By Fred Benson
In response to a deadline set by President Obama three years ago, Defense Secretary Ashton B. Carter announced last December that the Pentagon would open all combat occupational specialties to women. “There will be no exceptions,” Carter said at the time. “They’ll be allowed to drive tanks, fire mortars and lead infantry soldiers into combat.” The decision opens approximately 220,000 new military jobs to women.
During the three-year period leading up to the announcement, the Army, Navy and Air Force already had begun to open many combat positions to women. The Marine Corps disagreed with the concept and requested an exemption for infantry and armor positions, arguing that combat integration could diminish the Corps’ fighting ability. Carter overruled the Marines based on his view that all military forces should operate under a common set of standards. The deal is done, and the services are busy establishing the physical standards for all women who choose to serve in these combat roles. It will happen. And it should.
But there is another part of this decision that remains unsettled. Throughout this process, it was thought that those women physically qualified could volunteer for combat jobs. Absent until recently was any high-level discussion of whether or not they could be involuntarily assigned to combat units, as is the case for men.
Interviews conducted with women over the past three years suggest that there are two starkly different views on this issue. Generally, older women, citing the “dictates of nature and a woman’s nurturing role,” believe that women should not be forced to engage in the killing of other human beings. Younger women, however, feel strongly that true equality demands that women and men be treated exactly the same. “You can’t have equality half way” is the message from this group.
To make the picture yet murkier, a related study has concluded that if physically qualified women can be forced to serve in combat jobs, the ability to recruit women for military service would decline. Carter has made clear that the military of the future will depend to a great extent on the involvement of women in all jobs. He cannot afford to experience any significant loss in women volunteers.
Immediately after Carter’s December announcement, calls started coming from several quarters suggesting that it is the appropriate time to require women to register for the draft. Most Americans have forgotten – or chosen to ignore – the requirement that all American males register with the Selective Service within 30 days of attaining 18 years of age. Several previous attempts to include women in the draft process failed because of the former Department of Defense policy not to assign women to positions involving close combat. The top Army and Marine Corps generals and several senior members of Congress argue that now that the previous existing barrier has been removed, there is no reason not to require women to register for the draft.
The subject also has been dropped into the acid brew of presidential debates, with Marco Rubio, Jeb Bush and Chris Christie supporting the registration of women, while Sen. Cruz (referring to his two daughters) stating that the government should not be allowed to “forcibly put them in a foxhole.”
There is no question that there are women who possess the physical strength to serve in combat positions, just as there are men who do not. The nature of warfare in Iraq and Afghanistan, where there are no front lines, often puts women in close combat situations.
Allowing women to formally serve in these demanding roles is an important continuation of the hard-fought process to gain full access to professional opportunities in all walks of American life. Because combat presents a wholly different environment from other pursuits, it would be wise to withhold decisions on requiring physically qualified women to serve in combat roles and registering for the draft until the services have had time to put in place appropriate standards and procedures to make the transition successful.
The integration of African Americans into the military in 1948 was extremely successful, but required alterations of long-held biases. Full acceptance will not occur overnight. After it is determined how many women actually do volunteer and how they fare in those roles, the issues of involuntary service and draft registration may then become clearer. In the meantime, hats off to the more than 200,000 women now serving with distinction in our Armed Forces.
Fred Benson is a resident of Mount Desert and publishes Capitol Commentary, an independent political newsletter. He is a retired Army Colonel and served two combat tours.