If women can defend Fort Hood, they can defend America.

Science, technology, and life.
Nov. 6 2009 3:11 PM

Girls in the Hood

If women can defend Fort Hood, they can defend America.

Sgt. Kimberly Munley. Click image to expand.
Fort Hood police Sgt. Kimberly Munley 

Fort Hood, Texas, hosts tens of thousands of men who are trained to fight for their country. But none of them stopped Maj. Nidal Malik Hasan as he blew away 13 of their colleagues Thursday afternoon. It was a civilian police officer, Sgt. Kimberly Munley, who confronted and shot him in an exchange of gunfire. For her trouble, Munley took bullets in both legs and an arm. Maybe the president will pin a medal on her.

William Saletan William Saletan

Will Saletan writes about politics, science, technology, and other stuff for Slate. He’s the author of Bearing Right.

Here's a better way to honor Munley: End the ban on women in combat.

Department of Defense policy states that "women shall be excluded from assignment to units below the brigade level whose primary mission is to engage in direct combat on the ground." According to the policy, "Direct ground combat takes place well forward on the battlefield."

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Well forward on the battlefield? In Iraq and Afghanistan, there is no forward. There isn't even a battlefield. We're living in a world of car bombs, snipers, suicide bombers, improvised explosive devices, and civilian airplane attacks. The battlefield is everywhere.

So are women. By the most recent count, courtesy of ABC News two weeks ago, there are 10,000 female personnel in Iraq and 4,000 more in Afghanistan. They're driving trucks, treating wounded, and shooting when attacked. More than 100 have given their lives in Iraq; another 15 have died in Afghanistan.

The no-combat policy pretends that women can't take such risks without harming overall military performance. It bars women from infantry positions, training as armored vehicle drivers, and being assigned as medics to combat units. The latest instruction, issued by the secretary of the Navy six months ago, says that women

may not be assigned to billets as members of: infantry regiments and below; artillery battalions and below; any armored units (tanks, amphibious assault vehicles, and light armored reconnaissance) … or units engaged in long-range reconnaissance operations or Special Operations Forces missions, when such billets are inherently likely to result in being exposed to hostile fire.

Exposed to hostile fire? You mean, like Sgt. Munley? I'd say she acquitted herself pretty well. So did Spc. Ashley Pullen, who earned a Bronze Star in Iraq by running through a line of fire and using her body as a shield to save a wounded soldier. Spc. Monica Brown got a Silver Star for rescuing five injured comrades under heavy fire in Afghanistan. Sgt. Leigh Ann Hester led her team through a line of fire in Iraq to outflank and destroy the insurgents who had ambushed her convoy.

Not every woman is capable of such feats. But not every man is, either. According to a report issued yesterday by several retired military leaders, 75 percent of Americans ages 17 to 24 are unfit for military service because of poor physical condition, criminal history, or failure to complete high school. Wouldn't our combat forces be stronger if they included the fittest men and women, instead of reaching deeper into the pool of unfit men?

The question isn't whether men are physically stronger than women on average. Of course they are. The question is whether to translate that average into a rule against women in combat. The 2009 Navy policy, for example, states that women must be barred from jobs whose "physical requirements would necessarily exclude the vast majority of women service members." Why should some women be excluded based on the performance of others? Would you tolerate such an average-based rule against any racial or religious group?

Despite these absurdities, the ban is still in place, defended by the anti-feminist lobby and its allies in Congress. The Center for Military Readiness, which supports the ban, accuses the Army of evading it and blames the expanding roles of women in the military on "the agendas of civilian feminists." War is no time or place for "social experiments," the center argues. "The needs of the military—and the nation—must come first."

That's the right principle. But its application needs updating. Today, combat is everywhere.  Even on a stateside military base, a civilian police officer can find herself under fire. Like other women who have faced such threats in Iraq and Afghanistan, Kimberly Munley put the needs of her military and her nation first.

The exclusion of women from combat is a failed social experiment. It's time to end it.