Women in Combat: Why Rush to Judgment?

Report Defense

Women in Combat: Why Rush to Judgment?

June 14, 1991 19 min read Download Report
Robert Knight
Visiting Fellow


Should America send women into combat? This question is again before Congress as part of the intense debate over a defense budget bill. At stake is a policy change that could affect millions of women and men, have major cultural implications and alter America's military readiness.

On June 18, the Armed Services Committee's Subcommittee on Manpower and Personnel will hold hearings on "the utilization of women in the military." Last month, without debate, an amendment by Patricia Schroeder, the Colorado Democrat, was added to the 1991 Defense Budget Authorization Bill in the House of Representatives. The amendment would repeal the ban on women in aircraft engaged in combat missions. If the bill that includes this provision becomes law, it would change military policy profoundly and have possibly wide-reaching effects. Among them:

It would lead to the subjection of women to any renewal of a mandatory military draft. In 1981, the Supreme Court ruled women ineligible for the military draft on the grounds that the draft is for the purpose of raising combat personnel. ( Rostker v. Goldberg, U.S. Supreme Court, June 25, 1981. The Court stated: "The fact that Congress and the Executive have decided that women should not serve in combat fully justified Congress in not authorizing their registration, since the purpose of registration is to develop a pool of potential combat troops." Cited in Ellen C. Collier, "Women in the Armed Forces," Foreign Affairs and National Defense Division, Congressional Research Service, Library of Congress, May 6, 1991.) Removal of the combat exclusion would eliminate the reason for excluding women from the draft.

It would almost certainly lead to assignment of women to all combat jobs, not just those aboard aircraft.

It would give credibility to those groups that seek gender-blind government policies. For better or worse, the armed services are often on the cutting edge of social policy.

Since 1948, when Congress passed the Combat Exclusion Act, women have been barred from combat positions in the Air Force, Marines and Navy. The Army, although not covered by the act, maintains its own regulatory ban on women in combat roles.

Whatever the merits of the proposal to put women into combat positions, the issue is too important to be resolved without a full, open public debate. Recent statements and actions indicate, moreover, that military officials have not always addressed the issue with candor. In fact, cross-examination at the Virginia Military Institute trial in April in Roanoke, Virginia, revealed vast discrepancies between official pronouncements from United States military officials and actual conditions regarding the integration of women at the United States Military Academy at West Point.

Data Needed. With the Gulf war over, there is no compelling reason to rush to a decision on whether American women should be sent into combat. A General Accounting Office study of women's roles in Operation Desert Storm is not due until January. Congress should wait at least until then before addressing the issue.

Then Congress, too, must evaluate such vital information as how women affected and were affected by operations during the Gulf war and elsewhere. To obtain data for this, Congress should authorize an independent study of women's roles in the military, including projected costs and advantages or disadvantages associated with placing women in combat units. The study should focus on training standards, current attrition rates among officers and enlisted personnel, performance records, the effect of family policies, and projected manpower needs in light of current plans to reduce military forces.

The Schroeder Amendment would leave it up to the military to decide whether to include women in combat roles. (In a May 7 letter responding to inquiries from Senator John McCain, the Arizona Republican, Christopher Jehn, Undersecretary of Defense for Manpower, writes: "If current combat exclusion laws were repealed, the Department of Defense would be obligated to allow women to enter any career area for which they qualify. Conversely, in time of need the Department could utilize women in any career area for which they qualified." This would seem fair on the surface, but standards have been lowered or eliminated to accommodate women at the nation's service academies and in the armed services generally, so the concept of "qualified" may have to become elastic to meet social pressures rather than the needs of military preparedness. ) But it would be more appropriate and more in the American tradition for civilian authorities to make a decision that will have wide-ranging social implications. Says Defense Secretary Richard V. Cheney: "I believe the Congress is the appropriate forum for a full and open discussion of the larger political and social issues associated with such a proposed change. The views of the American people should also be heard on this extremely emotional issue." ( Testimony before the Senate Appropriations Committee, May 21, 1991.)

The Legislation

Last month, the House passed the 1991 Defense Budget Authorization Bill, which limits defense spending to $290.7 billion. George Bush has said he will veto the bill because of cuts in the "Brilliant Pebbles" portion of the Strategic Defense Initiative, elimination of B-2 bomber funding and the addition of a provision allowing abortions to be performed at miltary base facilities.

Bush has yet to comment on the Schroeder Amendment, which would repeal Section 8549 of Title 10, U.S. Code, which bars women from Air Force aircraft engaged in combat missions. Part of Section 6015 of the same law, pertaining to Navy and Marine aircraft engaged in combat missions, would also be repealed.

The bill passed the House without any debate or discussion of the Schroeder Amendment, which was added on an unrecorded voice vote in the Armed Services Committee.

Senate Armed Services hearings on the defense bill are scheduled for June 18 with a vote expected sometime in July.

Senator William Roth, the Delaware Republican, introduced a separate measure on May 15 that removes restrictions against women serving as combat pilots. The bill does not require the Defense Department to have women combat pilots, but gives the Secretaries of the Army, Navy and Air Force the authority to "prescribe the conditions under which female members... may be assigned to duty in aircraft that are engaged in combat missions." (S. 1076, introduced May 15, 1991 in the U.S. Senate, cited in Congressional Record, Vol. 137, No. 73.)

In January 1990, Schroeder introduced a proposal directing the Army to conduct a four-year test period of allowing women in Army occupations closed to women, including combat roles. Although the legislation was never voted on by the full House, the Army rejected it in April, saying there was no need for such a test. During hearings on the proposal held by the Military Personnel and Compensation Subcommittee, several military women testified that they welcomed some expanded opportunities but had no interest in combat duty. While these women's views may or may not represent the majority of women in the armed services, they demonstrate that the opinion that women should be in combat roles is not unanimous among servicewomen.

Women in Arms

Since the advent of the all-volunteer forces in 1973, the number of women serving in the military has climbed from 2.5 percent of all personnel in the armed forces to nearly 11 percent. ("Women in the Military: Attrition and Retention," United States General Accounting Office, July 1990, p. 2.) There now are 233,000 active duty women in uniform, of whom about 15 percent are officers. ( Carolyn Becraft, "Women in the Military, 1980-1990," a report by The Women's Research and Education Institute, Washington, D.C., June 1990.)

As women have entered the military in greater numbers, more jobs have been opened to them. In 1988, the General Accounting Office estimated that 1.1 million out of 2.2 million military jobs were closed to women under combat exclusions and related program needs. GAO reported that "most of the women interviewed indicated that the processes related to assignments, promotions, and educational opportunities were fair to women. The women had mixed views on whether the laws and policies related to combat exclusion, a major career impediment, should be changed to permit women to serve in all positions." ("Career Progression Not a Current Problem, But Concerns Remain," General Accounting Office, September 1989, cited in Fact Sheet, Defense Advisory Committee on Women in the Services, April 1991.)

In February 1988, the Defense Department adopted a "risk rule" that excludes women from "non-combat units or missions if the risk of exposure to direct combat, hostile fire, or capture is equal to or greater than the risk in the combat units they support." ( Collier, op. cit., p. 7.) This rule replaced regulations that were largely based on geographical proximity, and opened up more combat-support jobs to women. The new regulation is supposed to reflect the changing nature of a battlefield that includes the threat of ballistic missiles and chemical weapons.

Top Brass Speak
Within the past two weeks, two senior Army generals have spoken out opposing further expansion of women's military roles. On June 11, General Carl Vuono, the Army's Chief of Staff, told reporters: "I don't see any immediate change as a result of the Gulf war... I don't see any reasons to recommend a change. I'm talking about some of the physical aspects of ground combat that I'm not sure the bulk of the women soldiers would be able to handle." ("A Nay for Women in Combat," editorial in The Washington Times, June 12, 1991.)

The week before, General J.H. Binford Peay III, commander of the Army's 101st Airborne Divison (Air Assault), speaking at a Fort Campbell, Kentucky, press conference said: "I don't think we should expand on these things." Peay explained that the Gulf operation involved a long deployment and a short conflict, and warned: "Don't draw the wrong conclusions. This was not a five-year war." (David Shayne, "Gulf War Doesn't Justify Greater Women's Roles, 101st Leader Says," The Tennessean (Nashville), June 5, 1991, p. 1B.)

The Case for Women in Combat

Schroeder's arguments for ending the combat exclusion are echoed by the Defense Advisory Committee on Women in the Services (DACOWITS). The committee was established in 1951 to advise the Pentagon on the role of women in the military and is composed of 30 to 40 men and women who serve three-year terms. Members are selected according to "their outstanding reputations in business, the professions, public service and their records of civic leadership, with due regard to equitable distribution of fields of interest and geographical location," according to a DACOWITS Fact Sheet. Committee members long have contended during twice-yearly hearings and in periodic reports that current policies limit the contribution women can make to the military and unfairly limit women's careers. (DACOWITS, Recommendations, Requests for Information, Commendations Made at the 1976 Fall meeting, November 14-18, 1976, p. 1. Calling the combat exclusion laws "arbitrary and unnecessary," DACOWITS officially recommended "That laws preventing women from serving their country in combat and combat-related or support positions be repealed." Cited in Brian Mitchell, Weak Link: The Feminization of the American Military (Washington, D.C.: Regnery Gateway, 1989), p. 128.) DACOWITS members have noted at public hearings that millions of women already have served in the military in various capacities, and that the great majority of military jobs are already open to women. At present, 100 percent of Coast Guard jobs are open to women, 97 percent of Air Force jobs, 59 percent in the Navy, 52 percent in the Army and 20 percent in the Marines. ("Women in the Armed Services: The War in the Persian Gulf," a report by the Women's Research and Education Institute based on figures supplied by the Department of Defense, March 1991.) In addition, DACOWITS members contend that technological advances have already placed women in harm's way, such as duty aboard certain reconnaisance planes and Naval combat vessels.

America's tradition of equal rights, meanwhile, apart from other factors, would seem to guarantee equal opportunity for all citizens, regardless of gender, in public service-related jobs. Backers of the Schroeder proposal also argue that several women were killed and captured during Operation Desert Storm without an outcry from the public, and that many of the 33,000 women deployed in the Gulf served in positions that came under fire.

The Candor Gap

The case made by advocates of women in combat may be valid -- or it may be wrong. The problem is that the official statements upon which a sound evaluation must be based have been misleading and even, perhaps deliberately, false.

As a result, not enough is known about the effectiveness of current policies regarding the inclusion of women in the armed services and at the nation's military academies. Although Pentagon officials insist that the integration of women into the military has caused few or no problems, several instances raise questions about a possible discrepancy between official policy and actual experiences.

In April, for example, a West Point official, testifying under oath in the United States District Court in Roanoke, Virginia, revealed that the U.S. Military Academy at West Point has adopted unofficial quotas for women on admissions and for specific programs. (Testimony, United States of America vs. Virginia Military Institute et al., U.S. District Court for the Western District of Virginia, Roanoke Division, April 8, 1991, p. 539.) The testimony came during a trial over Virginia Military Institute's men-only admissions policy. Called as a witness was Colonel Patrick Toffler, Director of West Point's Office of Institutional Research. The prosecution had summoned him as a witness expecting to bolster the claim that admission of women at West Point has had no ill effects.

Revealing Testimony
Under oath, and perhaps for the first time publicly anywhere, Toffler said just the opposite. Under cross- examination by VMI's attorney, Toffler acknowledged that separate physical requirements indeed exist for men and women at West Point, and that some physical activities for both sexes have been made easier or eliminated so that women would not suffer what Toffler delicately called "adverse impact." ( Ibid., p. 608.)

Toffler's sworn testimony further revealed -- again, probably for the first time -- that according to a West Point survey taken last year, some 50 percent to 68 percent of women cadets reported that they had been sexually harassed; 23 percent reported that someone had come into their room when they were asleep.

Under oath, Toffler also admitted that West Point has identified 120 physical differences between men and women, plus psychological differences. This, testified Toffler, has prompted West Point to make its physical training easier to accommodate women. According to Toffler:

Cadets no longer train in combat boots because women were suffering higher rates of injury; cadets now wear jogging shoes.

Women cadets take "comparable" or "equivalent" training when they cannot meet standards in some events. In practice this means that West Point males must do pull-ups while females merely do "flex-arm hangs."

The famed and valuable "recondo" endurance week during which cadets used to march with full backpacks and undergo other strenuous activities has been eliminated, as have upper-body strength events in the obstacle course.

Running with heavy weapons has been eliminated because it is "unrealistic and therefore unappropriate" to expect women to do it.

Where men and women are required to perform the same exercises, women's scores are adjusted to give them more weight.

Today's West Point males are not increasing their cardio-vascular efficiency as much as their predecessors did because they are insufficiently challenged by physical training standards geared to include women.

In load-bearing tasks (carrying and lifting), 50 percent of the women score below the bottom 5 percent of the men.

Peer ratings have been eliminated because women were scoring too low.

Fraternization between the sexes is occurring on campus. Said Toffler under oath: "I think it would be fair to say that certain forms of sexual activity can have a place on the grounds at the Military Academy." ( Ibid., p. 585-586.)

The cadet honor system has been weakened by making breaches of the code no longer grounds for expulsion in most cases.

In addition to Toffler's sworn, unprecedented look at how women actually have affected West Point, shreds of other data indicate that sending women into combat creates serious problems. Examples:

1) The Defense Department reports that on February 13, some 16,337 single parents, most of whom had custody of their children, were deployed in Operation Desert Storm, along with 1,231 military couples with children. The Pentagon has not yet revealed how many single mothers with small children were deployed, how many were nursing at the time, or how many married women with small children were deployed. In some reports, single men without custody of their children were not distinguished from women with custody of children, thus skewing the public perception. The Pentagon has also not revealed how many women soldiers and sailors became pregnant during the war, although some reports indicate that pregnancy rates exceeded the average number of 10 percent to 15 percent at any given time of all women in the armed services. (Telephone interview with former Defense Advisory Committee on Women in the Services member Elaine Donnelly of Donnelly Media Associates, June 10, 1991.)

2) During the December 1989 U.S. invasion of Panama, initial reports from Pentagon sources indicated that Captain Linda L. Bray had led a military police squad into fierce combat, capturing a dog kennel and crashing a jeep through a fence. At the time, Bray's actions were publicized by the Pentagon and hailed widely as proof that women are well suited for combat. Later it was revealed, however, that the initial reports had been wrong. Bray in fact had been a half-mile from the scene when the shooting occurred, that there were no casualties after a ten-minute scuffle, and that not she but her subordinate had driven the jeep through the fence. This is not to say that Captain Bray did not act honorably in the situation. It is simply that initial Army reports appear to have exaggerated her role, probably deliberately to enhance the Army's campaign to please the Defense Advisory Committee on Women in the Services and other groups advocating sending women into combat.

3) During the Panama invasion, a female truck driver taking troops into a combat zone started crying. Another woman who had been performing the same job also broke into tears, and the two women were relieved of duty. After reporters learned about the incident, the Army "took pains to convey that the women had not disobeyed orders or been derelict in their duty," reports The New Republic. "On the contrary, according to an Army official quoted in the Washington Post: "They performed superbly." Since men, too, have been relieved of duty after breaking down emotionally during combat, the point is not to single these women out. The point is that the Army was less than candid about the incident. As The New Republic commented: "To call the overall performance of a soldier who breaks down and cries during combat 'superb' is ludicrous and patronizing." ("Soldier Boys, Soldier Girls," The New Republic, February 19, 1990, cited in Congressional Quarterly Supplement, February 7, 1990, p. A14.)

4) Male officers are warned unofficially that their career advancement will suffer if they dispute the official line that integration of women in the military causes no problems nor affects the armed services' readiness. Writes military journalist Brian Mitchell: "In recent years, the Defense Department has moved to squelch dissent on the issue and labored to ensure that only the approved view of women in the military is presented to the American people. In so doing, it has fostered cynicism and resentment among military men.... " ( Brian Mitchell, Weak Link: The Feminization of the American Military (Regnery Gateway: Washington, D.C., 1989), p. 9.)

5) Last October, the Committee on Women's Issues, an advisory panel appointed by U.S. Naval Academy Superintendent Rear Admiral Virgil L. Hill Jr., issued a report criticizing the academy for not moving fast enough to accommodate women, who now make up 10 percent of the academy's enrollment. Committee member Senator Barbara Mikulski, the Maryland Democrat, demanded "an attitude change" at the academy. The committee report, according to The Washington Post, calls for "immediate dismissal of senior officers who question the role of women in the military." ( Lisa Leff, "Sex Bias Study Takes Naval Academy to Task," The Washington Post, October 10, 1990.)

6) A U.S. Naval Academy Report, "The Assimilation of Women in the Brigade of Midshipmen," presented to the Defense Advisory Committee on Women in the Military spring meeting in April calls for combatting the "widespread misperception that [the] academy's mission is to produce warriors and only warriors," ("The Assimilation of Women in the Brigade of Midshipmen," United States Naval Academy, April 1991.) and states that officers who "foster the opinion that women should not be midshipmen should be relieved." (Ibid.) The report also reports a "strong likelihood of backlash [from male midshipmen] as policy changes [are] implemented," announces a "zero tolerance" policy against backlash, and reports that "there has been no backlash." (Ibid.)

From these and many other examples, it is clear that the issue of women in combat has not been sufficiently and objectively explored.

Other Nations' Experience


The only reliable record of women in combat is provided by Israel, a nation whose policy is widely misunderstood. The popular conception is that Israeli women fight alongside men as equals. The truth is that although Israel drafts both women and men for military service, Israel has excluded women from combat units since 1950.

To be sure, female soldiers fought alongside male colleagues in Israel's War of Liberation, which ended in 1948. Because of the problems that this created, Israeli women never again were sent into battle. Explains military historian Edward N. Luttwak of the Washington, D.C.-based Center for Strategic and International Studies, who has written a book about the Israeli military: "Men moved to protect the women members of the unit instead of carrying out the mission of the unit." (Telephone interview, June 10, 1991.) Luttwak adds that women are integrated into the Israeli military at many levels, and conduct most of the training. Women also serve in the Mossad, Israel's elite counter-terrorist force. But women are excluded, Luttwak notes, from infantry and other combat positions based on "the pragmatic experience of 40 years." (Ibid.)

The Israelis also bar women from combat for cultural reasons. After the War of Liberation, Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion said that placing women in combat violated the Jewish concept of womanhood and women's status as mothers. (Interview with senior Israeli military official, June 12, 1991, Washington, D.C.) At a Washington briefing this month, a senior Israeli military official said that even tentative experiments with women serving aboard missile-defense boats had failed miserably. Furthermore, he said, because of its cultural heritage, Israel "is not ready to pay the price of a woman being held hostage, a woman returning crippled." (Ibid.)

In hearings before the Military Personnel Subcommittee of the House Committee on Armed Services in November 1979, Brigadier General Andrew J. Gatsis, USA (retired), testified that Israeli Defense Minister Moshe Dayan told him that during Israel's War of Liberation, "we had a constant fear of what the Arabs would do to our women if they captured them." The men, Dayan told Gatsis, "could not stand the psychological stress" of watching women being killed and captured. Gatsis also said that Dayan "felt that [having women in combat units] knocked down their combat effectiveness." ("Women in the Military," hearings before the Military Personnel Subcommittee of the Committee on Armed Services, House of Representatives, November 13-16, 1979 and February 11, 1980, pp. 281-282.)


In Canada, combat training was opened to women in 1987 as part of CREW Trials (Combat Related Employment of Women). The Canadian Defense Ministry had planned to form an infantry unit with 40 men and 40 women and compare them with a unit of 80 men. The experiment was never completed because not enough females volunteered, according to Commander Judith Harper of the Canadian Defense Ministry in Ottawa. (Telephone interview with Heritage Foundation researcher on June 7, 1991.) From 1987 to February 21, 1991, some 342 women were enrolled in Canadian army combat units, and 79 graduated. More than half the graduates were radio operators. Of 102 women who enlisted in infantry training, only one graduated. That woman served her three-year mandatory term and recently left the army. (Ibid.)

Canada's five-year training program for fighter pilots has produced two female pilots, Harper said. No figures are available for training costs, although U.S. Air Force spokesmen report that it costs more than $2 million to train a military pilot to fly an F-111D, and from $1.4 million to $2 million for seven other aircraft. ("Representative Officer Aircrew Training Costs," U.S. Air Force document AFR 173-13 Table A34-1, figures in 1989 dollars. Also, telephone interview with United States Air Force Air Training Command Public Affairs Office, Randolph Air Force Base, Randolph, Texas, June 10, 1991.) If women pilots were to drop out of the program because of pregnancies, it would prove very costly to taxpayers.

The other nations without combat exclusion laws or policies -- Denmark, Luxembourg, Norway and Portugal -- have not tested women in battle and have little probability of doing so.


Putting women into combat roles would be a policy change with major cultural and military implications. If women become eligible for combat, then all women of draft age would be subject to conscription were the military draft renewed. For this reason alone, the American people are entitled to know the facts before any decision is made about allowing women in combat.

An open and thorough debate on this is essential. Congress needs to review all information available, including the General Accounting Office's forthcoming study on women's roles in Operation Desert Storm. In addition, an independent study of the effects of current policies regarding women in the military should be conducted because the military has not always been candid about this topic.

In any independent study, at least several questions need to be answered:

Would combat roles for women be optional or assigned? If optional, would combat assignments for men also be optional?

Is there an objective monitoring process to determine whether allowing women in combat would aid or hinder military effectiveness?

If all laws and regulations against women in combat are repealed, will there be any reason for female soldiers to believe that they will not be subject to combat roles in any theater on an equal basis with men?

Since dual standards for physical regimens are in effect at the service academies, will males and females be subject to dual standards in all the services?

Of those single parents in Operation Desert Shield/Storm who had custody of their children, how many were mothers with young children?

Did child care problems, including reassignment requests, affect morale or slow the deployment of troops?

Did any problems result from quartering male and female troops in proximity with little personal privacy?

How many complaints have been registered concerning sexual harassment, fraternization, assault or rape?

How do enlistment and re-enlistment rates for men and women compare with those before Operation Desert Storm?

How would the Schroeder Amendment affect the National Guard and reserves of the Air Force, Navy, Marines and Army?

Answers to these and other serious questions are essential before the nation decides whether to send women into combat. This is not an urgent matter requiring a quick decision. There is no emergency. On this issue, therefore, America should not rush to judgment.

Robert H. Knight, former Senior Fellow, Cultural Policy Studies

Elaine Donnelly of Donnelly Media Associates, author Brian Mitchell, Heritage research assistant John M. Slye and Heritage intern Debbie Goswami contributed to this study.

This is the sixth in a series of studies analyzing the impact of federal policies on American culture and cultural values.

© 1995 Persimmon IT, Inc.


Robert Knight

Visiting Fellow