We can't handle the truth

Women in military combat roles must accept their physical constraints

LAST WEEK, Defense Secretary Leon Panetta announced that the Pentagon would be lifting its ban on women serving in combat. This announcement has been met with mixed reactions — some are all for it, and others see it as a potentially dangerous decision. So who is right? Should women be on the front lines?

Women have served courageously in Operation Iraqi Freedom and Operation Enduring Freedom. Around 150 women have died during these operations, and more than 800 have been wounded. Women have proved themselves to be brave and strong and capable, and they are certainly deserving of taking the next step, supporters say. Furthermore, women deserve to be treated as men’s equals on the battlefield — something the Pentagon’s previous policy would not permit.

As much as I admire this move, I have my share of reservations. Though these brave women deserve our respect and admiration, and though they are justly entitled to equal treatment, there are purely physical reasons why allowing women into combat roles may not be a good choice — for military members of both sexes.

Women in the military face easier physical standards than their male counterparts. Men are expected to run faster, do more pushups and so on. But for combat roles, the new policy will require gender-neutral performance, and rightly so. Unfortunately, many women will be unable to meet these standards, so the change in policy is unlikely to affect their place in combat. In spite of this fact, there are a good number of women who will be able to pass the gender-neutral standards.

In an ideal world, the debate would stop here. Maybe the actual makeup of combat groups will not change much because of physical barriers that may prevent many women from serving in combat, but the policy shift nonetheless eliminates an inherently unequal restriction. Sadly, we do not live in an ideal world. Problems that may hinder the successful implementation of women in combat roles need to be openly discussed.

As awful and deplorable as it is, women in the military face unequal treatment in other ways than the recently lifted ban on combat service. For one, servicewomen face sexual assault rates double those of civilian women. According to the Huffington Post, servicewomen were nearly 180 times more likely to have become a victim of military sexual assault in the past year than to have died while deployed during the last 11 years of combat in Iraq and Afghanistan.

This state of affairs is a sorry one, and the Department of Defense is working to ameliorate the problem, but it is by no means corrected. In a combat group, on the move, without facilities and without the same extent of oversight one would find on a base, the odds of such unwanted advances might increase. Recognizing the reality of this problem and considering the additional difficulties combat circumstances would create complicates the question of women in combat. Thus it is still possible that the inclusion of women, however qualified, would have a negative impact on the function of combat units, for reasons beyond the female soldiers’ control.

Some opponents will also argue that women will be distracting or that men in combat situations would feel obligated to go out of their way to help their female counterparts instead of other males. This ‘damsel in distress’ kind of mentality is irksome to many proponents of the policy change, and a similar argument against the repeal of Don’t Ask Don’t Tell proved fruitless. Given the number of heterosexual males in the military, however, it is at least worth considering how the average man would feel in the midst of combat, and if that could hamper effectiveness and mission accomplishment.

Are these fair roadblocks for women serving on the front lines? Is it fair to say their inclusion may cause men to act in ways they otherwise would not? Certainly not. But they are roadblocks all the same, and issues that need to be confronted. The removal of the ban on women serving in combat is fair and just, and I have no doubt that the women in our armed forces deserve this equal treatment and would contribute at least as much as their male counterparts given the opportunity. All the same, the decision should not be made solely because it feels right on an equal-rights level — rather, the goal of this decision should be to improve the overall effectiveness of our military and the way it executes its missions. With problems such as sexual assault still prevalent, the road ahead has more obstacles to be cleared than this decision — however merited — would make it seem.

_Sam Novack’s column appears Tuesdays in the Cavalier Daily. He can be reached at s.novack@cavalierdaily.com. _

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