Let’s face it, the thought of women in combat makes some people skittish. It just does not feel right. Gender socialization tells us that women are too delicate and too fragile to be put in harm’s way at the frontlines.
But the reality is that women are already at the frontlines. We just don’t hear enough about it because the military is so thoroughly masculinized. The contributions of female soldiers are quickly forgotten or largely ignored. More than 150 women have been killed in Iraq and Afghanistan, and over 800 have been wounded.
There are no traditional “frontlines” anymore. There are no big armies fighting other big armies. The nature of terror threats are different from what they were in the 19th century. Wars are now unconventional. We live in a world of Improvised Explosive Devices (IED) and suicide bombers.
Everywhere in a war zone is a frontline.
Driving a Humvee down the street in Fallujah is just as dangerous as flying an AH-64 Apache helicopter in the Helmand province while taking fire, and women already do this.
A major concern that looms large in the minds of opponents of this new policy is the issue of rape and sexual abuse. Women in combat face the risk of rape and sexual abuse, a risk their male counterparts do not. So the argument goes. But the truth is that men face that risk as well, and not from the enemy, but from their military male counterparts.
For example, in 2010, nearly 50,000 male veterans screened positive for “military sexual trauma” at the Department of Veterans Affairs, up from 30,000 in 2003, according to a report by Jesse Ellison of Newsweek Magazine. If a woman is aware of that risk, and is still willing and physically able to perform in combat, why should she be denied the opportunity?
Others are concerned that combat strength and endurance requirements will be reduced to accommodate more women. That concern is legitimate and should be taken seriously. In the army currently, women are allowed to pass physical fitness tests with fewer push-ups and slower two-mile runs than men.
So it is incumbent on the new Defense Secretary to ensure that gender-neutral standards are developed and upheld.
The knowledge that men and women are built differently is not novel. There is a reason why women do not play in the NFL. There is a reason why men record faster times, higher jumps, and longer throws in Olympic competition. It has nothing to do with training, it is genetics. Men genetically have greater upper-body strength, size, muscle mass and aerobic capacity on average than women.
The low testosterone levels in women does not allow them to gain the same level of muscular size and strength that a man with the same training can. But if a woman can meet or outperform her male counterpart in fitness tests, should she not be given a chance to fight in combat?
Not every woman will qualify to be a combat soldier, but every woman deserves a chance.