Last week, the Department of Defense announced it was opening front-line combat roles to women. I believe this change in policy will prove to be a mighty mistake. I say this not as a military expert but as one who has observed political dynamics for some time.
The secretary’s decision will now unleash political forces that in the end will make our military weaker. All this could have been avoided if we had been allowed a national debate, but the administration is rushing to stack up perceived political wins while it can — and so here we are.
The Obama administration has been deadly silent on the issue of women now being forced into the Selective Service System and future drafts, but this is precisely where we will end up. They have been joined in silence by most in Washington, but we need a robust conversation here because you can’t have a military fully open to women without a Selective Service System also fully open to women.
The administration has not said a word about the linkage, but in 1981 the Supreme Court ruled that a male- only draft was constitutional only because women were banned from combat jobs.
The second way in which I believe our military will be hurt is in the inevitable lowering of standards that will hurt mission capability. I say this because I don’t think it’s politically sustainable in today’s culture of “political correctness” to have combat roles open to women but not have women qualifying for those roles. There would be enormous political pressure brought on our armed services by Congress and the White House to open up eligibility. An analogous scenario would be if I pay your heating bill, do you think I may have a say in how you set the temperature?
Here is the way in which I think politics would drive this process.
Currently all branches of the military take annual personal fitness tests (PFTs). In some branches, like the Marines, they do more than this with an annual combat fitness test (CFTs). All are gender normed; so as an example, men have a minimum number of pull-ups to meet standard, while the female standard is not an actual pull-up but a 70-second flexed arm hang.
There is nothing wrong with this, as the military is maintaining a minimum standard of overall health that is essential to all military roles — whether you are a helicopter pilot in the Army, an ensign in the Navy or an Intel officer in the Marines. The problem in the elite forces is that physical prowess is not a part of what you do; it is part and parcel to what you do.
Navy Seals comprise but 1 percent of the Navy, Force Recon is about the same within the Marines — while Delta Force numbers are actually classified. Our nation asks these people to do remarkably rugged things that pose great danger and serious physical challenge. In hand-to-hand combat with a unit’s survival hanging in the balance, I don’t think it’s a good idea for the Russian commando to prevail over one member of a small squad. The Marines have actually looked deeply at this and recently completed a 1,000-page study that concluded that male units overwhelmingly outperformed integrated units in physical tasks.
My sister is a wonderful woman and a far better shot than I am, but she can’t carry me very far. I believe we begin to affect unit cohesion when members of a unit believe their counterparts can’t carry them out of a bad spot in which they may have found themselves.
My only point in all this is that if we march forward with what’s proposed without a serious debate, politics will inevitably change standards. It’s not believable to me that the military will be able to hold to standards that doom the overwhelming number of entrants to failure. It’s not good for them; it’s not good for the military. This year, every woman who sought entry into the Marine Infantry Officer Course failed. While that might be sustainable for a while in one branch, I don’t think it’s sustainable for all branches.
There is a reason we don’t see a lot of women in the NFL, and if we really want to try a social experiment, let’s make one-third of the Army football team female and see how it does next year against Navy.
But this is not a social experiment, lives hang in the balance.
Asking for more than a directive from the defense secretary in this instance does not denigrate the great contribution women make every day in our armed forces or the extraordinary physical ability of some.
It means I’m simply weary of unilateral action from this president — particularly when it begins to define combatants in Seal Team 6 — or the inclusion of my niece, Kate, in future drafts.
Mark Sanford, a Republican, represents South Carolina’s 1st District in the U.S. House.