As long as standards are kept up, let women fight

Tom West, West Words

Tom West, West Words

President Obama announced the other day that if women wish to, they can serve in combat roles in the infantry. Some women apparently felt that they were held back in rank if they did not experience combat.

The reaction was fairly predictable, with the president’s supporters saying it’s only right that people should be able to follow their dreams, while his critics felt that standards would inevitably be lowered, jeopardizing the lives of fellow soldiers.

I look at it a little differently. Historically, war has involved putting soldiers in harm’s way, and up until 500 years ago, it was almost entirely about hand-to-hand combat. But war is evolving like everything else. American ingenuity is applying technology to the art of making war with the idea being to put our troops in less jeopardy than the other side’s.

That’s one reason drones have become controversial. It hardly seems sporting to have some guy in Las Vegas directing the shelling in the Khyber Pass. Unfair —but a lot safer for our side.

That said, the point is that it ought to be one’s ability to think strategically or tactically and to lead troops that enhances a soldier’s promotion prospects, not only one’s physical fitness or combat experience. Most women may not be as strong and as fast as most men, but they think just as well.

Those who think physical ability should have no effect when pursuing one’s dreams then also must logically conclude that it makes no sense to have separate men’s and women’s athletics. But we do, and that’s a good thing.

Physical activity is good for both sexes, and the best contests are between evenly matched athletes who, by playing to the best of their ability, have a chance to win. Fans don’t have to watch only the Heat and the Thunder to be entertained. The Minnesota Lynx and plenty of other teams have proven that.

Like many, I remain concerned that the politically correct crowd, who have little understanding of war or combat, will attempt to lower the standards. Since 1980, the only presidents with any military experience have been the two Bushes, and the younger Bush only saw duty in the undeployed reserves. It should be a concern when commanders in chief have so little military knowledge. Their top priority has to be to keep us safe, and without the background, it’s hard to know which general or admiral to believe when some of them are only saying what they think you want to hear so they can get promoted. That may be why it took so long for the United States to put Gen. David Petraeus in charge in Iraq, thus saving our effort there from ignominious defeat.

But I digress. If the U.S. wants to have the best army in the world, it can’t put someone’s personal ambition before the stringent physical demands of combat. We expect our military to save as many of our wounded as possible, so we need all of our soldiers to be strong enough to carry injured comrades out of harm’s way.  And if caught in a fire fight, nobody will run slower so the laggards can keep up.

In the same way that not everyone who wants to be a Navy Seal gets to be a Navy Seal, not everybody who wants to be a foot soldier should get to be a foot soldier without meeting certain physical standards.

In Vietnam, when soldiers felt sufficiently jeopardized by incompetent brothers in arms, sometimes they resorted to “fragging.” It’s not something anyone would be proud of nor would anyone admit, but it happened. It can’t be justified morally or legally, but that’s what occurs when a combat team has some members so incompetent as to jeopardize everyone in the team.

Even before this policy was made official by the president, women were already serving on the battlefields of Iraq and Afghanistan as medics, intelligence officers and convoy drivers, accompanying infantry troops and searching civilians. That’s how almost two-thirds of the 139 U.S. women soldiers killed in combat zones since Sept. 11, 2001, have died.

I realize that some will argue that bringing the sexes together on the battlefield will cause all sorts of morale problems. However, women have been serving in almost every other military role except the infantry, and morale seems to be good in combat zones and on Navy ships. (No one has suggested that the high suicide rate among returning vets can be blamed on co-ed troops.)

Others raise concerns about personal privacy for the sexes on the battlefield. Everybody knows going in that privacy is a luxury in a combat zone, and in combat itself, it is nonexistent. The solution, however, to maintaining privacy for personal hygiene is fairly simple. Have you ever heard of a poncho?

The American public largely supports the move. A recent Fox News poll found 71 percent in favor and only 26 percent against. If a draft were reinstated, then support weakens, but a majority of 51 percent (56 percent of men and 48 percent of women) still favor allowing drafted women in combat.

Regardless of whether someone volunteers or is drafted, however, the key qualification for the infantry should be physical ability, not their gender.

With 300,000 American women having served in a combat zone since 9/11, and today making up 15 percent of our military, this was one decision whose time has come.

I just hope the politically correct crowd doesn’t mess it up.

Tom West is the editor and general manager of the Record. He may be reached at (320) 632-2345 or by e-mail at tom.west@mcrecord.com.

up arrow