We Should Take a Gradual Approach to Women in Combat

Editor’s Note: On January 24, 2013, U.S. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta lifted a ban on military women serving on the ground in direct combat. In the wake of this decision, U.S. News & World Report’s Debate Club held a discussion on whether women should be allowed to fight in combat. Here is Michael O’Hanlon’s contribution to the discussion.

I can’t argue against the Pentagon’s decision, but I also can’t argue for it. Integrating women into front-line combat positions is a very delicate matter.

In today’s military, women make up about 15 percent of the U.S. military and have suffered more than 100 combat fatalities over the past decade. Yet many military positions are still not open to them. Although 99 percent of active-duty Air Force positions and 88 percent of Navy billets are not restricted according to gender, the share is closer to 67 percent in the Army and Marine Corps.

There are cultural issues at work here, to be sure, but there are also physical ones. Infantry soldiers are extremely tough and must be quite strong. Some might challenge the irreducible strength standards demanded of Marine Corps infantry officers. But being able to lift oneself—while wearing body armor and carrying a pack—up and over walls is essential in modern combat. So is being able to move a wounded fellow Marine across a field to safety, or to haul part of a dismantled mortar to an ambush site. Some women can do these things; most cannot (in fact, most men cannot).

I am inclined to think that women with the skills and desire for intense ground combat should, at least initially, be steered toward other parts of the military (certain responsibilities within the special forces, for example) where they can contribute in important ways even in small numbers. But perhaps Secretary Panetta’s decision still allows for a gradual approach, given that full integration by 2016 is its target, and given that exemptions may be possible if truly necessary.