WASHINGTON: As the military plans to cut thousands of troops and the military experiments with opening combat training to women, the American Civil Liberties Union has joined four female servicemembers — two in the reserves (one Army, one Marine Corps), one in the Air National Guard, and one on active duty in the Marines — in a lawsuit filed in Northern California aimed at prying open all combat posts to women.


The ACLU provides a fine summary of the non-legal argument for these women on its website:

“The four servicemembers have all done tours in Iraq or Afghanistan–some deploying multiple times — where they served in combat or led female troops who went on missions with combat infantrymen. Their careers and opportunities have been limited by a policy that does not grant them the same recognition for their service as their male counterparts. The combat exclusion policy also makes it harder for them to do their jobs.”

Historically, the military tried to protect women by restricting them to supporting roles safely in the rear while manning frontline combat units, like infantry and tanks, exclusively with men — but the chaos of modern warfare puts all forces at risk. Women argue they’re in danger already, so why can’t they serve in combat jobs?

The issue’s especially sensitive because competition for promotions will intensify as the ranks shrink and women currently are barred from competing for many combat jobs by policy. However, the services have been pressing ahead in their usual careful, slow and stodgy fashion to give women who can qualify the same chances as their male colleagues to win promotions that often depend on combat qualifications and service.

For example, the Marines recently asked for female volunteers to take on their demanding 13-week infantry course. Two women stepped forward. Both failed last month – along with one third of the 107 men.

The head of the Army, Gen. Ray Odierno, said a few months ago he would consider opening elite Ranger training to women. Being a Ranger is a sine qua non for many senior Army positions and is also usually the first step in qualifying for the various elite Special Operations positions. Half of the men who volunteer for Ranger training fail it the first time. But Odierno said he knew the Army had to consider opening it up to women because 90 percent of senior infantry officers are Rangers. So, if you want to become a senior officer in the most important jobs in the Army, you pretty much have to wear a Ranger tab. A final recommendation on whether to open Ranger training to women is expected soon.

Odierno also noted back during his May press conference that more than 200 women began reporting to maneuver battalions in nine brigade combat teams as a result of a change in Army policy opening 13,000 positions in six military occupational specialties and 80 units to women.

The Army Chief of Staff said the Army was “collecting information” and “setting a course forward” on how to move women into additional specialties in infantry and armored units. These jobs are not combat positions, but they would be serving with combat units.The ACLU’s own statement notes that the four women named in the lawsuit “served in combat or led female troops who went on missions with” the infantry. They are already on or near the front lines but aren’t doing combat jobs yet. The closest the new Army policy got to opening true combat positions was allowing women to serve as tank mechanics and rocket launcher crew.

If the courts act as they usually do on such matters that go to the core of military operations and expertise, the judges are likely to defer to the Pentagon on a matter such as this. Several attorneys I spoke with said they would be surprised if the case was even heard, let alone decided against the military, especially given the fact that the military is already experimenting with opening some combat training to women.

Regardless of how the case turns out, the brutal truth is that relatively few women will serve in combat jobs, for the same reason many men don’t. They will fail the rigorous physical training required to qualify for regular combat units such as the infantry, let alone to qualify for elite Special Operations units. As long as combat training places an emphasis on the combination of upper body strength and stamina, that will remain the case.Should combat positions be open to women? If they can pass the tests, then I think they should have the same rights to fight for their country as anyone else.