An opinion piece published in one of America’s most prestigious newspapers made a curious assertion this morning: women shouldn’t serve in combat because “social norms” would make it “humiliating” for men.
After Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta’s surprise announcement on Wednesday that women would be free to serve in most or all combat roles by 2016, the Wall Street Journal published an op-ed by former Marine infantryman Ryan Smith. Smith argued that since soldiers had to “defecate inches from his seated comrade’s face” during his tour in Iraq, women could not be permitted in combat because it would “humiliate” men:
Societal norms are a reality, and their maintenance is important to most members of a society. It is humiliating enough to relieve yourself in front of your male comrades; one can only imagine the humiliation of being forced to relieve yourself in front of the opposite sex.
Despite the professionalism of Marines, it would be distracting and potentially traumatizing to be forced to be naked in front of the opposite sex, particularly when your body has been ravaged by lack of hygiene. In the reverse, it would be painful to witness a member of the opposite sex in such an uncomfortable and awkward position. Combat effectiveness is based in large part on unit cohesion. The relationships among members of a unit can be irreparably harmed by forcing them to violate societal norms.
Smith’s scatological suppositions don’t stand up to scrutiny. As most know, irregular warfare against insurgents in Iraq and Afghanistan blurred the lines between “combat” and “non-combat” roles, meaning that female soldiers have been fighting in combat in practice for roughly a decade. 292,000 American women served in combat zones during in these two wars, 152 of whom were killed in action. There is no evidence that these women’s bravery damaged “unit cohesion” or in any other fashion worsened the ability of soldiers to do their jobs.
The evidence from foreign militaries suggest the same. Several American allies in Afghanistan allowed women to serve in “frontline roles,” and found that it had no effect on the performance of the unit in question. Israel’s Caracal Batallion, the country’s famous mixed gender combat unit, has performed admirably in combat situations.
If Smith and the Journal were interested in gender problems inside the military, they’d be better served focusing on the growing threat of sexual assault inside the ranks rather than attempting to restrict women’s freedom to choose their career path. One third of military women have been sexually assaulted, roughly twice the civilian figure.