As far as journalistic series goes, CNN’s This is Life with Lisa Ling is pretty good. Ling is personable and the show tackles interesting topics. One recent episode examining female Marines going through Marine Combat Training, really resonated with me. I find the military fascinating. It’s an organization steeped in tradition and rigid structure yet it also must adapt quickly to the needs of the mission. Whenever the military is ordered to do something, they get it done. That’s one reason why big changes in the military, like integrating women into combat, are so interesting and important: we get to see how it works.
The idea of integrating women into combat positions is one that’s been flirted with for a while. However, the flirtation started morphing into potential date territory in the early 1990s after Operation Desert Storm. Over 40,000 U.S. military women served in key combat support positions during this war making the idea of women in combat not so theoretical. In fact, although women soldiers weren’t technically allowed to be in combat, many still found themselves in the thick of the fight, so much so that 15 women died and two were held prisoner.
Given the fluidity of the battle field in the Gulf War, people rightly began to question why a combat ban for women was in place. Congress in particular started asking questions. They passed the National Defense Authorization Act for FY 1992 and 1993 (Public Law 102–190) which repealed the statutory limitations on the assignment of women to aircraft flying combat missions. The Act also established a Presidential Commission on Assignment of Women in the Armed Forces that was tasked with studying the issue. Even Hollywood got into the act with two star-studded major motion pictures — 1996’s Courage Under Fire about awarding the Medal of Honor to a fictional female pilot and 1997’s G.I. Jane, the fictional story of the first woman to undergo training in U.S. Navy Special Warfare Group.
Despite all this activity in the 1990s, nothing much changed officially until January 2013 when Defense Secretary Leon Panetta and Joint Chiefs Chairman General Martin Dempsey signed an order lifting the ban on women being assigned to smaller ground combat units and opening a quarter-million positions to women. They called for sweeping reviews of the physical requirements for combat jobs and gave the military services until January 2016 to argue if any positions should remain closed to women. Only the Marine Corps asked for an exception to keep some jobs male-only but were eventually told no.
It’s kind of amazing that it took this long to open up combat positions to women. After all, women have technically been serving in combat for years now and they definitely have been dying in wars for as long as armed conflict has been around. As U.S. Representative Tammy Duckworth, an Army helicopter pilot in Iraq, said in 2015, “I didn’t lose my legs in a bar fight — of course women can serve in combat. This decision is long overdue.”
The question of whether women should serve in combat roles is not new. I should know because my first professional job was as a research analyst for the Presidential Commission on the Assignment of Women in the Armed Forces (yes, the one I mentioned earlier). For me, it was a dream job. Not only was it somewhat glamorous — I got to travel and mix with several well-known people — but it also was educational. I learned a lot about many things but, most of all, I learned about women in the military. Women comprise approximately 16% of active duty personnel but you rarely hear from them. That’s too bad because, in general, they’re amazing. They perform challenging jobs under tough conditions and have forged a path that was, and still is, fraught with difficulties. That part hasn’t changed.
Women service members are more likely to face sexual assault, harassment, and discrimination merely because of their gender. They also have to deal with struggles ranging from receiving adequate healthcare to finding uniforms and armor that fits. But by far one of the biggest hurdles female service members have to deal with is the “soft barrier” of public opposition to women serving in the military in general and combat in particular. Even though all jobs have been open to everyone since 2016, there still exists a strong resistance to the policy. This resistance appears particularly strong in online comments to military media coverage and editorials.
Through my experience working on the Commission, I’ve already heard it all. Believe me, most of the arguments contain nothing new. What strikes me the most about the comments is the lack of understanding of how much the military is a microcosm of our culture and what having women in the military teaches us. So, I’m going to take some of the pertinent arguments against having women in the military and see what the lesson for society should be.
One of the biggest complaints about women in the military is that equality should not mean forcing women to emulate the worst aspects of men. These people believe that women are by nature pacifistic and gentle and should not be compelled to become aggressive and dominating. Clearly they’ve never gone shopping on Black Friday, watched the movie Mean Girls, or participated in some online mom groups. Or read the myriad social psychological studies showing that women and men are more alike than different. Lesson for society: categorizing women and men as unequivocally different is inaccurate. We should just let people be who they are regardless of their sex or gender.
Another criticism has been that women may not have the necessary strength and stamina for certain jobs. This is a valid concern but the answer seems simple enough: put forward the vital qualifications for the job and let whoever meets them compete for the position. Sounds reasonable, right? However, the problems rest in determining who gets to set the qualifications and deciding how often to update them. Some employers use history or even personal preference in determining criteria for jobs and, as such, may inaccurately represent what is needed. When that happens, groups of people can be excluded from consideration, thereby decreasing your pool of talent. Moreover, the world is changing quickly, so job qualifications should too. The military is a perfect example of this as the modern battlefield has changed significantly; the same idea holds true for other businesses as well.
Good organizations realize that, if you don’t allow people to try things, you stifle innovation and the military is no exception. As one military official pointed out, combat isn’t all about physical skill, but also about innovation, initiative and “the ability to see the battlefield in a different way.” For example, one group of female soldiers told the Commission about the time they realized that they didn’t have the strength necessary to move a piece of equipment. Instead of trying to move it by physical strength (like the men did), they created a system of levers and pulleys to do the job. Their idea was so successful that the military decided to use their system in going forward and, just like that, the qualifications of the job changed. Lesson for society: focus on what is truly needed for the job, not on who is filling it. Learn to be flexible so that good ideas can rise to the top.
Another bone of contention has been wondering whether the presence of women might hurt unit cohesion. This is a significant concern because unit cohesion — the feeling of togetherness — is often the reason soldiers continue fighting. If women soldiers disrupt this, it would be detrimental to military effectiveness. However, that doesn’t seem to be the case. Soldiers in integrated units (units containing both women and men) testified to the Commission that they learned to like and trust their female colleagues. The Marines interviewed in This is Life with Lisa Ling episode said the same thing. From a social psychological standpoint, this makes sense. When people from opposite groups work together on a common goal, their differences often subside and they become unified. Lesson for society: differing groups of people can work together as long as they have a common goal and are given chances to bond.
Finally, the naysayers fall back upon the poor treatment of women from our enemies as a reason not to allow them to further integrate into the military. There also have been suggestions that the public would not tolerate large numbers of women being killed in war. I lump these two together because they’re basically the same sentiment: Americans like to believe that our culture values women and that we should be protected. Hogwash! The death of female military personnel has barely made a splash in the media (nearly 200 have died in the War on Terror) and we basically shrug at the number of women killed by domestic violence or hurt by rape.
The military has integrated women into its ranks but has done little to make them feel welcome. Female military personnel endure sexual harassment and sexual assault at much higher rates than the general public (a recent study showed a reported 38% increase in the crime within the Armed Forces from 2016 to 2018) and they receive very little support or justice from the military at large. Many of them get the picture that the military believes that “boys will be boys” and women serve at their own risk. This is not at all unlike what the larger culture believes since women suffer a number of abuses that are shrugged off by the general public. Lesson for society: if we truly value women, then we will work harder to ensure our safety and just treatment. That means working with men to curb their violence rather than requiring women to defend ourselves.
The ban on women in the military serving in combat positions should have been lifted long ago. The fact that it wasn’t says more about the military leadership and our cultural values than it does about the abilities of female military personnel. Not only have women in the military had to stand up for themselves and demand better treatment but, by their very service, they’ve stood up for others as well. It is well past time that kind of leadership and persistence was rewarded. Their example may improve the status of women in the larger society as well. If nothing else though, at least the insult that used to inspire dread — “your mama wears combat boots” — can now be met with pride.