The Buzz

Don’t Force America’s Daughters Into Combat

Not long ago, the Obama administration determined that women can enter all military combat occupations. Now the debate has quickly shifted to whether women can be forced into combat.

Suddenly, the exceptional qualifications and ambition of a few women seeking ground combat roles could have significant consequences for all women.

A proposal to “Draft America’s Daughters,” part of the National Defense Authorization Act, is headed for the House floor the week of May 16. The policy would require women between the ages of 18 and 26 to register for Selective Service, making them eligible to be called up—right along with young men—if Congress were to reinstate the draft.

Congress should act now to prohibit forcing women into combat, including through requiring them to register for Selective Service. Congress should also revisit the Obama administration’s decision to open all combat roles to women without exception, which increases pressure to include women in the draft. The rush to advance these policies ignores the military’s own research on the issue and leaves a number of critical questions unresolved.

Exceptions Denied

In 2013, then-Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta directed the military services to conduct reviews with the goal of integrating women into all combat occupations by January 2016. Service chiefs had until September 2015 to request exceptions.

The most extensive review was the Marine Corps’ Gender Integration Task Force, which evaluated mixed gender units in combat training activities over nine months. On 134 ground combat tasks, all-male units outperformed mixed units in 69 percent of the tasks. Mixed units outperformed male units in just two tasks. The findings showed significant differentials in performance between females and males. Top-performing females overlapped with low-performing males. Female training course completion rates lagged well behind men, and women’s injury rate was much higher.

Women’s increased risk of injury in combat-related tasks (especially load-bearing tasks that depend considerably on physiology) makes them more vulnerable when engaging the enemy. “Combat is not an equal opportunity for women because they don’t have an equal opportunity to survive,” says Jude Eden, who served in the Marine Corps but opposes opening combat roles to women. Women on the front lines would be especially at risk if captured by the enemy (consider the Islamic State’s brutalization of female prisoners in recent months).

The moral framework guiding Western policy for the use of force requires strategic choices to minimize casualties in combat. It is one thing for women to be drawn into combat incidentally or to be attached to a combat unit for a discrete functional mission. But it’s quite another to plan to send women into frontline ground combat knowing, as Eden says, “they don’t have an equal opportunity to survive.”

Combat Effectiveness or Social Goals?

The Marines’ evaluation of the combat effectiveness of mixed units led the commandant of the Marine Corps to recommend in September 2015 that some ground combat roles continue to be limited to men. That request was rebuffed, however, and Secretary of Defense Ash Carter declared in December that all military occupations, without exception, would be open to women as of Jan. 1, 2016.

Brushing past such military concerns was in step with a comment made by Joint Chiefs Chairman Gen. Martin Dempsey at the outset of the review period. As he told military commanders back in 2013, if a woman could not meet their units’ standards, they would have to justify why the standards need to be that high. Meanwhile, in May 2015, Navy Secretary Ray Mabus directed that one in four enlisted recruits in the Navy and Marine Corps should be women.

These instances raise questions about whether social goals have taken precedence over military objectives in the march to put women in combat. Moreover, the momentum to open all options for the few extraordinary women seeking to serve in ground combat is now propelling us toward a requirement that could affect all women.