Saturday, February 6 , 2016, 12:08 am | Fair 45º

Susan Estrich: Women in Combat Will Level Playing Field of Promotion

By Susan Estrich |

It was in 1981 that the U.S. Supreme Court, in a decision that I still have trouble explaining to my students when I teach it, held that it was constitutional for the Selective Service System, acting under the authority of Congress and the president, to require all men — but not women — between the ages of 18 and 25 to register for a potential draft.

Why, at a time when the legal distinctions between men and women for purposes of employment, family law and government benefits were all falling based on the constitutional guarantee of equal protection, was it still permissible to discriminate in the registration requirement?

Probably for the same reason that even my liberal friends looked at me like I was out of my mind when, a year before, as a staffer on the Senate Judiciary Committee, I suggested that we needed to examine the constitutionality of excluding women from combat. “Are you nuts?” people asked.

There have always been good reasons to question the exclusion that limited the role of women in the military, reasons that were raised by a lawsuit brought two months ago by four servicewomen and that were finally addressed when Defense Secretary Leon Panetta announced on Thursday that the ban will be lifted.

For one thing, “combat” doesn’t necessarily mean what it once did when wars were fought primarily by men in trenches on the front lines. Is driving a truck down a road that may be mined with explosive devices “combat”? Technically, no, although it is surely dangerous. Modern wars are fought by women who risk their lives every day even if their positions are classified as “noncombat.” In the past year, the military reclassified 14,500 positions to open them to women and jettisoned the rule that had prohibited women from living with male combat units.

Equally important, if women are excluded from “combat positions” and particularly from combat leadership positions, they will be — and have been — stymied in their efforts to be promoted to the top ranks of the military. Combat experience — and especially leadership of combat units — is a key factor in promotion decisions, which is one important reason why so few women have made it to the top.

In many respects, the military is the most equal institution in our society. Minorities have achieved greater success in the military than in almost any private-sector company. Women have received training in “nontraditional” occupations, which many take advantage of when they leave the service.

So why the continued ban on women in combat? Why the vestige of single-sex registration?

The short answer is that war has always been different. The last vestige of sexual stereotyping is grounded in the role of men as warriors, and in the fear or stigma, call it what you will, that women who are captured as prisoners of war would not only be killed, as men are, but also sexually assaulted.

In a joint news conference with Panetta, Army Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, suggested that the ban on women in combat positions actually contributed to the increasing incidence of violent sexual crimes within the military.

“We’ve had this ongoing issue with sexual harassment, sexual assault,” he said. “I believe it’s because we’ve had separate classes of military personnel at some level. Now, it’s far more complicated than that. But when you have one part of the population that is designated as warriors and another part that is designated as something else, that disparity begins to establish a psychology that, in some cases, led to that environment. I have to believe that the more we treat people equally the more likely they are to treat each other equally.”


Susan Estrich is a best-selling author, the Robert Kingsley Professor of Law and Political Science at the USC Law Center and was campaign manager for 1988 Democratic presidential nominee Michael Dukakis. Click here to contact her or click here to read previous columns. The opinions expressed are her own.

» on 01.28.13 @ 03:08 AM

So now instead of old men comfortably ensconced in armchairs sending young men off to their deaths, we have old women comfortably ensconced in their ivory towers sending young women off to their deaths.  Needlessly, too.

» on 01.28.13 @ 04:07 AM

Ms. Estrich has a good point about the changing nature of modern combat, but her desire to see women have equal opportunities for military promotion is, frankly, inane. The U.S. military exists to win wars and protect this nation. That it is being turned into a massive social experiment so feminist champions can feel better about themselves will not end well. For them or for us.

» on 01.28.13 @ 10:45 AM

The problem with having women in combat - real combat - is obvious - they can’t carry a wonder soldier out of harm’s way.  To allow women in combat, training requirements will have to be altered for women, otherwise too few would ever qualify.  The other problem with your argument is that, to have women lead combat units, they need to have served in combat - real combat - to have the respect of their troops, and to order others potentially to their deaths, etc.  There will never be equality in the military, like sports and a lot of other physical things, because women are simply different from men.  We see the problems that arise with women police officers already and those problems grow inn severity exponentially in military combat.

» on 01.28.13 @ 03:18 PM

Two points:

1. It is my opinion, opinion only, that most of the people advocating allowing women into combat units have never been in combat themselves and therefore don’t really know what they are talking about. Real combat isn’t like the movies.

2. An officer doesn’t need to be a combat leader to make high rank, although it does help. General David Petraeus is a prime example. You will note that he does not wear a Combat Infantry Badge along with his numerous decorations. Yet he made it to the top.

» on 01.28.13 @ 05:45 PM

While I often agree with Estrich more than Malkin, I’m not sure I do here.

Estrich has written, periodically, about her trauma as a sexual assault survivor.

For young women to seek a military career is about issues much wider than gender equality, and upward mobility in the job pool.

The rate of sexual violence against women in U.S. uniform right now is huge, and despite all the talk from all the brass hats and Cabinet secretaries at hearings, or in quick media clips, after twenty years, it’s not decreasing.

And that’s on our side of the line of scrimmage.

How would al Qaeda, Afghan, Libyan, Malian rebel groups treat female U.S. GI
prisoners, whom they already regard as “inferior” by gender, pagan by religion,
and representing a world power they all despise?

Estrich does not talk about the spiking suicide and self-medication addiction
rates in our armed forces right now.

Would the extra pay, advancement grades, blouse ribbons of forward action unit service be worth the unbelievable trauma involved?

Estrich is right. There is a double-standard, and always has been. As awful as
war is for men, almost every society, advanced or not, always tries to protect
their women and girls from its worst devastations. Just like DOD, until now.

Are the job gains worth the risks? Not to me.

Are their lots of Gung, Ho! patriotic young women who would chance it, because
they’re confident (like like DUI driving), that it will never happen to them? Sure.

Is American military capacity so atrophied after a dozen years of GW Bush’s wars
that we should chance finding out who is right?

» on 01.28.13 @ 06:31 PM

Good points all of you. SuzieQ, please for the love of God, can we not invite anyone else in? How about we limit even further who can participate? War is ugly, brutal and horribly violent, why not at least spare half the human race from that? So many brave young men are maimed and killed in wars why this idiotic notion that young women share in that? How about we remove them from other roles that put them in harms way?

I don’t know about any of you but I would like to see this social experimentation end. It’s not a friggen love in its war. Save all the dopy feminism for being a lawyer or politician, but combat? God I wish it were for old men only. Too much precious blood spilled. Way too much.

» on 01.28.13 @ 07:14 PM

It is a scientific fact that trained muscle exerts the same amount of force (per fiber) regardless if it comes from a male or female.

It is also a scientific fact the vast majority of males have more muscle mass then females.  Therefore a 160 pound male vs. a 160 pound female, males win the power/strength game in almost every instance.  There is also the issue of more skeletal mass making males more compact per pound.

Unit cohesion is vital, particularly with smaller strike forces.  Unless we are talking pilots, intelligence, or other such MOS (military occupation specialty) that require motor skill and reaction times, I cannot believe that consistency is served with women in combat units.

Women pose a unique issue of complexity (physical and psychologically) within male combined units. 

Note:  There was a female captain shot down over Iraq.  Besides the usual issues of beatings and torture in such favor in Islamic Military, she was subjected to repeated rapes.  Anyone want to get inside that psychological recovery on top of the normal PTSD and broken bones?  No me.

Now about physical requirements to pass Basic, and combat AIT.  I have a friend that entered the army in the early 1990’s.  She and I compared notes on the physical demands of 1960’s - 1970’s and it was almost a joke.  1st, the women have less rigorous demands in hand to hand, and endurance training.  Then again the entire Basic was a dumbed down comparison to our training. 

There are a whole other set of issues and items but there is not time or space to do it justice.

Put me on the side of it is not a great idea.

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