Many are not surprised that Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter chose to fully repeal the women’s combat exemption, especially those who’ve been pushing for it.
But many regular Americans are surprised at what it actually means.
The mother of a new female Marine I spoke with last week was understandably upset to find out women can now be involuntarily assigned to these units, just like men.
Carter confirmed this when he said, “People are assigned to missions, tasks, and functions according to need as well as their capabilities. And women will be subject to the same standard and rules that men will.” Women may also now be subject to selective service obligations.
These may be classified as decisions in the name of “equality,” except that women don’t have an equal opportunity for survival and success in the violence of real combat at point-blank range. For many Americans, the reality is only now starting to sink in.
The tiny few who are willing and maybe able still bring much higher risk of injury, lesser performance and are higher value targets to our enemies, all of which unnecessarily adds risk and weakness for everyone involved. The Marine Corps’ recent 9-month integration study showed that all-male teams outperformed coed teams in 69 percent of combat tasks.
Women — top performers who had made men’s minimum fitness standards and passed enlisted infantry training — were slower, were less accurate shooters, struggled with tasks requiring upper body strength, and suffered more than double the injuries of men.
These factors can’t be ignored when speed is a weapon and brute strength is at a premium, but that’s exactly what Carter did in his decision.
Women are also at a significant disadvantage in hand-to-hand combat against men who want to kill them.
Women are also at a significant disadvantage in hand-to-hand combat against men who want to kill them. Technology has not changed the violence of close quarters combat, as the accounts of infantry veterans from Iraq and Afghanistan amply show. They have been using their knives and bare hands face to face when required. No, this is not equal opportunity.
The secretary assured us that women will have to meet the same high standards as men, but how is that really possible when, for example, none of the 29 women who attempted the Marine’s Officer Infantry Course were able to pass? In the initial announcement of repeal, Gen. Martin Dempsey called for the standards to be “re-evaluated,” putting the onus on the combat units to prove why their standards are so high if women can’t make them, while also requiring “that there are a sufficient number of females entering the career field and already assigned to the related commands and leadership positions.”
Where will these women come from? We couldn’t even get a solid 30 to try for OIC. Most who did dropped due to injury, and none were able to show they could match the men’s physical ability.
The only way to achieve “sufficient numbers” and make up for both higher injuries and weaker performance is to lower the standards. Not formally, of course, but the standards have been lowered every time more military jobs have been opened to women.
This policy decision also won’t really help women’s military careers, the entire foundation of the argument for putting women in combat. The real effect will more likely be to handicap them. Take a woman at the top of her field in a noncombat military occupational specialty and drop her in a combat unit with the highest performing males and you’ve just killed her career prospects. No matter the standards, men especially at this level will always outperform women, permanently relegating them at best to the bottom half of their units.
Carter’s decision will also likely result in less female representation in the ranks over time, presumably the opposite of what advocates for repeal want.
Carter’s decision will also likely result in less female representation in the ranks over time, presumably the opposite of what advocates for repeal want. Since the colossal majority of active-duty women say they don’t want to be assigned to these units — 92.5 percent of enlisted Army women according to a 2014 Army survey, with similar results in other branches surveyed — the female talent we’re told is so critical is likely to walk out the door. Young women considering joining, already five times harder and more expensive to recruit, are likely to be more deterred by the possibility of involuntary assignment.
There are star performers who can and have been used effectively and recognized for their achievements without integrating all-male units thus far. But you don’t make a policy with such broad negative consequences based on the performance of an unusual few who, no matter the standards, are at far higher risk.
The averages matter, and military women tending not to be able to perform at infantry standards and to be injured at more than twice the rate of men means that women in combat units are likely to have to be replaced at far higher rates. They will not be competitive with their male peers, and will leave the military sooner and with more life-long disabilities. Not to mention, we have to break hundreds of women just to get to one who can make the men’s minimums.
The story isn’t over. This was never Carter’s decision. It was and is the American people’s. Congress has it in its power to defund this effort through the next defense authorization bill, and the next president can reinstate exemption just as it was repealed, administratively. But not before much disruption is inflicted on our men and women in uniform who are now preparing to face ISIS in Syria.
Jude Eden served in the Marines from 2004-2008. She deployed for 8 months in Iraq. She writes at PoliticalAnimalBlog.com  with a focus on women in combat.