'The Most Counterproductive Policy in the U.S. Army': Servicemembers on the Women-in-Combat Ban, 20 Years Ago

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What the debate about women's role in the military looked like in 1990

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This portrait of deceased U.S. Army soldier Sgt. Shawna M. Morrison was part of a 2005 collection of paintings of military men and women killed in Iraq and Afghanistan (Larry Downing/Reuters)

Defense Secretary Leon Panetta has decided to lift the U.S. military's ban on women in combat. This puts an end to a decades-old controversy about the role of women in the military. Back in 1990, Charles C. Moscos—a late Northwestern University professor who, among other things, helped draft the military's now-defunct "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" policy—described how servicemembers felt about the combat ban, in a piece called "Army Women." Here's the relevant excerpt:

The various arguments for and against women in combat are complex, and the issues involved are not subject to easy empirical resolution. Whether the propensity of most males to be more aggressive than most females is due mainly to body chemistry or to cultural conditioning is a matter of controversy; so is whether male bonding is chemical or cultural. There are social realities that need be considered, however. We should not forget, for example, that combat troops live, bathe, and sleep together for days and weeks on end. No institution in American society forces men and women into such unrelentingly close contact. That women could be killed or captured in war is a specter raised by those who oppose letting women into combat units. Is this really an issue? Female police officers have died in the line of duty without raising any particular outcry. On the touchy matter of prisoners of war, we have seen at least a symbolic change. In 1988 President Ronald Reagan signed an executive order revising the Code of Conduct for POWs. What formerly began with "I am an American fighting man" was changed to the gender-neutral and less bellicose "I am an American."

What we do know a lot about are differences between the sexes in physical strength and endurance. Statistically speaking, average female upper-body strength is 42 percent less than average male upper-body strength. Looked at another way, the statistics mean that on the average the top fifth of women in lifting capacity are the equal of the bottom fifth of men on the same measure. This means that any work requiring heavy lifting or carrying a great deal of weight—the burden of the combat soldier—puts women at a serious disadvantage. Opponents of the combat-exclusion rule point out that much of modern warfare is technological and "push-button" and does not require the brute strength of the combat soldier of old. There is some truth to this. But women are already allowed in almost all areas of technological warfare, including holding the launching keys of nuclear missiles. The irreducible fact remains that physical strength and endurance are still the hallmarks of the effective combat soldier on the ground; indeed, such qualities may be more important in the future, when we make use of rapid-deployment forces, whose members must carry most of their equipment on their backs.

Experience from foreign countries is not very enlightening on the matter of women in combat. Contrary to popular belief, women in Israel, which is the only country with a female draft, are not assigned to duty as combat soldiers; they played only a limited, mainly defensive, role in the War of Independence, in 1948. A ruling by Canada's Human Rights Commission last year held that women could no longer be excluded from any military role except in submarines. The Canadian experience has not been heartening for those who seek to end the combat-exclusion rule in this country. Only seventy-nine women were recruited into the infantry training program and only one completed the course. She has since requested a transfer out of the infantry.

For all this, it is probably the case that most senior female officers privately second the views of General [Patricia "Pat"] Foote on the subject of women and combat. Foote favors opening all roles to women in the Army, even in the combat arms. Being a woman per se should not, she says, be a disqualification for any military job. Of course, Foote recognizes the differences in strength between men and women. She acknowledges that few women belong in the infantry, and probably not many more belong in the armor or artillery, but says that certainly some could perform well in those roles, and there is no good reason to exclude women from combat aviation. Her basic position is this: "Never compromise standards. Be sure that anybody in any MOS can do everything required in that MOS."

The problem with the combat-exclusion rule, Foote argues, is that it "develops a whole male cadre and officer corps that doesn't know how to work with women." So long as officers in the combat branches are practicing "a different sheet of music," she says, they will not know how to use women to their full capabilities. At the very least the direct-combat-probability code—"the most counterproductive policy in the U.S. Army"—ought to be abolished, she says, because it prevents trained and qualified women from performing their assignments where they are needed.

How female officers and enlisted personnel variously gauge their future Army career opportunities makes for differing views on women in combat. Female officers see their career opportunities as diminishing as they become more senior. Without a chance for command assignments in combat units, the women officers believe, their careers are limited, especially by comparison with men's careers. Although a government study released last year showed that women are promoted at a rate similar to that for men, the fact remains that the combat-exclusion rule precludes any significant number of women from becoming generals, or even full colonels. Among the female officers I talked with in Panama, about three quarters believed that qualified women should be allowed to volunteer for combat units and about a quarter said that women should be compelled to enter combat units, just as men are. A female military-police officer expressed the sentiments of most: "If a woman has the capability and gumption to enter a combat unit, I'd say go for it. Few of us could make it in the infantry. God forbid that the Army shoehorn women into the infantry to meet some kind of quota. But a woman is as brave as a man, and we shouldn't be kept out of jobs we could do, no matter what the danger. Military women are their own worst enemy by accepting a lowering of physical standards. If we kept standards up, if we kept pregnant women out, then any woman in any MOS would be assigned wherever she was needed when the balloon goes up."

Enlisted women, on the other hand, are less subject to career disappointment, because their expectations are not high to begin with. Inasmuch as they generally did not see themselves in long-term Army roles, the women I spoke with thought of their service in Panama as a one-time-only adventure. Enlisted women foresaw their eventual life's meaning in family, in work outside the military, or, if in the military, in relatively sedentary and routine jobs. Among the enlisted women I interviewed in Panama, about three quarters said that women should not be allowed in combat units and about a quarter said that women who were physically qualified should be allowed to volunteer for combat roles. None of the enlisted women favored forcing women into combat assignments. One female driver gave a typical enlisted woman's response: "I'm old-fashioned. I want to be treated like a woman. I don't want people to think I'm a man. I certainly wouldn't want to be in the infantry. A normal woman can't carry a rucksack that the guys can. Even if we could, the guys would hate us for being there. And, let's face it, we would probably make things harder on everybody all around. No way."

There is one area where the combat-exclusion rule is questioned by most women and some men: piloting helicopters. The skills required to fly a utility helicopter to transport soldiers into hot zones are not really all that different from those required on gunships such as Cobras and Apaches. In Panama the skills of the female pilots were acknowledged by all to be at least the equal of those of the male pilots. Even the British high command, that most traditional of general staffs, is studying the possibility of allowing women to train as pilots for Harriers, the jump-jet fighters that saw so much action in the Falklands War. Were women to be assigned to U.S. gunships in future hostilities, however, they would almost surely suffer casualties. Even in the small, short war in Panama four helicopters were shot down and many more were hit by enemy fire.

Two things came out loud and clear in my Panama interviews. One is that the worst thing for a woman officer is to be removed from an assignment she has trained for simply because there is danger. A helicopter pilot told me how she felt on invasion day when she was denied a flight assignment that she thought was her due: "I was insane with anger. After nine years of training they left me out. It was the ultimate slam." The second point is that not a single woman, officer or enlisted, said that she would volunteer to be an infantry rifleman. Surely, somewhere in the U.S. Army, there are women who would volunteer for the infantry. But they were not in Panama.

Read "Army Women" by Charles C. Moskos in its entirety

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Eleanor Barkhorn is a former senior editor at The Atlantic.

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