Combat Is A Woman's Choice

27 March 2003

By Stentor Danielson

Among the five American prisoners of war who appeared on Iraqi television over the weekend was a woman. The capture of this servicewoman (who has not been identified in the press) has raised fears about the role of women in the military. This development comes on the heels of a scandal in the Air Force academy that revealed a pattern of cover-ups of sexual assaults against female cadets.

In 1994, the Pentagon did away with the "risk rule" that had barred women from serving in military capacities that were deemed too dangerous. Currently, women may serve in any post other than frontline infantry, special-operations forces, or armor or artillery units. This includes logistical support and supply-line positions that are put at increased risk by the current war's quick drive to Baghdad. The strategy of moving rapidly north means that American forces are leaving enemy-held towns behind the front lines, towns that can be used as staging points for Iraqi attacks on the U.S.'s less-well-defended supply lines. Meanwhile, the Marines have integrated the First Services Support Group -- which includes female soldiers -- with the First Marine Expeditionary Forces, placing women about as close to the front lines as they can get under the current rules.

When the Washington Times -- the favorite punching bag of liberals who accuse the media of having a conservative bias -- broke the story of the female POW, it quoted extensively from Elaine Donnelly, president of the Military Readiness Center, and retired Army Lt. Col. Robert Maginnis, who raised concerns about the POW's vulnerability to sexual assault. Saddam Hussein's regime is known to use rape against its enemies and their loved ones. For Donnelly and Maginnis, the possibility of rape formed the core of doubt that they cast on the change to the risk rule that they say was forced on the military by feminists.

The fear that women in the military are at greater risk than men -- as POWs, in hand-to-hand combat, or as sexual victims of their fellow American soldiers -- is no argument against allowing them to serve their country in any capacity that they have the skills for. To exclude women from certain roles because of the risk is to take a paternalistic attitude toward servicewomen.

The relationship between women and risk is framed in two ways. On the one hand, some -- such as the people who formulated the "risk rule" -- argue that women should be exposed to a lower level of risk than men. On the other hand, Donnelly and Maginnisís contention is that a woman is at a higher risk than a man would be in the same situation. The first is morally unjustifiable because it takes away a womanís ability to decide for herself what risks she is willing to face. The second, while true in many cases, does not constitute a sufficient argument for barring women from any military job.

In today's volunteer army, anyone who enlists must take responsibility for the risks he or she takes on. If a woman would be at too great a risk on the front lines, that is her call -- not the Pentagon's -- to make. I am at Clark rather than West Point because (among other reasons) I felt that the risks of serving in the military were not ones I wished to take on. A woman can make that choice as easily as a man like myself can.

The possibility that a female POW could be raped is hardly something most women would overlook. As a close female friend told me, "if the people saying this think that a woman going into the army wouldn't consider the fact that she will be at risk for sexual assault, they have no idea what it's like to be a woman." The possibility of rape is never far from the mind of a woman in a culture that, for all its advances, has a long way to go in eradicating sexism, and it seems that entering an organization dominated by men would heighten that concern. The brass has no more cause to second-guess a female recruitís weighing of the risks of rape than they do to second-guess a male recruitís weighing of the risks of being beaten.

In addition to the risks a woman brings on herself, there are fears of the risk that women in combat could pose to other soldiers. The (not unfounded) assumption is that the public and fellow soldiers will react more negatively to images of women killed or captured in battle than they would to images of men. At its heart, this attitude is an expression of a paternalistic attitude that women deserve special protection, which means their loss is felt more strongly.

To make military policy based on the emotional reactions of soldiers is to subordinate effective fighting to a cultural disposition. The military should not pander to its soldiers' prejudices, especially when that prejudice serves no purpose in a military setting.

The military has proven to be an effective setting for instilling cultural values in its members. The culture of machismo in our military can reinforce sexist attitudes. In so doing, our armed forces betray the trust of a public that expects them to give a sense of honor and discipline to soldiers. The Air Force rape scandal should be used as the impetus for creating a military culture that respects women as equals. In addition to the obvious primary benefit of reducing sexual assault, the Pentagon would thus remove the liability women in combat pose to their unit.

The best argument, however, is to do a simple cost-benefit comparison. With its poor pay and post-Vietnam image problem, the military needs the best minds and bodies it can get. We can't afford to arbitrarily write off the skills and potentials that female soldiers can bring to their jobs simply because they are at a higher risk of being sexually assaulted. This applies as well to other arguments against having women in combat, which I haven't had space to address here.

The military as a whole -- men and women -- is at a lower risk when the most capable and talented people are placed in all jobs (which, incidentally, means using a single genderblind standard of ability even if such a standard leads to inequalities in gender representation). We should not allow a paternalistic morality to compromise the readiness of our armed forces.

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