While the issue of whether women can or should serve in combat in the U.S. armed forces has been settled — they can and have served with honor for more than a decade in Iraq, Afghanistan and elsewhere — a key question remains about the intent of the Obama administration in pushing this change. Will this be a way for qualified women to serve in any capacity they can, and rise as high as their merits and skills carry them? Or is it designed to fill somebody’s politically correct quota of combat jobs for the female sex?
When the change was announced on Jan. 24, then-Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta made clear that standards would not be lowered. “If members of our military can meet the qualifications for a job — and let me be clear, I’m not talking about reducing the qualifications for the job — if they can meet the qualifications for the job, then they should have the right to serve, regardless of creed or color or gender or sexual orientation,” he said, emphasizing that “we are all committed to implementing this change without compromising readiness or morale or our war-fighting capabilities.”
But since then, disturbing signs to the contrary have emerged. In the Marine Corps, a few women have graduated from basic enlisted infantry training, though all the officers who have tried so far have failed. But the Corps quietly postponed plans to make women meet the same physical standard of doing three pull-ups that men have to meet, after 55 percent of female recruits failed the test compared to 1 percent of males.
Officially, the postponement was to gather more data “to assure all female Marines are given the best opportunity to succeed.” This is not surprising. A Marine study of other countries that already allow women into combat jobs, such as Israel, found that few qualify or are interested. A Congressional Research Service report released May 9 cited Canada’s experience, saying it indicated that large numbers of women would not succeed if held to the same physical standards as men.
It’s important for the administration to make clear in both its words and actions that the standards for combat jobs — especially the physical standards — should be strictly defined by what is needed to fight and win wars, especially in the world’s most rugged and inhospitable places. Certainly there will be some women who can meet these standards, but not many, compared to the proportion of men who will meet them. And the proportion of women willing to try for such jobs is also likely to be smaller. The Obama administration should accept that reality. The purpose of training is to defeat the enemy, not to advance an ideological agenda.