In January 2013, the United States Department of Defense lifted the combat exclusion for women. In his letter to then-Defense Secretary Leon Panetta, General Martin Dempsey, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff of the US Armed Forces, stated,

“The time has come to rescind the direct combat exclusion rule for women and to eliminate all unnecessary gender-based barriers to service. The Joint Chiefs of Staff unanimously join me in proposing that we move forward with the full intent to integrate women into occupational fields to the maximum extent possible.”

More specifically, those MOSs currently closed to women will undergo a re-evaluation in order to develop, review, and validate occupational standards. Dempsey states, “Validated gender-neutral occupational standards will be used to assess and assign Service members not later than September 2015.” Even the Special Forces and other elite units may well be opened to women through these gender-neutral standards. If a Service wishes to continue to exclude women from a particular MOS, it will have to ask for an exception from the Defense Secretary. DoD can lift an MOS exclusion without the permission of Congress; if Congress wished to keep the exclusion, it would have to pass new legislation (which, frankly, has a near-zero probability of happening).

There are several factors that have led to this decision. First, the percentage of women in the armed forces has steadily climbed to almost 15% as of this writing. Second, the divide between combat and non-combat conditions on the ground in Iraq and Afghanistan is pretty hard to operationalize in reality. (Furthermore, with the advent of the FETs (female engagement teams), women have been tasked to front-line units on patrol specifically because they are female. And women in the Air Force have been flying combat missions since 1993.) For over a decade, women have, in fact, served in combat. Third, there is a growing feeling that the exclusion of women from combat MOSs has entrenched a hierarchy between men and women in the armed forces that has led to some of the vicious “friendly fire sexual assault” incidents that have made headlines in recent years. And fourth, women have been flatly denied leadership positions in the armed forces simply because they have been excluded from combat positions. This, at times, has reached the level of pure absurdity:

“In November 2012 the American Civil Liberties Union filed a federal lawsuit challenging the ban on behalf of four service women and the Service Women’s Action Network, a group that works for equality in the military. The A.C.L.U. said that one of the plaintiffs, Maj. Mary Jennings Hegar, an Air National Guard helicopter pilot, was shot down, returned fire and was wounded while on the ground in Afghanistan, but could not seek combat leadership positions because the Defense Department did not officially acknowledge her experience as combat. In the military, serving in combat positions like the infantry remains crucial to career advancement. Women have long said that by not recognizing their real service, the military has unfairly held them back.”

Public opinion polls also show large majorities (up to 75%) in favor of opening combat positions to women. Furthermore, with the scuttling of “don’t ask, don’t tell,” the issue of sexual tension derailing a unit becomes moot. With male homosexuals now openly serving in combat positions from which women were until January excluded, the rationale for excluding women from such units to prevent any sexual attraction issues from arising no longer makes much sense.

It’s always an education to read the online comments about contentious social issues, and the New York Times graciously accepted 1,090 comments about DoD’s announcement. A cursory thematic content analysis of the comments reveals several themes:

1) This is a sign the country is going to heck in a handbasket.
“Men are supposed to honor and protect women, not put them in harms way. This is a national disgrace!”

2) Women have always been involved in war.
Example: “Women have been fighting in wars since time immemorial, the French and Indian wars fought along the frontiers by the side of their cabins, the Revolutionary War, the Civil War that brought it home to their doorstep, and now Iraq and Afghanistan.”

3) Maybe the nation will now be more cautious about going to war.
Example: "I'm 100% for it! I feel the nation, watching coffins & body bags filled with female
soldiers arriving @ Dover AFB, might finally have the same visceral reaction to war
as they did to the Newtown Massacre- a game changer!
Perhaps, when the death toll reaches 1,300 or 13,000, with 8 times that many wounded for life, the country will think much longer & much harder before sending their sons & daughters to die in unwinnable wars.
 Perhaps war will become the absolute last option, rather than the first."

4) Women aren’t up to the task.
Example: The male species has a skull that's thicker than the female skull, his muscles are larger, his testosterone levels are greater, he was and remains a warrior at heart . . . Combat is serious business and women need to stay with what they do best, nurture, multitask, etc.”

5) Women are up to the task.
Example: "For those of you who think that special forces should be only open to men...there was an ironman sort of program televised a few years back where for about 2 weeks various groups would try to make it across mountains, rivers, glaciers, jungles for hundreds of miles to be the winners.

Guess what...the groups made up by all men, one by special forces guys, elite athletes, etc did not win. The group that won for consecutive years was made up of a team leader, a woman in her late 40's not huge, muscular, but persistent, a great leader, with the iron will to survive and finish the job."

6) This will widen the effects of war's evil.
Example: “War is not a good thing, and to spread its damage further into our society will have lasting effects.” and another example: “And I always thought the trick was to get the male half of the population to stop fighting, not let the female half start.”

I confess to having a bifurcated reaction to the lifting of the combat exclusion. I support what DoD has done, but only up to a point—and that point is Selective Service for 18-25 year olds.

I am persuaded that women who volunteer to join the armed forces should also have the right to volunteer for infantry, armor, and artillery MOSs. I am not convinced that many women flock to the military in the first place, nor am I convinced that even once in the military that many women will volunteer for combat MOSs. I have no doubt that physical standards will remain high and serve as a barrier to both men and women that are not qualified for combat. In other words, if a woman has chosen this path and can meet the standards, why would we deny her the right to fight for her country? There is no reason that we should take this choice from her.

But I draw a line at Selective Service—that is, registration for a possible draft of 18 to 25 year olds. And I draw that line not for the reason tradition would give us, that women are weak or delicate creatures that must be protected. After all, most women in the world are not protected in any sense of the word. Would you enjoy living as a woman in Afghanistan, where 87% of women report having been assaulted? Or in Liberia, where the chance of dying incident to pregnancy is 1 in 8? Most women in poor countries do the lion’s share of the work of the household each day, and are given fewer calories to eat despite the fact that their daily work load forces them to expend far more energy than others in the household, including men. They watch their children die of preventable diseases and malnutrition because the powerful men of the country could not care less about such lowly matters. In truth, if women were weak, delicate creatures, the human race would have died out millennia ago.

No, I do not oppose Selective Service registration for women because of their delicacy. I oppose it because women already sacrifice more for their country than men do, and women should not be asked to bear even more. There should be parity between men and women in the work of protecting our country and giving it a future. Selective Service registration for women would undo that parity, placing an unjustly heavy burden on women, and making their burden far heavier than that of men.

What, at a minimum, must a nation have to survive? It must have protection, even physical protection in the form of armed forces whose members are willing to lay down their health and even their very lives if necessary to counter threats to the nation’s security. But protection is not enough for a nation to survive. A protected nation will nevertheless die out in the space of a generation if there is no reproduction. Only through reproduction does a nation have a future.

And reproduction—carried out through the labor and efforts of women, not of men—is personally quite costly. Women offer to lay down their health and even their very lives that their nation might have a future in the new citizens brought into the world through women’s reproductive labor. That we have not seen this as a patriotic service on a par with men’s service in combat says more about our society than it says about the reality of women’s valuable service to our country.

Indeed, consider that in the history of our nation—from 1776 onwards, more women have died or been seriously harmed in or incident to childbirth than men have died or been wounded in battle. For example, in 2012, over 700 US women died in childbirth, with another 52,000 suffering a profound bodily harm, such as acute renal failure, stroke, heart failure, or aneurysms. In 2012, 310 American soldiers died in Afghanistan, with less than 4,000 wounded. Indeed, the maternal mortality rate in the US is now double what it was 25 years ago (it’s now 15 per 100,000 births).

And this is not even to mention the “mommy tax” on a woman’s lifetime earnings of having a child, which can amount to over $1 million. Indeed, the greatest risk factor for being poor in old age in the United States is to be a mother (and not a father). Not just a physical, bodily sacrifice, then, but a profound economic sacrifice as well.

We have all seen many, many monuments to great generals and unknown soldiers in our land. But there is only one monument—hidden in the back yard of a church in Pennsylvania—to all of the American women who died in childbirth to give our nation a future. Just one! There is an LDS man who is attempting to rectify that injustice with a National Mothers’ Monument which will give tribute to these women and their ultimate sacrifice. I honor him for that attempt, and hope our readers will consider donating funds to his cause. (http://mothersmonument.org )

This matter strikes close to home for me. A young woman I visit taught died giving birth to her third child. I cannot forget the sacrifice she made to bring that child into the world. As President Thomas S. Monson has put it, “With perfect trust in God, she walks, her hand in his, into the valley of the shadow of death that you and I might come forth unto life.” Yet my country does not honor these deaths, for my country is blind to the sacrifices of women that give it a future. Dying in childbirth is somehow “natural,” whereas dying in battle is “glorious.” How sightless we really are!

And there’s a GI Bill for all the soldiers who volunteered to lay down their health and their lives for their country, so that soldiers are not asked to make both an economic as well as a physical sacrifice for their country . . . but no such Bill for the mothers. No, indeed, the pay gap between mothers and childless women is about as wide as the pay gap between men and women. That’s because, I am told, women choose to have children; no one forced them to. Of course, in today’s all-volunteer army, soldiers choose to fight for their country; no one forced them to. But somehow a soldier’s blood and a soldier’s sacrifice just seems so much more precious than the blood and sacrifice of a mother—which to my feminist and LDS mind is just so very wrong on so many levels.

We women know that it may be our fate to die for our country’s future not on some foreign shore, but in labor on a hospital bed right here in the States. But most of our countrymen simply do not have the eyes to see. For example, another NYT commenter wrote,

“Until women can be drafted and forced to die in battle just like men have for centuries, we will not have true equality between the sexes. “
I say,
“Until men can die in childbirth just like women have for centuries, women should not be drafted and forced to die in battle also—that will simply deepen the existing inequality between the sexes.” [1]


[1] Not to mention the fact that die to systemic inequality in power between men and women, women have not, until the 1990s, had a seat at the table when the decision to go to war has been made. As Rudyard Kipling put it in his poem, "Female of the Species":

So it comes that Man, the coward, when he gathers to confer

With his fellow-braves in council, dare not leave a place for her

Where, at war with Life and Conscience, he uplifts his erring hands

To some God of Abstract Justice—which no woman understands.

[Back to manuscript].

Full Citation for this Article: Hudson, Valerie M. (2013) "On Lifting the Combat Exclusion for Women," SquareTwo, Vol. 6 No. 2 (Summer), http://squaretwo.org/Sq2ArticleHudsonWomenCombat.html, <give access date>

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