Amid Boston Overdose Crisis, a Pair of Harvard Students Are Bringing Narcan to the Red Line


At First Cambridge City Council Election Forum, Candidates Clash Over Building Emissions


Harvard’s Updated Sustainability Plan Garners Optimistic Responses from Student Climate Activists


‘Sunroof’ Singer Nicky Youre Lights Up Harvard Yard at Crimson Jam


‘The Architect of the Whole Plan’: Harvard Law Graduate Ken Chesebro’s Path to Jan. 6

Op Eds

Should Women Serve in Military Combat Roles?

Should women serve in combat roles?
Should women serve in combat roles?
By Sabrina Castenfelt, Taonga R. Leslie, William Locke, Reed E. McConnell, Gaille Teo, and Ren Jie Teoh

This is the second instalment in a series of online-only Roundtables. Roundtables aim to present a diverse array of high-quality student opinion on thought-provoking issues.

If you would like to submit an opinion for this week's Roundtable topic, "Drones have played a vital and necessary role in the war on terror. How far do you agree with this statement?" please e-mail your 200-300 word opinion to before Wednesday, February 13 at 6 p.m.

Diversification Is Not Always a Sign of Progress

To be frank, the arguments for keeping women from fighting in combat are sexist and stupid. The idea that women might hurt “unit cohesion” is objectifying, and the argument that women are too weak to fight has been proven false by female athlete after female athlete, not to mention by the women already serving in the army.

However, I still find myself uncomfortable with the prospect of actively supporting this decision for a few reasons. First, it does not address some of the fundamental, underlying issues that make equality within the military impossible. For instance, sexual assault happens in the U.S. military at overwhelming rates, and effective measures are not being taken to address this situation. Gender equality is entirely impossible if members of certain genders are living in fear of violence from members of other genders.

Secondly, no one should be fighting on the front lines. Let me be clear: I am not faulting soldiers for choosing to be soldiers. Many factors go into making such a decision, and joining the army is essentially the only option for some. I am instead faulting the U.S. military itself for existing, or at least existing in a capacity that involves sending people into combat.

The U.S. military is an inherently imperialistic entity. It does not exist, and has long not existed, for defense. The last war fought on U.S. soil against an invading army took place in 1812, and since then the U.S. has been dispatching its troops to every corner of the globe, fighting wars for selfish reasons that usually boil down to a hatred of communism or a desire for oil. Does a fight for equality within such an institution really have meaning?

Essentially, as long as we maintain a definition of progress that limits itself to diversification—which often consists of the diversification of oppressive institutions—we lose sight of the real benchmark of progress: the elimination of the institutions that cause oppression in the first place.

Reed E. McConnell ’15, a Crimson editorial writer, is an anthropology concentrator in Quincy House.

Prejudice in Disguise

Growing up in Singapore, I came to internalize the idea that it is men’s responsibility to protect the women in their lives. The thought of a woman putting herself in harm’s way to protect me makes me cringe.

But I have also served alongside many women in my nation’s armed forces. Many of them are now serving in combat command roles, and when I complete my term of service after college, one of them may be my commander in the field. It is no coincidence that so many of them made it to command school, for the few women who are prepared to ignore centuries of social expectation and enlist in a traditionally male-dominated organization tend to be more motivated and resilient than the average recruit.

They were tougher soldiers, better fighters, and more capable leaders than most of the men in their cohort. My country is, objectively speaking, a safer place because I am now studying at Harvard and they are in my place on our front lines.

I am uncomfortable with the idea of women serving in combat, and due to my upbringing I probably always will be. But being uncomfortable with something is not a rational argument for prohibiting it. The arguments against women serving in combat positions—the threat of rape, undermining unit cohesion, physical ability—are merely attempts at rationalizing an innate prejudice built on patriarchal notions of gender. In the field, you don’t care whether the soldier next to you is male or female—all you care about is whether they will get the job done and save you and your platoon a weekend’s worth of extra duty.

If female soldiers are qualified, motivated, and competent, which they are, their governments should let them serve just like everyone else.

Ren Jie Teoh ’16 lives in Thayer Hall.

Technology Enables Women to Participate in Combat

In the often politically fraught debate on women’s participation in armed combat in the United States, two positions often clash—women’s rights to equal opportunity in a free society and their effectiveness in combat. To take some of the heat out of this debate, it may be useful to consider a broader historical perspective.

Only until the latter part of the nineteenth century did advancements in weapons technology free women from some of the earlier, physical obstacles of participating in military campaigns. In prior history, close quarter combat had favoured the exclusion of women on grounds of physical disparity with men. Yet during the American Civil War, the Union Army, recruiting from an informed, free citizenry, included a few intrepid woman soldiers. To participate they had to be disguised as men. Equipped with not-too-heavy muskets and armed with Minié balls, these combat pioneers were able to kill at a distance of 400 yards.

Perhaps the first instance of organized women’s soldiering in a modern, industrialized, and egalitarian, although not democratic society was the Soviet Army during the Second World War. This war, in which the stock of available male recruits was seriously depleted, saw brigades of women snipers roaming the front lines killing Germans with advanced telescopic rifles at a distance, again negating the physical disadvantage of women in close-quarter combat.

Today, all but few casualties of war are caused by distantly operating weapons systems. Radar-directed artillery, fighter and bomber jets, as well as drones can all be flown and commanded by women. Advancing technology will continue to pave the way for women’s participation in all forms of combat, with or without political advocacy.

Sabrina Castenfelt ’15 is a history concentrator in Winthrop House.

A Fight for Fairness

The U.S. military has a lot to gain from allowing women to serve in combat roles. First, there is the simple truth that there are many American women who possess the strength and skills to perform at or above the level of many male soldiers. The current rules barring them on the basis of their sex alone send the message that women are inherently physically inferior to men regardless of their personal qualifications. Many have argued that there are biological differences that limit the physical capacity of women. Even if there is some evidence to these claims, which are often exaggerated, women have rights, one of which is to be assessed as individuals. Even if 99 percent of women do not meet military fitness standards, the 1percent who do should be allowed to use their abilities to serve their country.

Second, the more complete integration of women into men's units will make the military a more effective force by introducing more diverse viewpoints. Being able to tackle problems from many perspectives can be useful to the military's mission in a rapidly changing world. In Iraq, female troops have proven useful at gaining the trust of Iraqi women and children, an area in which male soldiers have failed.

This argument for the inclusion of women comes with one caveat. Women should be held to the same training standards as men. Instituting consistent rules will help male troops to trust their female comrades as equals and will ensure that the strength of the fighting force is not compromised. It is also the fairest way for the government to respect the potential of women to be just as strong as men.

Taonga Leslie ’15 is a sociology concentrator in Winthrop House.

Not Such a Sweet Girl

Manpower demands have largely justified women’s right of entry into military forces of sovereign states. All across the world, countries that currently recruit women for combat roles were prompted by a need to boost the number of boots on the ground. But it should not just be numerical necessity that drives us as thinking citizens to advocate for combat roles to be open to women. Rather, our collective concern about the insidious social messages we propagate by passively accepting the exclusion of women should also push us to change the status quo.

Aren’t we all tired of sexist messages in our world? Yes, we can now laugh at our parents’ childhood anecdotes: young, sweet girls played with tea sets, while boys were allowed, and in fact encouraged, to be physical with each other. But we still hear phrases like “girls shouldn’t be so aggressive” or “a good girl would never that.” Just over winter break, I told a friend that I was considering the military as a post-graduation option, and he said: “See? That’s your problem—you’re not a good girl. That’s why I like Sherry. She’s sweet.”

What messages reverberate throughout our society when we deny women combat roles in the military? The tyranny of “good girls are sweet and kind” continues to spread socio-cultural messages about what sort of occupations women should have as well as the sort of occupations men should not have.

When we go to war, we fight for principled values that we deem worth protecting, and the socially-endorsed system of military roles for men and women should be aligned with those values.

Gaille Teo ’15 is a government concentrator in Quincy House.

The Military In An Age Of Equality

It seems that the objections to women serving in combat roles can be summarized into three basic arguments. First, it is a much beloved statement of those opposing an inclusive policy for combat positions that women are “biologically” less capable of aerobic endurance or muscular strength than men, a difficult fact to deny on average. However, we are not attempting to compare men’s and women’s capacities for strength and endurance. Instead, the question is whether a woman would be able to complete the physical requirements needed for a combat position, which should be set by necessity, not by a discriminatory stipulation of gender. While fewer women might achieve such levels, as Jon Soltz, notes: “There are women who can meet these standards, and they have a right to compete."

A second, more quaint, protectionist argument is that women would be incapable of matching men in managing the realities of being in a combat zone for an extended period of time, including handling “lack of hygiene” or the risk of gender-specific mistreatment if captured. This argument forgets that the women who are vying for these combat roles often have experience with this in their current roles and understand that the miserable conditions they will be exposed to will be no more difficult than that of their male colleagues. They accept the danger that, if captured, they will be subjected to tortures that specifically target females and yet are willing to face them in service of their country. I certainly would not be the one to deny such a sense of duty.

Third, there are concerns that the effectiveness of a combat unit would be psychologically impaired by the presence of a woman, either in the form of sexual relationships or an altered team dynamic. Although it is difficult to deny that men and women interact differently while on a team together, that is not to say that such a team would be the worse for it. Bringing women into combat roles would be a revolution to the military’s mode of operations. Currently, women are mere footnotes in an otherwise male-dominated community. They already occupy combat roles in all but name, but they are kept back by their lack of equal consideration. Granting women equal status would require completely integrated training, which would create the close but professional relationships that define a team. That training will break down the psychological impact of having a woman present, an oft cited in the debate today.

As far as sex is concerned—it happens. You could draw a similarity to women in any other profession, where the ability to have sex is not considered a disqualifier. The only difference in this case is the close proximity associated with a combat team. What is needed is the ability of all members of that team to act professionally, as already required by all those in any military positions. Pregnancy would be undoubtedly undesirable while in a combat role, but it is also highly preventable. Working women who do not want to become pregnant are able to prevent it. Why, then, should it be any different for women wishing for a career in combat?

It seems to me that every one of these arguments is riddled with a view of women that is becoming increasingly out of date every day. It has happened quickly, yes, but there is no reason that the military should be exempt from changing with the times.

William Locke ’15 is a government concentrator in Winthrop House.

Want to keep up with breaking news? Subscribe to our email newsletter.

Op EdsRoundtable