The Soapbox: Why I Was Reluctant To Endorse Lifting The Ban On Women In Combat

Bottom line: I was a female soldier in the combat zone. So why do I feel so uncomfortable about formalizing women’s placement in combat roles? I did a lot of soul-searching about why this bothered me so much. Ultimately, though, I’ve discovered there’s nothing I should be uncomfortable about.

When I first read that Defense Secretary Panetta had lifted the ban on women in combat roles, I felt queasy. While I left the military for the private sector in late 2011, I spent the first decade of my adult life in the Army, half of it on active duty as a Military Police officer. I have led and served alongside extraordinarily tough and competent leaders, male and female, while deployed in Iraq and in training all over the world. This was personal.

Yet, even as a woman who had been to combat, I couldn’t endorse lifting the ban. The more I examined my prejudices, though, I realize that they were just that — prejudices.

I’m reticent about making any sweeping pronouncements about about women in combat. I did not experience direct fighting, though I frequently participated in convoys and interacted with Iraqis on the ground in the year I spent there. And, as an officer, my daily experiences and challenges were different from those of my soldiers. Yet I do know about how male and female soldiers interact and what it is like to lead them. The bonds I formed with my fellow soldiers and that I share with any other person who has deployed, are based on a mutual understanding that is deep, incommunicable to outsiders, and has nothing to do with gender.

Furthermore, arguments for allowing women into all roles have been around for so long that it was boring to even mention them: that there were no front lines in a counterinsurgency; that female pilots, medics, police, and interpreters already participate in direct combat, to say nothing of other nations with integrated militaries. An assignment as a supply clerk or mechanic certainly did not exempt you or your unit from hardship or violent death. Modern technology can alleviate disparities in strength. That, when you are filthy and exhausted and crammed into close quarters, nobody cares much about sex or who’s going to poop where. That some women are stronger than some men. That, as the wars wind down, arguments about who can go to combat are becoming moot.

Even accepting these facts, conventional wisdom was that, while a very small number of women would undoubtedly be able to meet the physical standards of life an an infantry unit, the risk, expense, and social disruption that integration would cause was simply not worth the change. I personally knew of very few females who were physically tough and mentally adaptable enough to take on the task of life in an infantry unit. Those who may have qualified did not claim to want to. I know I didn’t. Better for female soldiers — better for all soldiers — to excel in the jobs we already held and leave the big-picture social engineering to the politicians. our job was to fulfill our duty, not press for social change We all had much more immediate concerns.

So, now that the politicians have spoken, why wasn’t I, an East Coast liberal raised to believe women can do anything men can do, cheering? This is finally our chance to prove ourselves! What was I afraid of?

Was I worried about the cultural climate, about hazing and male soldiers who just wouldn’t be able to adapt to training alongside women? Well, no. That view shortchanges our warfighters. I trust soldiers and noncommissioned officers to be the same professionals they have always been, putting their different political beliefs and backgrounds aside and accepting anyone who has proven her competence while mentoring or, when appropriate, expelling those who fail to meet the standard. There’s a clear, though not exact, analogue to racial integration: social perceptions change with contact. So, it wasn’t that.

Was it because, while women had been equally exposed to the dangers of combat in the past, lifting the ban meant for the first time they would be joining the ranks of the infantry, which defines its primary mission as “to close with [hunt down] the enemy by means of fire and maneuver…to destroy or capture him, to repel his assaults by fire, close combat, and counterattack, or all of these”? All soldiers in the combat zone risk their lives in the course of their duties, but fighting and killing the enemy is a combat unit’s main task. Why was this bothersome? Who can claim women are categorically unsuited for killing without sounding Victorian? If the thought of women engaged in heavy fighting as their main purpose makes civilians nervous, perhaps they would be more selective when choosing to send troops to war.

Was I concerned that female officers leading combat troops would not be taken seriously? A little. Yet every leader worth her paycheck knows she must earn the trust and respect of her aoldiers, and that a large component of this respect will come from proving, through physical fitness and working side-by-side with them at the tough and the tedious tasks, that they are a part of the team. Infantry officers who hadn’t earned their Ranger tabs (the coveted mark of ultimate toughness and skill awarded after successfully completing male-only Army Ranger School), were looked at askance, though outside the infantry it wasn’t a requirement. Yet every new Lieutenant, regardless of gender, has to earn the respect of those they lead. Putting females through this process wouldn’t change our leaders.

Was I worried that the Army would institute some kind of quota system, as bureaucrats love to do, forcing unqualified soldiers into roles that would directly endanger their unit? God yes.

Qualified female soldiers exist. As a former college athlete, I know that while, with training, most women can become stronger than they ever thought possible, these women are outliers. It is biology, not sexism, that men and women do not possess the same physical capabilities. Of course, many men cannot meet the most basic military standards, either. But, if integration is turned into a numbers game, rather than a merit-based system, and poor performers are allowed to advance or training standards are lowered, the perception that some members of a team are getting undeserved special treatment really will destroy units’ morale.

Last week, New York Times blogger Adrian Bonenberger managed to sum up all my ambivalence >and ultimate acceptance of women in combat roles inthis eloquent op-ed piece, concluding: “It’s the right thing to do for the country, and it’s the right thing to do for the military. Let’s not mess it up.” Ultimately, my reservations about women in combat do not stand up to questioning – if, and this is a big if, the program is carefully implemented.

Allowing qualified women to occupy positions they have been de facto holding for years is not going to weaken our fighting capabilities or unit cohesion. But any modification of the current standards for these positions — any perceived special treatment at all — will cast a political pall on the female warriors to integrate our units. I’m not worried that our Soldiers will disappoint us; I’m worried that politicians will set them up for failure.

Alice Richtig is a pseudonym. If you would like to contact the author of this essay, send an email to [email protected] and it will be forwarded.

[Photo: Getty]