Ban on Women in Combat: A Response

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Category: Civil Rights, Congress & Congressional Power, Constitutional Law, Federal Law & Legal System, Feminism, Public
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I recently had the opportunity to read Professor Mazzie’s post on the lifting of the ban on women serving in combat.  As a military officer with over 20 years of service to include a recent overseas deployment to a combat zone, I thought that I would offer my personal observations and opinions related to this matter.

First, while I personally have not served on the “front lines,” I generally agree with the lifting of the ban.  Since September 11, 2001, women have served alongside men in Iraq, Afghanistan, and many other places around the world.  The majority of women have served with great distinction and all of them who have served have made great sacrifices (let us also not forget about the sacrifices that their families have made).  As Professor Mazzie notes, since September 11, 2001, 152 women have made the ultimate sacrifice for the greater good of this country. 

As a person who enlisted as a Private in 1992, I have seen how the military has grown, matured, and become more professional over the years, especially since the rapid deployment of service members over the last 11 years.  Professor Mazzie entitles her post “Ban on Women in Combat Lifted: Is the Military Ready?”  For the reasons cited above, I do believe that the military is ready.  If the military is not ready at this point in time, after 11 plus years of overseas operations in which women have played a key role in the success of these operations, I personally do not believe that the military will ever be ready.  To put it simply, I believe that the timing is right and the lifting of the ban is the right thing to do. 

All that being said, I do believe that some of the arguments made by opponents of the lifting of the ban have some validity.  Generally, I do not believe that these people are being sexist.  Once again, relying on my personal knowledge and experience in a military environment, I believe that a couple of the arguments rise above the rest.  First, “abysmal and base” living conditions do not accurately describe some of the living conditions that our service members have to endure.  In a combat environment, our service members may go weeks, and maybe even months, without a shower.  While I am not an expert in female personal hygiene requirements, I do believe that it is likely that males may be much better suited for these kind of conditions. 

Another argument that has been made, but probably has not been eloquently explained, is what is commonly referred to as the “unit cohesion” argument.  Let me be frank (and please keep in mind that I support the lifting of the ban and do not believe that segregating service members is the right thing to do).  However, in my military experience, there is no question that it is easier to maintain a single-gender unit.  Furthermore, a single-gender unit is also generally more drama free than a unit where males and females co-exist.  There is little question that intimate relationships will form and exist in a coed unit.  Oftentimes, these types of relationships have an effect on the professionalism and cohesiveness of the unit.  As relationships form, animosity and tension grow among peers especially among those who miss their families.  Additionally, as relationships deteriorate, there are often splits within the unit.  In an environment where service members’ lives depend on each other’s loyalty and commitment, the least little bit of a distraction could prove to be catastrophic.  Lives could be lost.  Personally, I believe that this concept is often underestimated by the population that has not served in these types of environments.  Finally, the fact is that the military (at least through my own experience) has the most discipline problems in coed units.

In summary, I do believe that the lifting of the ban is the right thing to do.  However, there are some concerns that have to be well-thought-out and planned for.  I would also reiterate that those that may be opposed to the lifting of the ban are generally not opposed to equal opportunity.  It is more likely that there are legitimate concerns that are likely not adequately understood by the general public who have not served in a combat environment.  For that reason, I would caution against the use of sarcasm and political rhetoric that is commonly used by proponents that argue for the advancement of equal opportunity.   Let us keep the dialog professional in nature.

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One Response to “Ban on Women in Combat: A Response”

  1. Steve Nelson Says:

    The argument against integration based on unit cohesion is interesting and is certainly supported by pop culture but not social science. Studies of unit cohesion make the distinction between social (interpersonal bonds) and task (shared commitment to mission) cohesion. In a meta-analysis of 49 studies, Mullen and Cooper found that the relationship between cohesion and performance was “due primarily to commitment to task rather than interpersonal attraction or group pride.” Social cohesion can work towards the success or detriment of the organization. The presence of extremists or PTSD (both very real today) within the unit can be very harmful to the success of the unit. As Carreiras notes, “Even admitting that social cohesion may under certain conditions improve military performance, there seem to be reasons to believe that cohesion does not depend on discrimination against women, gays, or lesbians.” Soldiers must still be qualified for direct ground combat. Secretary of Defense Panetta began his announcement saying, “Our nation was built on the premise of the citizen-soldier. In our democracy, I believe it is the responsibility of every citizen to protect the nation. And every citizen who can meet the qualifications of service should have that opportunity.”

    Brian Mullen and Carolyn Copper, “The Relation between Group Cohesiveness and Performance: An Integration,” Psychological Bulletin, Vol. 115, No. 2 (March 1994).
    Carreiras, Helena. Gender and the military: Women in the armed forces of western democracies. Routledge, 2006.
    MacCoun, Robert J., Elizabeth Kier, and Aaron Belkin. “Does social cohesion determine motivation in combat? An old question with an old answer.” Armed Forces & Society 32.4 (2006): 646-654.

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