For the military, bigger shocks await than women in combat roles


For too long, America’s image of its military has not matched its reality. We think Omaha Beach or Iwo Jima, massed attacks on fixed emplacements supported by armor, artillery and aircraft.

It’s entirely possible that kind of war will never be fought again; technology has obviated the need and costs are out of sight. Today’s reality is “irregular warfare,” wars without front lines fought by small units against guerrillas. The future is likely to be counter-insurgency operations that require fewer, but better-trained troops, supported by civil affairs units, sophisticated communications and tactical aircraft, with or without pilots. There will be less need for the heavy tanks and howitzers that must be moved by sea and serviced by crews of strong men.

Given all of that, the Joint Chiefs of Staff have decided that there’s no reason that women can’t play valuable roles in small-unit combat. On Thursday, outgoing Defense Secretary Leon Panetta announced the armed services would begin lifting rules that excluded women from combat branches. There may still be some exclusions — special forces, for example. Plans aren’t due until May 15, and full implementation will take three years.

It’s about time. Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman Carl Levin, D-Mich., said, “It reflects the reality of 21st-century military operations.”

The symbolism of this is more important than the reality. In coming years, the nation will need fewer combat soldiers, regardless of gender. Plans are under way to reduce Army troop levels by 27,000 and Marine forces by 20,000 over the next four years. In part this is because the Iraq war is over and the Afghanistan war is winding down. In part it’s because of budget pressures.

Even if a young woman decides she wants to serve in a combat branch, it’s not easy, regardless of gender. Already 27 percent of 17-to-24-year-old Americans don’t meet basic physical standards for recruitment, most of them because they’re significantly overweight.

Things get tougher, first at basic training and then at advanced infantry school. The Marines last year conducted an experiment by allowing two women to go through infantry officer training. Both flunked, as did 30 of 107 male candidates.

The new training standards for combat branches are expected to be gender-neutral. If you can’t hack it, you don’t pass. That’s only fair: If there’s a mortar to be humped up a mountainside, everyone should be able to carry his share of the load. Or hers.

There will be some women who can train themselves up to qualify. Inevitably, however, more women than men will lack the necessary physical size or strength.

But women who can meet the challenge can wear the combat infantry badge. That, too, is only fair.

For years, female officers have complained that the lack of combat experience has hampered their chances at promotion. In the Army’s “muddy boots culture,” officers with experience in a combat environment are more likely to win the medals and recognition that impress promotions boards.

That’s a troubling standard. Too often promotions come because of time in service, not merit and performance. A 2010 study by the Strategic Studies Institute of the Army War College said it creates an officer corps that is not as qualified as it could be.

Culturally, the new rules present a greater challenge to men than women. Already 88 percent of men graduate from high school compared with 90 percent of women. Twenty-five percent more women than men are enrolling in, and graduating from, college. Pity the young male slacker. Now women will be competing for his default job.

The nice thing about the military, though, is that women and men are paid exactly the same. Opening combat branches to smart, strong, motivated women will make everyone better.

Women in combat are only part of what Sen. Levin meant by “the changing reality of 21st-century military operations.” Budgets and missions could shrink as the Pentagon is forced to pay more for pensions and benefits and less for the sorts of weapons it no longer needs. Having been burned by two needless wars, the nation is for the time being far less likely to embark on long-term military operations.

This will create serious displacement as bases are closed and weapons contracts are canceled or cut back. This is a reality the Congress has yet to face.

Compared to all of this, and despite its symbolic importance, Panetta’s announcement Thursday is not a very big change at all.