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From Draft NOtices, April-June 2013

Women in Ground Combat Service: Victory?


– Kathy Gilberd

In January, outgoing Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta announced the lifting of the Combat Exclusion Policy (CEP), which formally excluded women from ground combat service in the military. Panetta’s action, which reflected the unanimous recommendation of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, will give women potential access to over 230,000 positions previously closed to them. In his announcement Panetta also said, “We are moving forward with a plan to eliminate all unnecessary gender-based barriers to service.” The lifting of the exclusion policy follows a 2012 decision to open more than 14,000 additional positions to women, allowing them to serve in select positions in ground combat units at the brigade.

The change is not immediate, however. While the services must submit plans for integration by this May, the overall plan is set to phase in through 2016, and it may not be universal.  Although the formal exclusion is ended, much remains to be determined about this change in policy. DoD has pledged to use gender-neutral physical standards, rather than establishing separate standards for women, and Panetta firmly said, “I’m not talking about reducing the qualifications for the job.” But it is not clear whether physical requirements will be adapted to the differences of various Military Occupational Specialties or will be universal. Some observers believe that it will be difficult for many women to qualify under current standards, particularly those involving upper body strength.

While this action is in many ways historic, in reality women have already been serving in combat despite their formal exclusion. Recently, while women could not serve in combat units, they could be attached to those units; for example, women have served as medics attached to combat units in both Iraq and Afghanistan. The concept of “asymmetrical warfare,” with indistinct boundaries and fronts, has meant that women assigned to non-combat units frequently encounter combat as well. In Afghanistan, women routinely participate in convoys and armed patrols, where they often come under fire. More than 280,000 women have seen service in Iraq and Afghanistan, and about 150 have died in these wars. The government’s figures on injuries are often low, but according to them more than 800 have been wounded. In announcing the lifting of the CEP, Secretary Panetta acknowledged that women have already “become an integral part of our ability to perform our mission.”

How should progressives think about this? From a purely civil rights point of view, it is a victory that an area of inequality may be reduced or ended. Since combat service and associated training are important to advancement in the ranks, the change may mean more women in higher levels of command. Some hope that, with more women at the top, women’s issues may receive more attention in the military.

Some observers believe that women’s “second-class citizenship” in the military has contributed to an environment in which sexual harassment and sexual assault are tolerated. An end to the combat exclusion and achievement of symbolic first-class citizenship, they say, may create greater respect for women in the military. Integration of women into combat units might reduce the incidence of harassment and assault. However, this has not been borne out by the already significant integration of women that has taken place since the Volunteer Army was initiated. In fact, increased numbers of women in a male-dominated environment and primarily male job specialties may have contributed to reported increases in the incidence of harassment and assaults.

It is also possible that integration of women will have some direct effect on the military culture that encourages sexual harassment and, implicitly, sexual assault. Military training and discipline rely heavily on dehumanization, often-brutal sexual imagery, and homophobia to persuade soldiers to follow orders and kill. Presumably these tools would be more difficult to use in a mixed-gender environment. But that culture has withstood other changes, including the repeal of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,” without reducing its sexist and homophobic nature. While we may cheer the falling of a sexist barrier, we should be aware that this may not diminish sexism within the military.

We should be saddened at the same time by the likelihood that more women will be engaged in combat, carrying out an interventionist military policy that is destructive to peace and justice and that leaves many military veterans with physical and psychological scars. We should be worried about the increasingly militaristic recruitment tactics that will be directed at girls and young women. This is an area in which it is reasonable to have questions and mixed feelings – to be pleased at a civil rights victory while critical of the military missions that women will serve.

This article is from Draft NOtices, the newsletter of the Committee Opposed to Militarism and the Draft (


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