwhile, was preparing to exclude women from combat tactics training assignments that they have till now been allowed to seek. This divergence no doubt hastened Secretary Aspin's decision to move ahead.

Women in large numbers have demonstrated in previous wars that they have the courage, composure and skills to perform well in some combat environments. Despite this, some of the most prestigious -- and most dangerous -- combat slots have been denied them. These include many slots in which women could perform as well as men. One obvious example: Flying highly sophisticated aircraft, where intelligence and dexterity rather than physical strength are important. That includes carrier-based aircraft.

One concern is that political pressure might lead to what has been called "gender norming" in combat assignments. Women would be judged by different -- lower -- standards than men competing for the same jobs. (This is the practice now in competition for some military assignments.) The presidential commission was unanimous in opposing different standards. It should have been. Such a policy would be a serious mistake. It would compromise unit performance. Standards that legitimately relate to combat readiness have to be gender neutral -- the same for men and women. Lives are at stake.

Allowing women in combat and applying uniform standards could reduce the number of women in the military overall, but it would at the same time end the second-class status that career women must endure as long as they cannot make the same sorts of career choices that are available to their male counterparts.

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