Women in Combat: Can We Talk About This?

By Jerry Lembcke

I’m remembering the 1980s when work-place limitations on allowable weights for women to lift were being challenged. Men were allowed to lift heavier weights making it legal for employers to prefer men over women in hirings for certain jobs. Citing the discrimination in those practices, some feminists favored raising the weight limits for women; some labor activists, meanwhile, said the standard for women was actually safer for everyone so equality should be achieved by making it the standard for all, men and women.

Mindful of that history, the recent debate over allowing women in combat has caught my ear. In late January the Pentagon announced that it would lift the ban on women serving in combat units. The outgoing Secretary of Defense, Leon Panetta will formally receive the proposal in May and move it on to Congress which has the authority to finalize the change within 30 days. Implementation of the changes is expected to take up to three years.

Unlike the disagreements over workplace safety issues 30 or so years ago, the opening of combat roles to women is being widely applauded. Polls show men and women equally supportive of the change by as high as 76%. Particularly interesting to me is the absence of an anti-war voice comparable to that of labor on the workplace issue: where is the American pacifist voice contending that the standard for women should be the standard for all – no one should be in combat?

The no-combat position would be politically impractical, of course, unwise even in the current geopolitical environment. But a strategical use of the issue, just as some union members used concerns about weight limits in the 1980s, could leverage more serious thinking about the militarization of our culture and economy, the consequences of which we see manifested in the national gun fetish and the federal budget crisis.

It would be easy enough, for example, to argue that all soldiers under the age of 21 should, like women, be exempt from combat. Whereas the combat exception for women is based on physical qualifications, evidence that the still-developing minds and emotions of young adults, men and women, make them especially vulnerable to the stresses and traumas of war provides a basis upon which to keep them away from combat. Such a policy would not only not deprive young recruits of the income, job-training opportunities, and post-service benefits like education—that, for some advocates, justify military service—it would likely channel them into military occupational specialties that transfer more readily to future civilian employment.

The age limitations on combat experience would protect teenagers from military recruiters who prey particularly on young men’s machismo and fantasies of war-front valor. Those youthful expectations of prideful martial accomplishment are fed by film and veteran folklore, but they are seldom met with satisfaction by real-world military experience—a fact that is a likely contributor to the despondency of returnees from the new wars that is sometimes lumped in with other ailments for PTSD diagnoses. The average age of American war-dead in Iraq and Afghanistan is about 26, far higher than the mythical image of “our kids” dying in war, but it is still sickening that anyone under the legal age for drinking in most states is lost in battle. The demand for a wider combat-exemption policy, leveraged by the non-combat standing of women, should be a priority for progressive reform movements.

Setting an age standard for combat eligibility may be disputatious but a standard of parental-status should be a no-brainer. Mothers and fathers with dependent-aged children should, of course, be welcomed into the military for whatever occupational, career, and economic benefits they may anticipate. But the interests of their children, and ultimately the society, should be protected by legislation keeping parents out of harm’s way.

Legislation to that effect could easily be extended to cover all family members with dependents, be they young, old, or disabled. Exemptions like that for the “sole surviving son” that enabled farm families to keep a young breadwinner at home during World War I might provide a model for new legislation.

The lack of imagination coming from the liberal anti-war community on this issue is concerning. The clamor for equal opportunity to kill and be killed or even to be in closer proximity to battleground mayhem—in the name of women’s rights or gender equality—misappropriates those progressive traditions, redirecting their promise to elevate humankind onto another path, one leveling us all at a lower level. But there is still time to rethink where the demand for women in combat takes us. Let’s talk about this.

 

Jerry Lembcke is Associate Professor of Sociology at College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, MA. He is a Vietnam Veteran.

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