Comedians, Go Away

Women in Combat: A Debate that Deserves More than Giggles

Supporters of the decision to open all combat positions to women rely heavily on one technique to advance their case: ridicule.

Here's William Saletan having sport with Jerry Boykin of the Family Research Council.

It isn’t easy in 2013 to make the case that every man should be eligible for the draft but that no woman should be permitted to compete for a combat role in much of the armed forces. Is Boykin man enough for the job? Let’s see how he’s doing.

Here's the Economist's "Democracy in America" blog, aka Will Wilkinson:

"The relevant standards need not be lowered. If such outstanding women can't rise to the level of performance required of Navy SEALs or Army Rangers, then they should not be SEALs or Rangers. It's really rather simple, isn't it?"

And here (finally & inevitably) are the military experts at the Daily Show:

Samantha Bee ... investigated how exactly women in combat would disrupt the bromance, the “military bro-hesion.” They’re really going to mess with the “guy-namic,” guys. It’s not going to be good.

Warning: when exponents of a policy refuse to engage contrary arguments in serious way -when they decline to recognize the experts on the other side and insist on dealing only with the least capable advocates - and generally when they treat war-fighting as a big joke … it's a sign of trouble.

On this claim that physical standards won't be compromised, for example, here's Mackubin Thomas Owens in last week's Weekly Standard. Owens is a combat veteran of Vietnam and editor of the important foreign policy journal, Orbis. Owens relates the long history that shows that the military habitually does compromise standards to meet the political imperative to open more military positions to women:

The military has created two types of double standards. The first is the tendency to allow women, but not men, to take advantage of sexual differences. For instance, morale, trust, and cohesion have suffered from the perception among military men that women can use pregnancy to avoid duty or deployments. A very contentious debate over favoritism arose some years ago over the claim that some women had been permitted to advance in flight training with performances that would have caused a man to wash out.

The second type of double standard is based on differing physical requirements. Last week, after Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta announced that the ban on women in combat would be lifted, my good friend, retired Air Force general Charlie Dunlap, a former JAG and the director of Duke Law School’s Center on Law, Ethics and National Security, weighed in: “Secretary Panetta’s decision to lift the ban on women serving in certain combat roles makes sense so long as there is no lowering of the physical or other standards required for the new positions.”

The trouble is that the desire for equal opportunity is, in practice, usually translated into a demand for equal results. Consequently, there has been a watering down of standards to accommodate the generally lower physical capabilities of women. This has had two consequences.

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First, standards have been reduced so much that, in many cases, service members no longer are being prepared for the strenuous challenges they will face in the fleet or field. Second—and even more destructive of morale and trust—is the fact that when the requirement can’t be changed and the test cannot be eliminated, scores are “gender normed” to conceal the differences between men and women. All the services have lower physical standards for women than for men. Two decades ago, the U.S. Military Academy identified 120 physical differences between men and women, not to mention psychological ones, that resulted in a less rigorous overall program of physical training at West Point in order to accommodate female cadets.

For instance, the “USMA Report on the Integration and Performance of Women at West Point,” prepared for the Defense Advisory Committee on Women in the Services in February 1992, revealed that scores for physically demanding events were gender normed at the academy: A woman could receive an A for the same performance that would earn a man a D. Navy women can achieve the minimum score on the physical readiness test by performing 11 percent fewer sit-ups and 53 percent fewer push-ups and by running 1.5 miles 27 percent more slowly than men. There is immense political pressure to prevent women from failing to meet even these reduced standards.

Owens and other skeptics are offering serious arguments, based both on a century of studies of why and how units fight. The security of the country is at stake. This debate is too important to be left to the comedians.