Thursday, September 29, 2011

U.S. women already are in combat, but they won't be in the infantry until we can draft them

In case you have not heard yet, Australia's Defense Minister announced the other day that Australian Defense Forces will phase out barriers that limit women in service to support roles and allow them to join the infantry and even the commandos. Essentially every job is open is every service-member as long as they pass the requirements. This is great for the women, current and future, in the ADF and I congratulate them.

Reading this story break twitter, I was wondering how long before the role of women in the U.S. military would be revisited, especially when you take this story into account with the recent repeal of DADT. Well here we are with CNN's Barbara Starr in a post titled: "U.S. military not ready for women in combat." (h/t @parafile on twitter.) I admire Starr quite a bit, but this article is not helpful for the discussion and the title is even worse.

Firstly, women are already in combat and have been for some time. Starr brings that out in her piece towards the end discussing women military police and pilots and casualty rates. If I recall, at least two women have been awarded the Silver Star in these wars. And let's also not forget truck drivers, medics, and other women who have actually been in combat.

This is one of the problems with this discussion - we're not using the right terms and we're not making the right arguments. It's not that there's an issue with women in combat (since we've already discussed that's happening now) or "combat units", there's an issue with women serving in combat arms branches. Currently women serve in what the Army (at least) calls Combat Support and Combat Service Support branches - these are your MPs, intel types, cooks, truck drivers, medics, veterinarians, supply, etc jobs - the jobs that support the people who find, fix, and destroy the enemy. Combat Arms branches are those that do the find, fix, and destroy: infantry, armor, special forces, field artillery, aviation, air defense, engineers. Women are permitted to serve in elements of the last four and not at all in the first three. In the limitations of the last four are for positions that get assigned to infantry and armor battalions. So that is what women are barred from: not combat, some combat arms.

So the question becomes why and how can we remove these barriers? There is of course the old boys' club element to infantry and armor - but that can be dealt with just as DADT was. There are some logistics issues (see Starr's comments on submarines), but professionals can figure these out, too. There is also the American public who often (and wrongly) find the idea of women in combat (especially mothers in combat) quite distasteful. This, too, can be ignored by government fiat and I imagine people's outlooks would slowly change over time.

But the biggest impediment to women serving in the infantry is the Selective Service - a list of potential draftees if a draft were ever needed. All males must register (with some caveats) once they turn 18 years old. Granted, we haven't had a draft since the 1970s, but the Selective Service stands by just in case we do (and according to House Republicans it's going to happen!). What there is absolutely zero political appetite for in the United States is drafting women. Every poll I have ever seen on the matter (sorry don't have one handy) shows dismal support for such a measure. Americans have a hard enough time imagining women in the infantry, they are not at all stomaching the idea that the government can force women to serve in the infantry.

In times of need the draft is a major feeder for the infantry - they go hand in hand. While I hope that we never have to use the draft, we can't ignore that possible eventuality - it is our true strategic reserve. If women are permitted into the infantry they will have to be drafted - it would be both unfair to males (as it is now) as much as it would be stupid not pull from half of the population from a policy perspective.

I think women should be able to serve in any job they qualify for in the military - just like men - and think that we can and should overcome the obstacles to that happening. For me this includes adding women to the Selective Service and making them eligible for the draft in the future. Our wars today have shown women to be as capable and brave as their male comrades (seriously, why wouldn't they be??) and it is only our antiquated notions of gender roles that prevents this from happening. I realize this is a huge barrier to be overcome and we will likely not have a solution in the near the future, but I hope DoD is examining it.


  1. This past year there was a female Canadian infantry company commander in Kandahar

  2. Canada suffered its first female combat casualty back in 2006 when CPT Nichola Goddard was killed by insurgent RPGs while serving as a forward observation officer.

  3. American women have not been in what is traditional infantry combat, driving down a road and getting a bomb blown off by you does not equate to humping a ruck for 10k, then closing with the enemy which happens all the time in Afghanistan and often when clearing buildings in Iraq. Think there is no more hand to hand? Whatever idiot tells you that has not cleared a room that was occupied. Do not confuse bravery and IED's inflicting casualties as the same thing as being involved in fire and maneuver like a grunt. This whole move to put women in all combat roles is nothing more than PC gone amuck. Men have about double the upper body strength, VO2 max, are not as prone to injury from long movements underweight while women are due to the shape of their hips and knees and the ratios and women are about twice as likely to get PTSD, current theory on this is that is genetic. Oh, let's not forget how many get pregnant before deployment and the FACT that we have a 15% "goal" at our recruiters to get females in the military. Joke.

  4. Anonymous is absolutely correct. The notion of the women in the light infantry is fucking unbelievably stupid. Most women would struggle to deadlift 135 lbs, let alone carry/drag a wounded infantrymen in full kit (around 200 lbs) over uneven terrain after fighting, sprinting, and humping all day long.

    -Deus Ex

  5. Deus Ex (and Anonymous) - your point is well taken. The Australians are requiring women to test in to infantry positions. As an example, NZ opened their commandos to women five years ago, but not one has passed yet. I assume that if the U.S. ever goes the same route, we'll have similar screens. As there are women who can do this stuff. And plenty should be physically able to do jobs in Armor and FA branches.

    But again, my whole point in this post was to point out that the biggest impediment to women ever joining the infantry is the fact that Americans believe very firmly that women shouldn't be draft. And until that changes, we needn't worry about this anyway.

  6. There's been plenty of sinewy little tough guys who signed up for infantry or cav who abruptly realized they would struggle to deadlift 135 lbs, let alone carry/drag a wounded infantrymen in full kit (around 200 lbs) over uneven terrain after fighting, sprinting, and humping all day long - no matter what their mile time was.

  7. @Mr Fritz,

    "There is also the American public who often (and wrongly) find the idea of women in combat (especially mothers in combat) quite distasteful. This, too, can be ignored by government fiat..."

    What contempt for the public that betrays.


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