An Israeli soldier of the Caracal battalion stands next to backpacks after finishing a 20-kilometre march in Israel's Negev desert, near Kibbutz Sde Boker, marking the end of their training, May 29, 2014.
An Israeli soldier of the Caracal battalion stands next to backpacks after finishing a 20-kilometre march in Israel's Negev desert, near Kibbutz Sde Boker, marking the end of their training, May 29, 2014. 
Amir Cohen / Reuters

UPDATE: January 23, 2013

On Wednesday, the U.S. Department of Defense announced that it would lift the ban on women in combat. This landmark decision reverses the 1994 "direct ground combat rule," which held that "women shall be excluded from assignment to units below the brigade level whose primary mission is to engage in direct combat on the ground."

The policy change is long overdue. The last few decades had made the ban largely irrelevant; increasing counterinsurgency warfare virtually erased the concept of combat front lines and female soldiers' contributions to the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq were undeniable. The policy had nevertheless continued to officially exclude women from 7.3 percent of army positions, largely in Infantry, Armor, and Special Forces. More importantly, it had limited women's career paths and promotion opportunities and contributed to gendered stereotypes about war as ultimately "the business" of men. 

The decision to remove the exclusion now is a sound one based on careful consideration of several factors. Specifically, there was increasing support from within the military leadership -- including from Leon Panetta, Secretary of Defense, and Martin Dempsey, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs, who had both acknowledged that now is the time to remove gender-based barriers to service. There have also been distinct changes in public attitudes about women's capabilities and roles in war. According to a Washington Post-ABC News poll, the vast majority of Americans support allowing women into combat roles. Meanwhile, studies by the U.S. Army Research Institute of Environmental Medicine and the U.S. Government Accountability Office, along with various military and academic experts, have dispelled myths about women's impact on unit cohesion and their physical abilities. It could not have hurt, of course, that the Department of Defense is facing a lawsuit from several female service members (backed by the American Civil Liberties Union) who rightly claim that the exclusion was discriminatory and unconstitutional. 

By changing the policy now, the Department of Defense is recognizing women's contributions to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and acknowledging that times have changed, both in terms of the ways wars are fought and in terms of attitudes about appropriate roles for women in the forces. The next battles for female soldiers will be ensuring that this policy is implemented effectively, stamping out any remaining sexist attitudes, and fighting to ensure that the military addresses its outstanding sexual violence problem. 

ORIGINAL ARTICLE: November/December 2012

Today, 214,098 women serve in the U.S. military, representing 14.6 percent of total service members. Around 280,000 women have worn American uniforms in Afghanistan and Iraq, where 144 have died and over 600 have been injured. Hundreds of female soldiers have received a Combat Action Badge, awarded for actively engaging with a hostile enemy. Two women, Sergeant Leigh Ann Hester and Specialist Monica Lin Brown, have been awarded Silver Stars -- one of the highest military decorations awarded for valor in combat -- for their service in Afghanistan and Iraq. 

Yet the U.S. military, at least officially, still bans women from serving in direct combat positions. As irregular warfare has become increasingly common in the last few decades, the difference on the ground between the frontline and support roles is no longer clear. Numerous policy changes have also eroded the division between combat and noncombat positions. More and more military officials recognize the contributions made by female soldiers, and politicians, veterans, and military experts have all begun actively lobbying Washington to drop the ban. But Congress has not budged.

Proponents of the policy, who include Duncan Hunter (R-Calif.), former chair of the House Armed Services Committee, and former Senator Rick Santorum (R-Pa.), rely on three central arguments: that women cannot meet the physical requirements necessary to fight, that they simply don’t belong in combat, and that their inclusion in fighting units would disrupt those units’ cohesion and battle readiness. Yet these arguments do not stand up to current data on women’s performance in combat or their impact on troop dynamics. Banning women from combat does not ensure military effectiveness. It only perpetuates counterproductive gender stereotypes and biases. It is time for the U.S. military to get over its hang-ups and acknowledge women’s rightful place on the battlefield. 


Women have long served in various auxiliary military roles during wars. Further, the 1948 Women’s Armed Services Integration Act created a permanent corps of women in all the military departments. This was considered a step forward at the time, but it is also the origin of the current combat ban. The act limited women’s number to two percent of total service members and formally excluded them from combat duties. The exclusion policy was reinforced in 1981, when the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that the all-male draft did not constitute gender-based discrimination since it was intended to increase combat troops and women were already restricted from combat.

Despite this restriction, the share of women in the U.S. armed forces increased in the 1980s and 1990s, from 8.5 percent to 11.1 percent, as a result of the transition to an all-volunteer force in 1973 and high demand for troops. Today, the air force is the most open service for women. Women have been flying in combat aircrafts since 1993, and they now make up 70 of the 3,700 fighter pilots in the service. 

In the rest of the military, restrictions on women have also been slipping for some time, albeit more slowly, due to an increase in female enlistment and the public’s growing sensitivity to equal labor rights. In January 1994, a memorandum from then Secretary of Defense Les Aspin rescinded the “risk rule” barring women from any positions that could expose them to direct combat, hostile fire, or capture; the rule was replaced by the “direct ground combat assignment rule,” which more narrowly tailored the restriction to frontline combat positions. 

Recent policy changes have also blurred the distinction between combat and support roles. In 2003, the army began reorganizing units and increasing the number of brigades within each division. Under this system, forward support companies, which provide logistical support, transportation, and maintenance to battalions, are now grouped together on the same bases as combat units. Since women are permitted to serve in such support units, a major barrier designed to keep them away from combat has almost vanished. 

The assignment of women to combat-related tasks has further undermined the strength of the ban. Beginning in 2003, for example, so-called Lioness teams were deployed to assist combat units in Iraq searching women for weapons and explosives. Drawing from this model, the military created several other female-only units in 2009, including “female engagement teams.” In their first year of operation, these teams conducted over 70 short-term search-and-engagement missions in Afghanistan. Paying lip service to the exclusion policy, the military specified that these units could not contribute to hunt-and-kill foot patrols and should stay at combat bases only temporarily. In practice, however, this meant that female soldiers were required to leave their combat bases for one night every six weeks before immediately returning. Not only did this practice put women at risk with unnecessary travel in an insecure environment; it also exemplifies the waste and hardship that the preservation of the formal ban imposes on the military. 

Meanwhile, the U.S. military is finding different ways to recognize the fact that women now fight in the country’s wars. Members of forward support companies and female engagement teams now receive combat pay, also known as “hostile fire” or “imminent danger” pay, acknowledging the threats women regularly face. And 78 percent of the deaths of female U.S. service members in Iraq were categorized as hostile, yet another sign of how American women in uniform regularly put their lives at risk. 

In light of all these changes, in 2011 the Military Leadership Diversity Commission recommended that the Department of Defense remove all combat restrictions on women. Although the total number of jobs closed to women is now relatively low, at 7.3 percent, the commission found that “exclusion from these occupations has a considerable influence on advancement to higher positions” and that eliminating the exclusion is essential “to create a level playing field for all service members who meet the qualifications.” Echoing this sentiment, Senator Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.) introduced the Gender Equality in Combat Act in 2012, which seeks the termination of the ground combat exclusion policy. In addition, Command Sergeant Major Jane Baldwin and Colonel Ellen Haring, both of the Army Reserve, filed a lawsuit in May against the secretary of defense and the army’s secretary, assistant secretary, and deputy chief of staff claiming that the exclusion policy violates their constitutional rights.

Responding to growing scrutiny, the Pentagon’s press secretary, George Little, announced on February 9, 2012, that the Department of Defense would continue to remove restrictions on women’s roles. Since then, the military has made a slew of policy revisions and commissioned a series of reviews. In May 2012, for example, the army opened up more than 14,000 combat-related jobs to women. Much of this increase, however, came from officially recognizing the combat-related nature of the jobs conducted by medics and intelligence officers, among others, positions that are already open to women. More substantially, the Marine Corps announced in April 2012 that for the first time, women can enroll and train, but not yet serve, as infantry combat officers. The army has also opened six new combat-related occupational specialties to women. In June 2012, Cicely Verstein became the first woman to serve in one of these newly opened combat support roles when she enlisted as a Bradley Fighting Vehicle systems maintainer. Women such as Verstein can now operate with combat arms units in select positions, yet they are still technically restricted from infantry and special operations roles.

Although the ban still exists on paper, the military is finding various ways to lift it in practice, and so the complete repeal of the policy would not constitute a radical change in operational terms. But it would be an acknowledgment of the contributions that women are already making to U.S. military operations. As Anu Bhagwati, a former Marine captain and now executive director of the Service Women’s Action Network, explained in a BBC News interview, “Women are being shot at, are being killed overseas, are being attached to all of these combat arms units. . . . The [combat exclusion] policy has to catch up to reality.” Indeed, all soldiers, female as well as male, have been given extensive combat training since 2003, when the army altered its basic training procedures in response to the growth of irregular warfare in Afghanistan and Iraq. The main obstacle that remains for women who want to serve their country is an outmoded set of biased assumptions about their capabilities and place in society.


The argument that women are not physically fit for combat is perhaps the most publicized and well-researched justification for their exclusion from fighting units. In her 2000 book, The Kinder, Gentler Military, the journalist Stephanie Gutmann summarized the position this way: “When butts drop onto seats, and feet grope for foot pedals, and girls of five feet one (not an uncommon height in the ranks) put on great bowl-like Kevlar helmets over a full head of long hair done up in a French braid, there are problems of fit -- and those picayune fit problems ripple outward, eventually affecting performance, morale, and readiness.”

This argument continues to receive a significant amount of attention in the United States, despite the fact that other militaries across the world have found that with proper training and necessary adaptations, women can complete the same physical tasks as men. In the 1970s, the Canadian military conducted trials that tested women’s physical, psychological, and social capacity for combat roles. The results informed the final decision of the Canadian Human Rights Tribunal to remove Canada’s female combat exclusion. After similar tests, Denmark also lifted its combat ban in the late 1980s. 

The physical fitness argument, which tends to focus on differences between average male and female bodies, is also undermined by the fact that women who join the military tend to be more fit than the average American. Additional training and conditioning further decrease the gap between female and male service members, and evidence indicates that women usually benefit substantially from fitness-training programs. More to the point, performance is not necessarily determined by gender; it is determined by other attributes and by an individual’s determination to reach physical prowess. To put it bluntly, there are physically fit, tough women who are suitable for combat, and weak, feeble men who are not. 

The U.S. armed services would do a better job recognizing this were it not for the fact that, as critics have pointed out, the military’s physical standards were created to measure male fitness, not job effectiveness. As Matthew Brown, a U.S. Army colonel and director of the Arizona Army National Guard, found in a U.S. Army War College study, “There is no conclusive evidence that all military members, regardless of occupational specialty, unit assignment, age or gender, should acquire the same level of physical fitness.” The U.S. General Accounting Office (now the Government Accountability Office) also admitted in a 1998 report that physical fitness tests are not necessarily a useful gauge of operational effectiveness, explaining, “fitness testing is not aimed at assessing the capability to perform specific missions or military jobs.” To be sure, men and women have different types of bodies, but growing research points to the limitations of having a single male-centered standard for fitness and equipment. Recently, for example, the army has moved to design body armor for women rather than force them to continue wearing equipment that restricts their movement and cuts into their legs because it was designed for men. With proper training and equipment, women can contribute to missions just as well as men.


Even though the physical argument does not hold up to scrutiny, many in the military establishment continue to instinctively oppose the idea of women serving in combat roles. In a 1993 New York Times article, General Merrill McPeak, former chief of staff of the air force, admitted that he had “a culturally based hang-up.” “I can’t get over this image of old men ordering young women into combat,” he said. “I have a gut-based hang-up there. And it doesn’t make a lot of sense in every way. I apologize for it.” This belief had earlier been spelled out in the 1992 report of the Presidential Commission on the Assignment of Women in the Armed Forces, which was established by George H. W. Bush to review the combat exclusion. The commission identified several factors related to having women serve in combat roles that could negatively impact troop dynamics, including the “real or perceived inability of women to carry their weight without male assistance, a ‘zero privacy’ environment on the battlefield, interference with male bonding, cultural values and the desire of men to protect women, inappropriate male/female relationships, and pregnancy -- particularly when perceived as a way to escape from combat duty.” 

While campaigning for the Republican presidential nomination this year, Santorum, the former senator, echoed these concerns, arguing that “instead of focus[ing] on the mission, [male soldiers] may be more concerned about protecting . . . a [female solider] in a vulnerable position.” Others fear that men will not be able to restrain themselves sexually if forced to fight and work in close proximity to women. The conservative Independent Women’s Forum strongly supports the ban because of the “power of the sex drive when young women and men, under considerable stress, are mixed together in close quarters.” 

Even as these false assumptions about the inherent nature of men and women persist, many in the military and the general public have changed their minds. In 2010, Admiral Mike Mullen, then chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff, said, “I know what the law says and I know what it requires, but I’d be hard pressed to say that any woman who serves in Afghanistan today or who’s served in Iraq over the last few years did so without facing the same risks as their male counterparts.” Similarly, Bhagwati contends that “as proven by ten years of leading troops in combat in Iraq and Afghanistan, there are women that are physically and mentally qualified to succeed . . . and lead infantry platoons.” Meanwhile, a 2011 survey conducted by ABC News and The Washington Post found that 73 percent of Americans support allowing women in combat.

Despite such shifts in opinion, defenders of the status quo argue that lifting the ban would disrupt male bonding and unit cohesion, which is thought to build soldiers’ confidence and thereby increase combat readiness and effectiveness. In 2007, Kingsley Browne, a former U.S. Supreme Court clerk and the author of Co-ed Combat: The New Evidence That Women Shouldn’t Fight the Nation’s Wars, argued that “men fight for many reasons, but probably the most powerful one is the bonding -- ‘male bonding’ -- with their comrades. . . . Perhaps for very fundamental reasons, women do not evoke in men the same feelings of comradeship and ‘followership’ that men do.” These comments betray the widely held fear that women would feminize and therefore reduce the fighting potential of the military. The Israeli military historian Martin van Creveld has echoed this sentiment, writing, “As women enter them, the armed forces in question will become both less willing to fight and less capable of doing so.” And as Anita Blair, former assistant secretary of the navy, warned, “The objective for many who advocate a greater female influence in the armed services is not so much to conquer the military as conquer manhood: they aim to make the most quintessentially masculine of our institutions more feminine.” By such lights, women fundamentally threaten the unified masculine identity of the military and could never properly fill combat roles because they are inherently incapable of embodying the manly qualities of a soldier. 

This argument is intuitive and plausible. It is also dead wrong. It assumes that a key objective of the military is enhancing masculinity rather than national security and that unit bonding leads to better task performance. In fact, a 1995 study conducted by the U.S. Army Research Institute for the Behavioral and Social Sciences found that “the relation between cohesiveness and performance is due primarily to the ‘commitment to the task’ component of cohesiveness, and not the ‘interpersonal attraction’ or ‘group pride’ components of cohesiveness.” Similarly, a 2006 study in Armed Forces and Society, written by the scholars Robert MacCoun, Elizabeth Kier, and Aaron Belkin, concluded that “all of the evidence indicates that military performance depends on whether service members are committed to the same professional goals, not on whether they like one another.” 

There is significant evidence that not only male bonding but any sort of closeness can actually hinder group performance. In a 1998 study on demographics and leadership, the group management experts Andrew Kakabadse and Nada Kakabadse found that “excessive cohesion may create a harmful insularity from external forces,” and they linked high cohesion to “high conformity, high commitment to prior courses of actions, [and a] lack of openness.” In her analysis of gender integration in the military, Erin Solaro, a researcher and journalist who was embedded with combat troops in Afghanistan and Iraq, pointed out that male bonding often depended on the exclusion or denigration of women and concluded that “cohesion is not the same as combat effectiveness, and indeed can undercut it. Supposedly ‘cohesive’ units can also kill their officers, mutiny, evade combat, and surrender as groups.” 

The mechanisms for achieving troop cohesion can also be problematic. In addition to denigrating women, illegal activities, including war crimes, have sometimes been used as a means for soldiers to “let off steam” and foster group unity. In sum, there is very little basis on which to link group cohesion to national security. 


Over the last century, the military has been strengthened when attitudes have been challenged and changed. Despite claims in the 1940s that mixed-race units would be ineffective and that white and black service members would not be able to trust one another, for example, integration proceeded without any major hiccups. A 2011 study of the impacts of racial integration on combat effectiveness during the Korean War found that integration “resulted in improvements in cohesion, leadership and command, fighting spirit, personnel resources and sustainment that increased the combat effectiveness.” Initial research indicates that mixed-gender units could provide similar benefits. 

Leora Rosen, a former senior analyst at the National Institute of Justice, found that when women were accepted into mixed-gender units, the groups’ effectiveness actually increased. Similarly, a 1993 RAND Corporation paper summarizing research on sexual orientation and the U.S. military’s personnel policy found that diversity “can enhance the quality of group problem-solving and decision-making, and it broadens the group’s collective array of skills and knowledge.” These conclusions are supported by a 1993 report by the General Accounting Office, which found that “members of gender-integrated units develop brother-sister bonds rather than sexual ones. . . . Experience has shown that actual integration diminishes prejudice and fosters group cohesiveness more effectively than any other factor.” The same report also found that gender homogeneity was not perceived by soldiers to be a requirement for effective unit operations. 

It should come as no surprise that elements of the military want uniformity in the ranks. The integration of new groups always ruffles feathers. But the U.S. military has been ahead of the curve in terms of the inclusion of most minority groups. It was the first federal organization to integrate African Americans. And with the repeal of the “don’t ask, don’t tell” (DADT) policy, the military now has more progressive policies toward gay employees than many other U.S. agencies. In fact, DADT was repealed despite the fact that there are no federal laws preventing employment discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation. 

In September 2012, one year after the repeal of DADT, a study published by the Palm Center found that the change “has had no overall negative impact on military readiness or its component dimensions, including cohesion, recruitment, retention, assaults, harassment or morale.” The research also found that overall, DADT’s “repeal has enhanced the military’s ability to pursue its mission.” Previous claims about the negative impact that gay service members might have on troop cohesion mirror those currently used to support the female combat exclusion. 

Unlike the military’s treatment of other groups, its current policies toward women are much more conservative than those of other federal and state government bodies. Women who choose military service confront not only restricted career options but also a higher chance of harassment, discrimination, and sexual violence than in almost any other profession. The weak record on addressing these issues gives the impression that the military is an unwelcome place and an unsafe career choice for women. In an interview with National Public Radio in 2011, Sergeant Kayla Williams, who served in Iraq, explicitly linked the combat exclusion and harassment: “I believe that the combat exclusion actually exacerbates gender tensions and problems within the military because the fact that women can’t be in combat arms jobs allows us to be portrayed as less than fully soldiers.” Fully integrating women could therefore begin to address two major issues for the U.S. military: enhancing diversity and equality and also weakening the masculine culture that may contribute to harassment. 

Unsubstantiated claims about the distracting nature of women, the perils of feminine qualities, and the inherent manliness of war hardly provide a solid foundation on which to construct policy. Presumably, some levels of racism and homophobia also persist within the military, yet it would be absurd, not to mention unconstitutional, for the U.S. government to officially sanction such prejudices. The U.S. military should ensure that it is as effective as possible, but it must not bend to biases, bigotry, and false stereotypes. 

Just as when African Americans were fully integrated into the military and DADT was repealed, lifting the combat ban on women would not threaten national security or the cohesiveness of military units; rather, it would bring formal policies in line with current practices and allow the armed forces to overcome their misogynistic past. In a modern military, women should have the right to fight.

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  • MEGAN H. MACKENZIE is Lecturer in Government and International Relations at the University of Sydney and the author of Female Soldiers in Sierra Leone: Sex, Security, and Post-Conflict Development.
  • More By Megan H. MacKenzie