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Susan Estrich
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Women in Combat


It was in 1981 that the United States Supreme Court, in a decision that I still have trouble explaining to my students when I teach it, held that it was constitutional for the Selective Service, acting under the authority of Congress and the president, to require all men — but not women — between the ages of 18 and 25 to register for a potential draft.

Why, at a time when the legal distinctions between men and women for purposes of employment, family law and government benefits were all falling based on the constitutional guarantee of equal protection, was it still permissible to discriminate in the registration requirement?

Probably for the same reason that even my liberal friends looked at me like I was out of my mind when, a year before, as a staffer on the Senate Judiciary Committee, I suggested that we needed to examine the constitutionality of excluding women from combat. "Are you nuts?" people asked.

There have always been good reasons to question the exclusion that limited the role of women in the military, reasons that were raised by a lawsuit brought two months ago by four servicewomen and that were finally addressed when Defense Secretary Leon Panetta announced on Thursday that the ban will be lifted.

For one thing, "combat" doesn't necessarily mean what it once did when wars were fought primarily by men in trenches on the front lines. Is driving a truck down a road that may be mined with explosive devices "combat"? Technically, no, although it is surely dangerous. Modern wars are fought by women who risk their lives every day even if their positions are classified as "non-combat." In the past year, the military reclassified 14,500 positions to open them to women and jettisoned the rule that had prohibited women from living with male combat units.

Equally important, if women are excluded from "combat positions" and particularly from combat leadership positions, they will be — and have been — stymied in their efforts to be promoted to the top ranks of the military.

Combat experience — and especially leadership of combat units — is a key factor in promotion decisions, which is one important reason why so few women have made it to the top.

In many respects, the military is the most equal institution in our society. Minorities have achieved greater success in the military than in almost any private sector company. Women have received training in "nontraditional" occupations, which many take advantage of when they leave the service.

So why the continued ban on women in combat? Why the vestige of single-sex registration?

The short answer is that war has always been different. The last vestige of sexual stereotyping is grounded in the role of men as warriors, and in the fear or stigma, call it what you will, that women who are captured as prisoners of war would not only be killed, as men are, but also sexually assaulted.

In a joint press conference with Panetta, Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, suggested that the ban on women in combat positions actually contributed to the increasing incidence of violent sexual crimes within the military. "We've had this ongoing issue with sexual harassment, sexual assault. I believe it's because we've had separate classes of military personnel at some level. Now, it's far more complicated than that. But when you have one part of the population that is designated as warriors and another part that is designated as something else, that disparity begins to establish a psychology that, in some cases, led to that environment. I have to believe that the more we treat people equally the more likely they are to treat each other equally."


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16 Comments | Post Comment
First, allow me to state that I have served in the military along side many fine women. I've always believed that they should be allowed to serve, just not in combat roles. I always believed (apparently foolishly) that women were the less violent of the sexes and that we should strive to keep them that way.

Ms. Estrich wrote: "It was in 1981 that the United States Supreme Court...held that it was constitutional for the Selective Service... to require all men — but not women — between the ages of 18 and 25 to register for a potential draft.

Ms. Estrich knows as well as I do that the logic behind this decision (which she claims to not understand) is that, at the time, only men were allowed in combat. Thus, the drafting of only men made sense.

Now that women are allowed in combat that distinction is gone. Should we ever again have a draft, our litigious society will ensure that women will be drafted along with men. Further, since women are now allowed in combat, they will be involuntarily forced into combat with the men. Progressive lawyers and courts will ensure that.

Wonderful! What a great victory for the female sex!

Seriously, women in our society (and just about every other sane society in history) have had the privilege of not being forced into combat roles. Even under extreme conditions (e.g., the USSR in WW II) women have been placed into combat only voluntarily. This is apparently to be no more.

Without any discussion about whether this society really believes it is wise, the Progressives have now stealthfullly ensured that women can be drafted and forced into combat by the state in future conflicts. Perhaps I'm old fashion, but shouldn't this have actually been a part of the 'discussion' on this topic? Progressives so love to enter into discussions. How did they miss this? Why not tell everyone what we have really bought into?

Well ladies, you voted this crowd into office. I hope you like what you got. Pray that we never get into a situation where you'll find out just how important the privilege you just lost really is.
Comment: #1
Posted by: Old Navy
Fri Jan 25, 2013 3:39 AM
Re: Old Navy
AMEN! I can't imagine my mother having been drafted into WWII or my wife being drafted into KOREAN WAR or my daughters and grand-daughters being drafted now for the next WORLD WAR (it's coming).
Liberal progressives never think; that's why they are so ignorant!
Comment: #2
Posted by: Oldtimer
Fri Jan 25, 2013 5:22 AM
Notice that Susan is well above the draft age as she writes this. One can only imagine if she would have a different opinion if she herself was eligable to be forced into a situation where she could be shot or blown up. People who have not served in the military still have valid options on combat situations, but have less credability than those like Old Navy and I who have. No amount of studies or research on this subject is a substitute for actual experience.
Comment: #3
Posted by: Chris McCoy
Fri Jan 25, 2013 6:22 AM
The duty of the armed forces is to protect the US from attack. Ms. Estrich thinks it is to be a bureaucracy which gives equal opportunity to women so that they can enjoy better rank, salary and pension benefits. If the issue is rank, salary and pension benefits then address that. If changing our combat ready personnel will make the armed forces better to stave off attack, then do that. But don't pretend that you are improving combat readiness if you are actually trying to increase the rate of pay for some individuals. That is simply greed masquerading as worthiness.

My uncle fought in WWII and had to kill a man with a bayonet. However, today the nature of combat has changed and some qualified and talented people might be able to do combat duty better than the old policies allowed. Our aim should be to do our duty rather than pay people off for political reasons.
Comment: #4
Posted by: Cowboy Jay
Fri Jan 25, 2013 11:08 AM
This issue brings back a fond memory for me. As a young enlisted man, I was assigned to the Mess Hall for two weeks of KP duty. I was doing my job cleaning pots and pans in the big sink in the back of the mess hall. To make the cleaning go better, I cut up two lemons to help cut the grease in the water. Along came the Mess Sargeant, who just happened to be a woman. She noticed the lemons floating in the water and told me to get them out of the water and throw them away. I made the mistake of pointing out to her how olemons worked to cut grease.
She grew irritated at my remark and then said, "Are you resentful of taking orders from a woman? " Without skipping a beat, I told her that I had been taking orders from a woman for the first eighteen years of my life and had been Okay with that. We had a good working relationship from that point on. Women can do the job in the military.
Comment: #5
Posted by: robert lipka
Fri Jan 25, 2013 2:19 PM
There is a lunacy that has spread across our country. A politically correct ideology that wasn't agreed upon or welcomed; it was forced via lawsuits and threats disguised as 'policy' changes. Part of this ideology is the delusional belief that the sexes are the same- but they are not the same so affirmative action, quotas, the lowering and eliminating standards etc. under the guise of "women's rights" was put in place to satisfy the illusion. We've also had 20+ years of PC/feminist propaganda on TV and in movies in an effort to con the younger generations. So this decision unfortunately comes as no surprise. But-

War is about defeating the enemy and surviving.

Men are physically and psychologically better at defeating the enemy than woman are
Men are physically and psychologically better at surviving than women are

The reason for this is obvious to any 5 year old. Men evolved for physical prowess, hunting and killing, while women evolved for child-birth and nurturing; our bodies are different, our brains are different. Sexual biology doesn't disappear to accommodate the pathology of a few who dismiss genes, hormones, science, and common sense as a 'stereotype'.

All the rest of the talk of ending sexual harassment by putting women into combat is laughable. What's really going on here is the pentagon wants a greater pool of bodies to throw at their endless wars, and to force the other half of the U.S. population to be draft eligible. Once again they've drummed up 'women's rights' as their cover. It doesn't matter that this insane decision will cost more lives and weaken the military. They obviously don't care. Like any business, to them, all that matters are the numbers.
Comment: #6
Posted by: Modern Eye
Fri Jan 25, 2013 3:05 PM
Robert as great as your story is (seriously), that does not negate the myriad of problems that result from women in combat. Read Debra Saunders article about this issue for some real world problems. No one is doubting the competancy of women in the military. Its well, well proven that they can operate under the enourmous stress of serving, which most of us commenters seemed to have experienced firsthand. But combat is a whole different scenario, and you have to look at combat specific issues.
Comment: #7
Posted by: Chris McCoy
Fri Jan 25, 2013 6:31 PM
In situations where stealth is more important than brute strength, women can be very effective. Is the military smart enough to figure out how to dake the best advantage of women's abilities?
Comment: #8
Posted by: partsmom
Sat Jan 26, 2013 5:09 PM
Re: robert lipka
Combat in the kitchen! Interesting!
Comment: #9
Posted by: Oldtimer
Tue Jan 29, 2013 4:42 AM
Re: robert lipka The issue isn't whether women can laugh about a cute comment around lemons in dishwater, it's whether they can be in combat.
Comment: #10
Posted by: mbrianlars
Tue Feb 5, 2013 8:36 AM
As far as capability of women in combat some informative reading is “Silent Warrior” by Charles Henderson. This book is about Carlos Hathcock, a United States Marine Corps sniper in Vietnam. One of Carlos' encounters was a Vietnamese woman that was known as the “Apache” by the US servicemen in that particular area. She earned her nickname for the brutal way she tortured and killed captured soldiers/marines. She carried an AK and was a capable warrior and Carlos had no qualms about killing her. Women can serve in combat roles and effectively. However, not all women can. They should be allowed to take combat roles but should have to pass the same basic physical requirements as the men.

As far as the lower standards for women, there are a good many “jobs” in the military that women can fill and just because the average woman can't physically compare to the average male doesn't mean they should be denied the oportunity and nor is it an abomination that standards were lowered to allow women into the military, the standards for men I'm sure were/are much different during the 70s, 80s and today than they were for enlistees/draftees in the first half of the 20th century. Women should be allowed but should have to meet the same requirements as the men and if in the future we are unable to field sufficient forces to staff our combat forces I'm sure the standards will be lowered as in the past and more people, including women, will be able to qualify to fill those positions.
Comment: #11
Posted by: Ed Boyle
Tue Feb 5, 2013 10:34 AM
This is the first time I've experienced a forum like this where everyone contributes excellent comments to an excellent topic by Professor Williams, and with respect and civility no less. My compliments to all.

I strongly believe women in combat will make significant contributions to America's military might at least on three levels. First, it is a known women can endure the physicalities of life substantially more than men. They prove this in their daily life by the way they work through illness, sun-to-sun chores, and emotional ups and downs when even the most verile and most all-around healthy men fall to their knees.

Second, the new wars will not be about the survival of the fittest, rather survival of the "wisest." Size and strength will give way to "combat intelligence," persons who know how to use the opponent's power to bring "them" down. When it comes to survival, no one can do it better than women.

Lastly, in addition to their physical ability to fight, women have an innate, intuitive intelligence all their own that I believe we've needed on our front lines for a long time. Yes, they are different. In a very good and positive way. They'll use their senses in ways that men don't. Perhaps these combat women save lives on the front lines. Perhaps these combat women will inspire and keep up the esprit de corps of our soldiers. Or, perhaps their "simple" role and contribution will be--in the face of gunfire--to be the face of home and family.

One thing is certain: In historical crisis, one fact that stands out clearly. Men have failed. On the other hand, there is not a single instance of woman failing.
Comment: #12
Posted by: Rick Martinez
Wed Feb 6, 2013 12:56 PM
Re: Modern Eye
Two names for you:
1. Tatiana Matveeva
2. Pee Wee Herman
Which one would you rather have on your side in a fight?
Comment: #13
Posted by: Geoffrey James
Wed Feb 6, 2013 1:25 PM
"A level, gender-neutral playing field." Did all of our enemies agree to this? Is there a new Geneva Convention or something?
Comment: #14
Posted by: Dennis Duggan
Sat Feb 16, 2013 8:30 AM
One problem is the effect of women being taken as POWs. Also, do we really want women returning to their families with the same PTSD problems that men struggle with? That, in my humble opinion, brings the war directly home. And what about that rare but critical case where just one more bit of strength was required for just a few moments more?? The idea that women have unique psychological skills and qualities that could be exploited for the good of the force seems a good one.
Comment: #15
Posted by: nodarnfool
Sun Feb 17, 2013 12:24 AM
I don't think "fairness" as justification for giving women equal-opportunity access to being imprisoned-tortured-raped-and-beheaded is sufficient reason to impose an effectively irrevocable change to the structure of our military, which is very likely to result in the degradation of its combat effectiveness. This will expose women in front-line combat units to incidents of: 1) improper fraternization, 2) sexual harassment, and/or 3) rape by fellow soldiers, and 4) possible pregnancy; resulting in reduced morale and discipline. As to their qualifications for combat: should women not be held to the same performance standards as men, their fellow soldiers will know that they cannot provide the same support in a crisis as their male counterparts; and if the standards are reduced or compromised to enable a representative proportion of women to "qualify" for a combat unit, their fellow soldiers will have that in mind as well. There are also the more admirable elements of human nature to take into consideration as well: young men between 18-25 feel a natural impulse to protect any woman who is exposed to danger, and will tend to act on that impulse in a combat situation - possibly exposing both themselves and their fellow soldiers to enemy fire in violation of combat doctrine - and I wouldn't want a military that somehow finds a way to train that impulse out of our young men. And one last point: my daughter Lori argued that women are inherently more responsible than men (a point that's hard to dispute given her and her mother's experience) and that as potential or actual mother's they would have more at stake to defend in a combat situation - my rebuttal to which is that having more at stake makes a person less likely to expose him or herself to enemy fire in order to "take the shot", not more likely. There is a reason combat units throughout our history have been composed primarily of young, unmarried men who have less to lose and are therefore more likely to take the shot, and even then the experience of WWII showed that only 15-20 percent of soldiers actually take aimed shots at the enemy; although this percentage is substantially higher in the modern all-volunteer Army.

In closing, allow me to share a coouple of quotes from one of my favorite movies, "The and Death of Colonel Blimp" where the ex-Prussian veteran of WWI, Theo Kretschmar-Schuldorff, comments to his British Comrade, Major General (Ret.) Clive Wynn-Candy, on learning the name of Clive's "female" driver at the beginning of WWII:

Do you remember, Clive, we used to say: "Our army is fighting for our homes, our women, and our children"? Now the women are fighting beside the men. The children are trained to shoot. What's left is the "home." But what is the "home" without women and children?

And their discussion about the Nazi way of war:
Clive Candy: I heard all that in the last war! They fought foul then - and who won it?

Theo Kretschmar-Schuldorff:... I don't think you won it. We lost it -but you lost something, too. You forgot to learn the moral. Because victory was yours, you failed to learn your lesson twenty years ago and now you have to pay the school fees again. Some of you will learn quicker than the others, some of you will never learn it - because you've been educated to be a gentleman and a sportsman, in peace and in war. But Clive!
Dear old Clive - this is not a gentleman's war. This time you're fighting for your very existence against the most devilish idea ever created by a human brain - Nazism. And if you lose, there won't be a return match next year... perhaps not even for a hundred years.

Any society that exposes those it is supposed to protect is seriously missguided.
Comment: #16
Posted by: Curtiss Ryan Mooney
Tue Feb 19, 2013 10:14 AM
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