Women Under Fire: New U.S. Battlefield Policy Faces Criticism

The recent decision allowing female soldiers in combat units ignores several serious problems, according to some informed observers.

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WASHINGTON — While many Americans appear to support a greater role for women in military combat, some Catholics worry that male soldiers’ instincts to protect women will cause serious problems for military operations.  

“If Catholic moral theology teaches that men must protect women and love them as Christ loved the Church, even to the point of death, then I cannot see any good coming from putting women into situations where, of necessity, they will be treated like men,” said defense analyst and military historian Stuart Koehl.

Koehl, a Melkite Greek Catholic layman, is a fellow at the Center for Transatlantic Relations at Johns Hopkins University’s Paul H. Nitze School of Advanced International Studies. He has spent more than 33 years as a consultant for the Department of Defense, the U.S. Army, several foreign military services and the intelligence community.

In a Jan. 31 interview, he told EWTN News that to his knowledge there has been no magisterial Catholic teaching on the issue of women in combat, attributing this to the “simple” reason that “nobody in his right mind ever considered sending women into combat before.”

On Jan. 24 Defense Secretary Leon Panetta and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Martin Dempsey announced the end of a military rule barring women from combat units.

“Women have shown great courage and sacrifice on and off the battlefield, contributed in unprecedented ways to the military’s mission and proven their ability to serve in an expanding number of roles,” Panetta said, adding that the Defense Department aims to fulfill its mission “with the best-qualified and most capable people, regardless of gender.”

President Barack Obama in a Feb. 3 CBS interview said he had no hesitation sending women into combat “because women, as a practical matter, are now in combat.”

“They are serving. They are taking great risks. What we should not do is prevent them from advancing in an institution we all revere,” he said.

There are over 200,000 women in the U.S. military’s 1.4 million active personnel. Women presently fly aircraft in combat situations and are stationed on naval ships that can engage in combat.

Despite long-standing rules against women in ground combat, U.S. military presence in Iraq and Afghanistan has put some women in non-combat units in harm’s way. Over 150 women service members have died on active duty in the two countries.


‘Ignoring Reality’

On the lifting of the ban, the Defense Department remarked that the Joint Chiefs of Staff intend to integrate women “to the maximum extent possible.”

 “I think it’s ridiculous,” JoAnn LaFave of Caledonia, Wisc., said in response. “I would be completely against that. It would seem to deny fallen human nature to think that men and women could serve equally side by side and there would not be repercussions.”

LaFave, a Catholic mother of twelve, is married to a former Marine officer and her son served as an enlisted Marine in Iraq.

In a Feb. 5 interview with EWTN News, she worried women in combat situations would not have the physical strength to carry a wounded soldier from the battlefield or perform other important combat tasks.

“It’s not fair to my son or my husband if the person fighting with them, their partner in the foxhole or their comrade on the field, is physically unable to perform those duties, because that would leave them more vulnerable.”

She also noted that the close quarters with women and separation from family would make it “very hard” for men to keep their marriage vows “in a very stressful situation” like combat.

LaFave attributed the policy change to “people who blindly want to see a result and completely ignore the reality of the situation.”

Military officials are split about whether women will serve as infantry troops or in elite special-operations units, The Wall Street Journal reports. Some say most women would be unable to meet the physical requirements.


Chaplain’s Perspective

Ron Crews, executive director of the Chaplain Alliance for Religious Liberty and retired U.S. Army reserve lieutenant colonel, said concerns about increasing women in combat positions are not intended to question women service members’ “courage, valor, dedication and desire to serve.”

“We are concerned about what this will do to commanders in the field, particularly in the special operations area, where they often have long deployments in remote areas,” said Crews, a non-denominational Christian minister for Grace Churches International who has endorsed 20 active military chaplains for his religious organization.

Crews said that as a Christian he believes that God created an innate characteristic in men “to protect and defend the women around him” and he wondered whether this will carry over to the battlefield in a way that would jeopardize military missions.

He told EWTN News there is also concern about what the decision means for Selective Service registration and the draft, if it is ever revived.

“Do moms and dads in the country want their 18-year-old daughters to be subject to a draft?” he asked. “That has not been discussed by the military.”

In his remarks, Koehl weighed in that opening combat specialties to women is “a mistake of monumental proportions.”

He said the change is driven “mainly by careerist feminist officers who believe their promotion prospects are hindered” by their inability to command military units categorized as combat units.

He said not many enlisted women will volunteer to serve in combat. Most recognize they lack the upper body strength of male recruits and they “quite properly” shun the harsh conditions of the battlefield.

“Being an infantryman is probably the worst job in the world,” he added.


Lowered Standards?

Koehl warned that the military will be under “great pressure” to set and fill quotas by arbitrarily assigning women to combat units and by relaxing physical standards until enough women pass.

Such a double standard would harm morale, as would romantic relationships between deployed soldiers, he said, echoing LaFave’s concerns.

“Just as the Church recognized it could not run mixed-sex monasteries, so the military will discover it cannot run mixed sex combat units, because biology and human nature cannot be suppressed, particularly under the stress of combat,” Koehl predicted.

He said men in the military will either subject women to “the same standards of behavior as men” or “follow their natural instincts and their upbringing, and try to shelter women from the harshness of combat, as they would either their kid sisters or their girlfriends.”

Koehl warned of “the moral hazard of placing young, single men and women into a hormone-fueled, stress-filled environment where, traditionally, sex has been one of the means by which soldiers decompress from combat.”

He also said the policy change will place women under more pressure “not to get pregnant.”

“Even married female soldiers will be nudged towards using contraceptives to avoid pregnancy and abortion to end (a pregnancy) that might interfere with a deployment or a mission.”

A January survey from the Pew Research Center for the People & the Press and The Washington Post found that about 66% of Americans support allowing women to serve in ground units that engage in close combat, while only 26% oppose doing so. Forty-seven percent think a combat role for women is a major change, while 47% think it is a minor change.


Capt. Katie Petronio

Marine Captain Katie Petronio, a combat engineer officer who was deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan, opposed putting women in infantry positions in a July 2012 essay for the Marine Corps Gazette.

“I am not personally hearing female Marines, enlisted or officer, pounding on the doors of Congress claiming that their inability to serve in the infantry violates their right to equality,” she said in her article, “Get Over It! We Are Not All Created Equal.”

Petronio questioned women’s physical ability to endure in combat. Despite her own history of athleticism, she said, long-term combat operations caused her severe health problems and stress, including compressed spine, muscle atrophy, and polycystic ovarian syndrome that caused her infertility.

She said this lack of longevity would hinder the advancement even of women who can successfully meet the rigorous standards of infantry officers.

Although Petronio expressed gratitude for those who had opened up women’s positions in the military, she said the Marine Corps should “embrace our differences to further hone in on the Corps’ success instead of dismantling who we are to achieve a political agenda.”