Women in Combat

By Kate Daniel

I spoke recently with a friend who has trained in an infantry unit in the Vermont Army National Guard about the Pentagon’s announcement last week to allow women to serve in combat positions.

First, some clarification on what the announcement means. Women have been serving in the military since World War I; in fact, my great aunt joined the Coast Guard SPARS, the Women’s Reserves, during World War II.[1] The roles of female soldiers grew from there, particularly in the Gulf War. In 1994, the Defense Department issued a formal rule banning women from serving in “direct ground combat,” which blocked them from armor, artillery, and infantry divisions. The Pentagon’s action on January 23 lifts this ban. Women currently make up about 14 percent of the enlisted ranks.

My friend pointed out 4 important considerations for what this means:

1)   Women have already found themselves in combat roles, some by accident and some by design. Female military police, pilots, linguists, medics, and other support roles see combat when their envoys or stations are attacked.  Today’s battlefields of Iraq and Afghanistan are far more ambiguous than they have been in earlier days of military history; there is no literal “front line” from which to exclude women, or civilians or other noncombatants. Some women have even been awarded military honors for valor in combat. Kayla Williams describes for Slate magazine how the announcement is in many ways formally recognizing reality, and that we shouldn’t fear it.

2)     One of the key requirements for serving in the military has been satisfactorily fulfilling physical fitness tests. The Army is now considering an overhaul of these fitness requirements to distinguish between general service and combat roles, and has pledged to make the standards gender neutral. This marks movement towards the approach that it doesn’t matter who you are – male, female, black, white, Latino/a, gay, straight; what matters is if you get the job done. For infantry units, the standard will include whether a soldier can carry his or her gear, maneuver in a firefight, and deal with the physical and emotional stress of combat. Special operations units, such as the Army Rangers, Marines, and Navy Seals, are expected to hold women to the same existing, and very high, physical fitness standards for men.

3)   There’s a clear need for more female soldiers on the ground in Iraq and Afghanistan. Williams points out that there are numerous occasions where men are not able to effectively communicate or interact with local women due to cultural norms. A female American soldier can better speak to an Iraqi woman without causing tension or fear, and it is far more desirable to have female soldiers conduct body searches of women.

4)   The military is already facing much higher rates of sexual assault than the average civilian population, as well as some criticism for how ranking officers have dealt with the problem. This is especially salient in combat zones. It’s unclear how the policy change will affect this issue. There is some concern that backlash against the increased role of women could take the form of more assaults or lax enforcement of policies. At the same time, there is optimism that increasing the number of women in the military will shift attitudes and create a more egalitarian atmosphere. In response to these concerns, as well as general concerns about unit cohesion, advocates of bringing women into combat roles have noted the smooth sailing since the repeal of “don’t ask, don’t tell”.

It’s encouraging to see the Department of Defense take conscious and deliberate steps toward social equity. Perhaps lifting the ban is not much more than recognizing a transition that’s been occurring anyway. As anyone who championed the repeal of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,” would agree, however, that formal recognition is meaningful and important in its own regard.

[1] Note that the Coast Guard is now under the jurisdiction of the Department of Homeland Security, and so is not directly affected by the Department of Defense’s announcement.


Kate Daniel is a first-year masters student at the Goldman School of Public Policy.