On January 23, 2013, Defense Secretary Leon Panetta stated that, on the recommendation from the Joint Chiefs of Staff, the ban on women in combat would be overturned. Many applauded such a progressive and forward-thinking policy and marveled at the possibilities of servicewomen’s new caché.
There are several reasons our leaders might feel this is a good change. First, it can easily be viewed as a step toward greater egalitarianism, to a world where men and women are equal in every respect and given equal opportunity in every field. Second, it may help address some of the challenges the military faces as it tries to maintain adequate staffing of its all-volunteer force. And thirdly, the president has certain key milestones and legacy items his base expects him to achieve.
When faced with arguments couched in the rigors of war, proponents of women holding combat roles have said 21st Century warfare has changed, and that we need to recognize that change. They claim we have moved from conventional forces fighting conventional war to unconventional, guerrilla warfare where everyone in the war zone is at risk. They believe this reshaping of the battlefield makes arguments against women in conventional military roles moot.
However, military historian Max Boot states that guerilla warfare and insurgencies “arose in Mesopotamia 5,000 years ago” and are “the norm of armed conflict.” He cites our own American Revolution, where American guerillas defeated the King’s military and, in turn, American soldiers quashed the Native American insurgency. The face of warfare has not changed; the way we allow women to serve has changed. They have inched closer and closer to the front lines, putting them at increasing risk of casualties. Any honest discussion of women in combat roles should acknowledge this fact.
And how do we explain the visceral, emotional reaction many have about women in combat? No pragmatic solution can allay that. I would argue that men accepting a protective attitude toward women is not a mere social construct in a domineering patriarchy, as some claim. It is much more: a natural instinct written onto our hearts by a loving God, and evidenced by men and women’s unique design (Ephesians 5:25-29). Men have a moral sense of duty (as well as generally being more physically suited) that encourages them to protect women. The idea that this natural sense should be abandoned and left behind feels like a challenge to the created order.
There is also a problem of standards in a purportedly egalitarian military. I spoke to an active duty military soldier, wanting to get his take on the controversy. He told me that he wanted to know the definition of “combat,” something even the Joint Chiefs haven’t defined at this point. He also wanted assurance that if women are to participate in combat, they would be held to the same standards as men, calling physical fitness “very important for combat.”
Wanting to get a spectrum of opinions, I spoke to a feminist friend to get his take. His ambivalence surprised me. I thought this might be seen as a huge victory, a triumphant move forward in recognizing the full equality of men and women. But he said that women in combat was very, very low on most feminists’ agendas. There were other, more vexing issues to address. “Like what?” I asked. And he said something that left me shaking.
1 in 3 woman are sexually assaulted in the military, twice the number compared to civilian women.
1 in 4 victims never report their assault because the person to whom they must report is the perpetrator (The Invisible War documentary).
Despite over 20 years of “zero tolerance” policies, there have been no marked decreases in sexual assaults or increases in convictions.
Senators, congressmen, and Defense Department officials will congratulate themselves on their progressive, forward thinking. They’ll roll their eyes at the conservatives who believe women in combat is morally wrong. How backwards! The back-slapping and high-fiving will echo from their chambers and reverberate into the hearts of female victims who still have not received justice.
There is an epidemic of sexual crimes in the military. It is not a few bad actors. A few bad actors don’t perpetrate 19,000 sexual assaults in the past year, an estimate provided by Secretary Panetta himself. It is systemic. It is an outrage that should wipe the self-congratulatory smile off the new, “progressive” Pentagon’s face.
Our servicewomen have long faced danger, but not where we expected it. Allowing women into combat while proclaiming equality does nothing to address the depth and breadth of the pervasive, cancerous attitudes toward women that find refuge in military culture. The Pentagon is ready to place women in the line of enemy fire, but it abandoned meaningful protection and dignity for women a long time ago.