Army Women

A look at the life, the sentiments, and the aspirations—including, for some, combat—of women in the U.S. Army, the vanguard service insofar as the role of women in the military is concerned.

Mrs. Mary McLeod Bethune chats with women's Auxiliary Army Corps members Vera Harrison and Mary Bordeaux. (Bettmann / Getty)

At 0055 hours on December 20, 1989, U.S. Army helicopters lifted off from Howard Air Force Base, in Panama, to carry infantry across the Panama Canal. Their mission was to assault Fort Amador, one of the few strongholds of the Panamanian Defense Forces to offer resistance to the American forces that had invaded Panama as part of Operation Just Cause. Two of the helicopter pilots ferrying the troops were women: First Lieutenant Lisa Kutschera and Warrant Officer Debra Mann. Their Black Hawk helicopters, officially designated transport, not attack, aircraft, carried troops into what turned out to be "hot" areas, where the PDF was firing on helicopters. For their participation in the assault Kutschera and Mann (and their male counterparts) would be awarded Air Medals—a much coveted decoration.

At about the same time Kutschera and Mann were doing their jobs in the air, Captain Linda Bray, the commander of the 988th Military Police Company, was directing her unit to seize a Panamanian military dog kennel. Initial press reports stated that Captain Bray led a force of soldiers in a full-blown fire fight resulting in the deaths of three Panamanian soldiers. In fact no human casualties were suffered and what actually happened remains murky to this day. Still, the incident came to be portrayed as the first time a woman had led U.S. troops into combat.

One other incident involving women soldiers in Panama also attracted attention. Press reports of female cowardice centered on two women truck drivers who allegedly refused orders to drive troops into areas where Panamanian snipers were active. A subsequent account put forth by the Army was quite different. After eight straight hours of driving during the invasion, the two drivers became concerned about whether they could continue to drive their vehicles safely. Tears were shed at some point. Fresh drivers replaced the two women. A subsequent investigation concluded that at no time was anyone derelict in her duty, and the incident was closed without disciplinary action.

All told, some 800 female soldiers participated in the invasion of Panama, out of a total of 18,400 soldiers involved in the operation. Probably about 150 of the women were in the immediate vicinity of enemy fire. Owing to the publicity that women performing hazardous duty attracted, the once-dormant issue of the ban on women in combat units suddenly came awake.

Title 10 of the U.S. Code precludes women from serving aboard combat vessels or aircraft. Although there are actually no statutory restrictions on how Army women can be deployed, the Army derived its combat-exclusion policy from Title 10 and prohibits women from joining direct combat units in the infantry, armor forces, cannon-artillery forces, and combat engineers. The Army's formal definition reads as follows: "Direct combat is engaging an enemy with individual or crew-served weapons while being exposed to direct enemy fire, a high probability of direct physical contact with the enemy's personnel, and a substantial risk of capture."

Although many obstacles to women's participation in the military have been overcome, the line that excludes women from combat units has not yet been crossed. None of the women who participated in the Panama invasion, even those who came in harm's way, were assigned to combat units. Rather, they were serving as military police, medical and administrative staff, and members of transportation, communications, maintenance, and other support units.

The issue of women in combat highlights the dramatic recent changes in the role of women in the military. Visitors at most military installations today will see women in numbers and roles unthinkable at the time the Vietnam War ended. Some 230,000 women now make up about 11 percent of all military personnel on active duty. Each branch of the military has a distinctive history with respect to women. The Air Force, which is 14 percent female, has the highest proportion of jobs open to women, mainly because none of its ground jobs involve combat. Although women are precluded from piloting bombers and fighter planes, they fly transport planes and serve on the crews of refueling planes, such as those that took part in the 1986 U.S. raid on Libya. The Navy, which is 10 percent female, did not allow women on ships other than hospital ships until 1977, but today women sailors serve aboard transport and supply ships. The Marine Corps is only five percent female, because a high proportion of its members serve in the combat arms. The Army, which is 11 percent female, has the largest total number of women (86,000), and is the vanguard service insofar as the role of women is concerned.

My research as a military sociologist has allowed me to observe at close hand the changing face of the Army since my days as a draftee, in the late 1950s. The account that follows, which briefly surveys the life, the sentiments, and the aspirations of women in the U.S. Army, draws upon my observations of Army units around the world but is based mainly on interviews with soldiers of every rank who participated in the invasion of Panama, including most of the women soldiers who were closest to the shooting.


When the Second World War broke out, the only women in the armed services were nurses. But manpower needs caused the precursor to the Women's Army Corps (WAC) to be established in May of 1942, followed shortly thereafter by the Navy's WAVES (Women Accepted for Voluntary Emergency Service) and the Coast Guard's SPARs (from "Semper Paratus: Always Ready"). Women were allowed into the Marine Corps in 1943, and, refreshingly, these volunteers were called simply Women Marines. Some 800 civilian women who served as Air Force service pilots flew military aircraft across the Atlantic. The Women in the Air Force (WAF) was created in 1948, after the Air Force had become a separate service.

The Women's Armed Services Integration Act of 1948 gave permanent status to military women, but with the proviso that there would be a two-percent ceiling on the proportion of women in the services (excluding nurses). No female generals or admirals were to be permitted. For the next two decades women averaged only a little over one percent of the armed forces, and nearly all of them did "traditional" women's work, in health-care and clerical jobs. During the Vietnam War some 7,500 women served in Vietnam, mostly in the Army. The names of eight women are engraved on the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, in Washington, D.C.

Starting in the 1970s a series of barriers fell in relatively rapid succession. On June 11, 1970, women were promoted to the rank of general for the first time in U.S. history. The new generals were Anna Mae Hayes, of the Army Nurse Corps, and Elizabeth P. Hoisington, the director of the WACs. Women first entered the Reserve Officer Training Corps on civilian college campuses in 1972. Much more traumatic was the admission in 1976 of the first female cadets into the service academies. Today one of seven entrants to West Point is female, although, if truth be told, most of the male cadets are not yet reconciled to the presence of women. Congress abolished the WACs in 1978, leading to the direct assignment of women soldiers to non-combat branches of the Army. Today 86 percent of all military occupational specialties (MOSes) for enlisted personnel are open to women.

To put the combat-exclusion rule into practice and minimize the possibility that women in noncombat MOSes would be assigned to areas where they received hostile fire, the Army in 1983 implemented a system of direct-combat-probability coding (DCPC). The purpose of the probability code is to exclude female soldiers, whatever their MOS, from areas where they are likely to be, to use formal Army terminology, "collocated" with troops in direct combat. But once assigned to an area, Army policy states, female soldiers "in the event of hostilities will remain with their assigned units and continue to perform their assigned duties." This is what happened in Panama with the female helicopter pilots, military police, and truck drivers who came under fire. (In contrast, during the 1983 American invasion of Grenada four military policewomen were sent to the island with their unit only to be sent right back to Fort Bragg because of the fighting on the island.) DCPC is based on a linear concept of warfare, as is clear from the guideline that women soldiers not be assigned to positions found "forward of the brigade rear boundary"—that is, not close to the front lines. The coding is hard to reconcile with checkerboard combat theaters, however. Two of the twenty-three Americans killed in the Panama operation were in noncombat MOSes—a medic and a military policeman—as were thirty-six of the 324 wounded. One of the wounded was a printing and bindery specialist. None of the killed or wounded soldiers were women.


I flew down to Panama shortly after the invasion and, with the Army's permission, talked to scores of soldiers and investigated their living conditions. The enlistment motivations of the men and women I spoke to differed in important respects. For the typical male, economic realities were predominant. Most admitted to having seen few job opportunities in civilian life. The decision to enlist was usually supported by family and friends. For many of the men, joining the Army seemed to be the path of least resistance. The women soldiers were much more likely to have entered the military for noneconomic reasons. They also seemed to be more independent and adventurous than the men. Often they had not received much encouragement from their parents to join the service. Many of the men, and even more of the women, were attracted by the Army's post-service educational benefits. For the women, joining the Army was the result of a decision to "do something different" and get away from a "boring" existence in some backwater community.

Sitting on her bunk in an extremely hot and stuffy room in an old PDF barracks, one female Private First Class told a not unusual story: "I worked for a while right after high school and then went to a community college. But with working so much, I couldn't be a real student. I quit school and worked as a waitress at a Denny's. I woke up one day and realized I wasn't going anywhere. There had to be more to life than this. I was afraid I would end up marrying some jerk. The Army offered me a GI Bill and a chance to do something different. My mother cried when I told her I was going to join the Army. But I did it anyway and I'm glad. I won't stay in, but I've seen and done a lot more things than my friends back home."

Many of the women had spent time on field maneuvers, living in tents. Since most of the women were assigned to combat-support functions, they were often able to live in large general-purpose tents. Work sections sleep together in one tent during field exercises whenever possible. This is true whether sections are male-only or mixed-sex. Women drape blankets over a rope between the main tent poles to gain some privacy, although someone on the other side can easily peer over the top. In mixed-sex tents the men generally display some regard for privacy, although not always as much as the women would like. Most of the women sleep in gym clothes or their BDUs (battle dress uniforms), as fatigues are now called. Others become acrobats and manage to change clothes inside their sleeping bags. Almost all the women said they would prefer to sleep in a mixed-sex tent with workmates rather than in a female-only tent with strangers.

Personal cleanliness and hygiene are of much greater concern to women than to men in the field. Even under the tense, busy circumstances of Panama, the women tried to bathe once a day. One young female soldier insisted (wrongly) to me that Army regulations guarantee women a shower at least once every three days. How to wash became almost an obsession for women in the field. One method was to post a guard outside a tent and take a "bird bath," using a can of hot water. One unit moved garbage cans inside the tent for the women to use as stand-up bathtubs. When outside shower facilities were all that was available, women often showered in their BDUs. Female soldiers are expected to plan ahead and provide their own sanitary napkins or tampons. In Panama tampons had to be drawn from the medical-supply system rather than the regular quartermaster system. This created problems for some women in the early days of the invasion. But once life began to return to normal, tampons (and women's underwear) could be readily bought at the post exchange. All in all, menstruation did not seem to worry the female soldiers I spoke with, and it was never invoked as an excuse for absence from work.

Sexual harassment is one of the issues most frequently discussed by women in the military. Enlisted women and female officers differ on this matter in important ways. Enlisted women, like most men of any rank, define sexual harassment mainly in terms of sexual propositions and actual touching. One female sergeant put it this way: "Sexual harassment is making unwelcome advances the second time." Enlisted women also tend to see sexual harassment in almost fatalistic terms, something that "goes with the territory" and is often brought on by the behavior of the woman. But they do not consider every advance to be harassment. Fraternization between men and women among enlisted personnel in the Army (and among Army officers) is as common as it is among students at a coeducational college, and is accepted as normal if it occurs among soldiers (or officers) of the same rank. Most women soldiers who have boyfriends have boyfriends who are soldiers, and the women who are married are far more likely to be married to soldiers than married male soldiers are.

Female officers understand sexual harassment in much broader terms, to include sexist remarks, sex-based definitions of suitable work, the combat-exclusion rule, and so on. Women officers see sexism in the military as something that requires constant vigilance. One lieutenant told me that she found it a "welcome challenge to deal with male chauvinists on a daily basis."

Another form of sexual harassment was mentioned by the enlisted women: approaches from lesbians. The true incidence of lesbianism (and of male homosexuality) in the military is unknown. There are indications that lesbianism is more widespread in the armed forces than is male homosexuality. Defense Department statistics, whether they reflect selective prosecution or not, show that women are discharged for lesbianism almost ten times as often, proportionately, as men are discharged for homosexuality. Accounts of lesbianism were offered spontaneously in most of my extended interviews with female soldiers. My general impression was that lesbianism causes much less alarm among women soldiers than homosexuality does among the men. Whereas male soldiers expressed disdain for homosexuals with sardonic humor if not threats of violence, the women were more likely to espouse an attitude of live and let live.

That enlisted women must face being characterized by many men in the military as either loose or lesbian is an unfortunate reality. These attitudes decline markedly when men and women work together over the long term. Such situations also seem eventually to bring out the best in the men. But sex-related issues by no means pervade the everyday existence of female soldiers. The most common topics of concern and conversation, for both sexes, appear to have little to do with sex. They have to do with the work of the Army and with the good and bad of military life.


The Army's noncommissioned officers inhabit the middle ground between the enlisted ranks and the officer corps. If women sometimes occupy an ambiguous position within the military, female NCOs occupy the most ambiguous position of all. One reason is that there are not many of them: only four percent of all senior sergeants are women.

One Sergeant First Class I interviewed, a personnel specialist, joined the Army in 1972. She told me, "I wanted to see the world, and I sure have—Korea, Germany; and now Panama. I was glad to see the WACs go. There were too many cliques and too much politics. The real problem now is that the female NCO is never taken as seriously as the male. Every time we are reassigned to a new unit, we have to prove ourselves all over again. Our credentials aren't portable like the men's."

Like many female NCOs, this woman admits to having few close friends in the military. "If you get too close to the men, they think you're having an affair. If you hang around with women, they think you're a lesbian. Let's face it, you can't really be one of the boys. The kind of insults men throw at each other a woman can't do, unless she wants to cross an invisible line of respect." The sergeant finally brought up the matter of marriage, which weighs heavily with female careerists in the Army: "I never married," she said, "because I just couldn't think of having children and making a go of an Army career." Only 60 percent of female senior NCOs are married, and of those only half have children. A military career works powerfully on military women to keep them single and childless.

Above the rank of noncommissioned officers in the Army is the officer corps, where today one lieutenant in six is female—but only one colonel in thirty. Only three of the Army's 407 general officers are women. Women officers feel the same pressures not to marry or raise children that female NCOs do—pressures that male soldiers do not feel. Many women officers believe that the demands of an Army career preclude having children, and they leave the service. Others make the Army a career, deciding to stay childless. A female helicopter pilot told me, "Having no children is the sacrifice I make to keep flying." In 1989 among male senior officers 94 percent were married, and 90 percent of these had children; among female senior officers only 51 percent were married, and only half of these had children.

A small but growing group of junior female officers, however, seems to have devised a form of planned parenthood that can accommodate both family and career. It works like this. First, aim to be a company commander, an important "ticket to be punched" on the way up the promotion ladder. Company commanders are usually captains with six or seven years in service, people in their late twenties. Company command is a high-pressure job, but it is often followed by a slack time, such as an assignment to an ROTC position or a staff job in a headquarters command. Women officers are coming to regard this period as the most opportune to have a child.

Almost all junior officers today are commissioned right after college. This contrasts with the biographies of today's senior women officers, who entered as WACs, often after some work experience. Brigadier General Evelyn "Pat" Foote, who was one of the Army's most senior women officers when she retired, last year, was well known in the military for being an outstanding and confident professional officer who spoke her mind. She joined the Army at age thirty after a string of white-collar jobs in which, she told me, she always seemed to be "somebody's girl Friday." In her nearly three decades in the Army, Foote served as the commander of a WAC company, as a public-affairs officer in Vietnam, as a faculty member at the Army War College, and as the commander of the Military Police Group in Mannheim, West Germany. She concluded her career as the commanding general of Fort Belvoir, Virginia. She has never married.

Foote espouses a philosophy that is embraced by most senior women officers, at least in private. They hope for a future that harks back to an era when women soldiers, in the main, were unmarried, had no children and few outside distractions, and were more committed to military service than their male counterparts. By now, of course, this is simply too much to expect of female career soldiers.

Foote recognizes that many Army women have been able to combine a military career, marriage, and children. She is adamant that there is little place in the Army for single pregnant women and single mothers. Certainly having pregnant soldiers in deployable units is "the height of folly." In 1988 eight percent of the total female enlisted force bore children; some 15 percent of all enlisted Army women are single parents. Before 1975 pregnant women were routinely discharged from the Army. Today, although pregnant women are ineligible for enlistment, they can remain in the Army if already enlisted. No one knows for sure, but informed sources believe that about a third of pregnant soldiers elect to have their babies and stay in the Army; the women are granted a six-week maternity leave. Another third have abortions and remain in the Army. The remainder leave the service after delivery.

Foote would "feel comfortable" with a rule that expelled pregnant women but allowed waivers on a case-by-case basis. She also notes the problem of pregnant women who carry on too long with their duties to the detriment of themselves and their babies. Single parents too often present "an untenable mess," Foote says. "Anyone, male or female, who can't perform their mission has no place in the Army." She ruefully notes that female officers were never consulted on the changes that allowed pregnant women and single parents to remain in the Army. The "male hierarchy caved in to so-called liberals without thinking what this would mean for Army readiness."


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 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.


Women in the military have been a troublesome issue for feminists. Feminists have also been troublesome for women in the military. Most feminists clearly want women to share equally the rights and burdens of service, but many of them abhor the combat role of the military profession and much of the basic direction of American foreign policy, which the military profession serves. That many of those who opposed the Panama invasion also advocate combat roles for women is indeed ironic. Female officers are understandably distrustful of much of the civilian feminist agenda, with its not-so-veiled anti-military content. Even as they chart new ground in opportunities for women, female officers are unquestionably less liberal politically, on average, than their civilian counterparts.

Where mainstream feminists and senior women officers come together is in their wish to do away with, or at least punch holes in, the categorical exclusion of women from direct combat roles. They see the exclusion as somehow precluding women from full citizenship. Following the Panama invasion and the reports of women in combat, the push to remove the last barriers to women's full participation in the military gained new momentum. Representative Patricia Schroeder, a senior Democrat on the House Armed Services Committee, proposed legislation to set up a trial program to test the suitability of women for the combat arms. Such a program had been recommended in 1989 by the Defense Advisory Committee on Women in the Services. Last April the Army announced that it would not initiate such a trial program. But the Army's decision will not put the issue to rest. As long as there are women in the military, the pressures to end the combat-exclusion rule will remain.

On the surface, the proposal for a trial program sounds eminently reasonable. How can we know whether women will measure up to the stresses of combat without assigning them to combat training and seeing what happens? Admittedly, training is not the same as actual combat, but a pilot program would tell us more than we know now.

There is another matter to consider, however. Let us assume that the presence of women in combat units can be shown not to affect adversely the combat performance of the men in those units. Let us also assume that in the event of hostilities the death of female soldiers would not cause much more upset at home than the death of male soldiers. And let us assume that a pilot program will be established and that it will show some number of women to have the physical and psychological endurance to perform well in combat, or at least as well as some men already in combat roles. Given all this, the pressure to remove the ban on women in combat units will be difficult to resist. But will allowing qualified women to enter the combat arms finally mean the resolution of this nettlesome issue?

Unfortunately, no. The issue is not simply "opening up" combat assignments to military women. The core question—the one avoided in public debate, but the one that the women soldiers I spoke with in Panama were all too aware of—is this: Should every woman soldier be made to confront exactly the same combat liabilities as every man? All male soldiers can, if need arises, be assigned to the combat arms, whatever their normal postings. True equality would mean that women soldiers would incur the same liability. To allow women but not men the option of entering or not entering the combat arms would—rightly or wrongly—cause immense resentment among male soldiers; in a single stroke it would diminish the status and respect that female soldiers have achieved. To allow both sexes to choose whether or not to go into combat would be the end of an effective military force. Honesty requires that supporters of lifting the ban on women in combat state openly that they want to put all female soldiers at the same combat risk as all male soldiers—or that they don't.

A trial program of women in combat roles which shows that women can hold their own in battle may put one argument to rest. But it will signal the start of another.