Yesterday, word leaked that the secretary of defense intends to lift restrictions on women in combat. I wish I could declare that this is a bold stroke for equality, and that it's about time the Pentagon transcended outmoded sexist thinking. I wish I could write that women will lead the infantry to new, greater glories on the battlefield — the likes of which haven't been seen since Alexander won the Battle of the Hydaspes. But I cannot.
There is an uncomfortable truth about women in combat, and it starts at Basic Training. In the Army, a couple of times a year and before attending any formal schools, you take a physical fitness test. There are always two lines: one for men and one for women. If you want to pass the test — and you have to pass the test — an 18-year-old male has to perform 42 pushups, 53 sit-ups, and run two miles in 15 minutes and 54 seconds. That's to score only the embarrassing minimum on the test. In the other line, a passing 18-year-old female need only to achieve 19 pushups and cross the two-mile mark at 18 minutes, 54 seconds. (In fact, a perfect score for an 18-year-old female is basically equal to the minimum for males.) The two standards don't exist simply because the Army is chivalrous; rather, they exist because, except for extreme outliers, a woman at peak physical fitness is neither as strong nor as fast as a man in similar shape.
A platoon is only as strong as its weakest member. To be sure, there are many, many jobs where gender is irrelevant. Women are already in fighter jets and behind the trigger of M240s that are mounted to the sides of Black Hawk helicopters, and they are superb at their jobs — as good as any man in any unit. But on the ground, "kitted up" with 75 pounds of body armor, ammunition, and supplies, in a truck, climbing in, jumping out, on your feet, on the ground, running, dragging, day after day, night after night, week after week, for months on end — and still expected to be ready for the worst at any given time? We cannot say that gender does not matter — especially considering the difference of baselines and peaks of physical performance between the sexes in the best conditions.
Anyone who believes that the physical standard required of a combat soldier is somehow negotiable is terribly wrong. It's not a matter of "having enough heart" or having a sufficiently compelling story — this isn't television. For almost every job in the military, an extra few push-ups don't matter. There is one job, however, where it not only matters, but is quite literally the only thing that matters, and that job is performed in a place that does not offer latitude or forgiveness.
The fact is — however unfair, however much it pains us to admit it — in some areas, men and women are not equal. Is it worth checking a box marked "Equality" at the expense of the operational effectiveness of combat units? Is it worth putting young men at risk so that we, the enlightened Western liberals, might have a new accomplishment to discuss over gougères at cocktail parties? This week, the Obama administration says, yes, that's perfectly okay. Accordingly, a platoon can and will be less combat-effective in the name of equality.
There's another issue with women in combat roles that needs to be faced. The ranks are made up of high school graduates. Many of these young men and women have never been away from home, and are suddenly not only far, far away, but doing a very stressful job in close quarters with one another. Of course there are going to be romantic interludes; it's human nature. The leadership tries to stop it, but it's a pretty hopeless cause. During my time in Afghanistan, I watched it happen to young men in my company. It was distracting for everyone involved, but at least the distraction was kept away from the front lines. Now the plan is to spread it across the combat zone.
It would be silly to argue that in combat, young soldiers will be distracted by romance. They are professionals and will do their duty. But between engagements, during downtime — periods where stress should be at its lowest point — we are now introducing the most stressful non-combat-related element imaginable.
At what gain? The Army is not hurting for infantrymen or frontline soldiers. Indeed, with the war winding down, the Army is actively working to get rid of people. Units will not see an improvement in physical readiness, nor will cohesion improve. Lives will be put in danger. Today a lot of people who wear power suits feel a lot better about themselves. The people who wear uniforms? I'm sure they'll figure something out. They don't have any choice.