Women in Combat: SecDef’s Signature Just Recognizes Reality

Posted on January 29, 2013


SecDef Leon Panetta’s decision to lift the ban on women in combat positions has been hailed by some in the press as “long overdue.”  I think it’s just an acknowledgement that after a decade of fighting in two vicious wars with no front lines, of women patrolling with men,  of women returning fire, of women saving their comrades’ lives or being killed or wounded right alongside them – any remaining barriers to women’s military service have become pretty irrelevant.  So long as a person can meet the physical standards for a particular job, there is just no reasonable argument left to keep that person from doing that job.  Sure, not all women can handle the Infantry.  Not all men can, either.

Not everyone is welcoming the SecDef’s decision with open arms, however.  There have been plenty of articles criticizing, hand-wringing, and lamenting this travesty (as they see it).  It’s a done deal, folks.  Insert exasperated eye-roll here.

But then I ran across a particularly clumsy recitation of reasons why women shouldn’t fight.  It’s hilarious, desperate, and sad in equal measure mainly because of its source: none other than retired Lieutenant General William G. “Jerry” Boykin, as quoted (and shredded) by William Saletan in Slate.  Boykin was assigned to the Pentagon at the same time I was.  All I will say about that is:  I was not surprised that he is commenting vociferously against the SecDef’s decision, nor am I surprised by the utter silliness of his arguments.  Have a peek at the Salon article.  Mr. Saletan dismantles Boykin’s concerns one by one, but I’d like to re-address some of them based on my own experience, which dates all the way back to the 1980s… that is to say, my experience just underlines the fact that this stuff is nothing new.

– “The purpose of [combat] units is to directly and physically engage enemy forces. This can often involve personal, hand-to-hand combat in which women will now have to fight men.”  First of all, there has not been a lot of hand-to-hand combat lately.  The enemy uses explosives, grenades, and bullets; so do we.  As for the generally lesser body strength of women, it is irrelevant, since each job will have one physical standard and only the specific people who meet that standard will be assigned.  I have personally known quite a few military men who would never cut it in the Infantry.  I have known more than a few women who probably could.  All this is doing is putting physically qualified people into jobs they can handle.

Living conditions can be abysmal and base… There is routinely no privacy or ability to maintain personal hygiene for extended periods. Soldiers and Marines have to relieve themselves within sight of others.  Well, yes.  Several women in my communications unit in the first Gulf War spent four months living in the dirt with nothing.  No showers, no toilets, no hot meals, no laundry, no personal resupply.  Their uniforms were dingy and gray and every crease of their skin was lined with charcoal from the chemical protection suits we had to wear for extended periods.  They looked like field soldiers who had been out on mission for months… oh, wait, that’s exactly what they were, and this was over 20 years ago.  As far as the whole peeing-in-front-of-others thing – well, there were not a lot of trees out there.  However, there were vehicles.  There’s also the old standby, “turn around for a minute.”

– “Now, as a man who has been there, and a man who has some experience in these kinds of units, I certainly don’t want to be in that environment with a female, because it’s degrading and humiliating enough to do your personal hygiene and other normal functions among your teammates.”  Okay!  Boykin is telling us something about himself here, not about anyone else.  I assure you from my personal experience, there are plenty of guys who are not humiliated in any such way.  At my first duty station, our Commander just loved long – loooong – runs in the morning.  The troops loved drinking at night.  Bad combo for the bladder!  It was practically a daily occurrence to witness guys breaking formation to stop and pee on the side of the road in full view of our coed unit.  Ah yes.  Those guys were not shy.  As for Boykin, well, if you are very shy and modest, the military is not the right choice for you.  Open showers, shared rooms or tents, drug urinalysis  tests in which you must be observed donating your sample… you get the idea.

– “…an environment that combines life-threatening danger with underlying sexual tensions.”  Oh, please.  When someone is actively shooting at you, your mind will be fully, 100% focused on not getting killed.  I have actually been part of a coed group lying in a ditch avoiding random pot-shots.  There we were, men and women in a hot, steamy war zone, lying in close quarters as our adrenaline surged… the man next to me turned, looked me in the eyes… and said… “How much ammo do you have?”  Wow, hot, huh?  I just don’t know how we controlled ourselves.

– “[Leaders] will now have the distraction of having to provide some separation of the genders during fast moving and deadly situations.”   Not really.  In nearly every unit I have been in, women and men on small teams shared tents in the field, because… there is only one tent for small teams.  Duh.  Deal with it.

–  “What protections will they have against being thrown into front-line infantry units …? This policy change may have the ironic effect of forcing women to reconsider their place in the armed services.”  I love Mr. Saletan’s sarcastic answer to this, because it is absolutely spot-on:  “Women who have voluntarily joined the armed forces—that would be 100 percent of them—might run away, tragically, if their unofficial exposure to mortal risk, unshowered men, and outdoor urination becomes official.”  Mr. Saletan nails the crux of the matter:  whether official or not, it’s been happening all along, and ever-increasing in terms of degree.

However well-intentioned, the “combat ban” was illusory.  However limited your role, you cannot serve safely, cleanly, or primly in a war zone.  Just ask the nurses who survived Corregidor and Bataan.  As for our modern conflicts – I lost a good friend and co-worker to an IED in Afghanistan.  Killed right beside him:  his female driver.  Was he in combat while she was not?  I don’t think so.  The enemy doesn’t pay a whole lot of attention to our paper-bound rules.  The SecDef’s signature only recognizes that fact.