Global Ethics Corner: Are Women Second Class Citizens in the U.S. Military?

December 21, 2012

Women have served in the U.S. military for generations. They fought in the Civil War, risked their lives in both World Wars, and continue to play a vital role in Afghanistan and Iraq. But while more women than ever are serving on the frontlines, hundreds of thousands of military jobs remain technically off limits. That’s because of the Pentagon’s “combat exclusion policy.” Adopted in 1994, the policy officially bans women from direct ground combat.

It’s a policy that many believe is outdated. Which is why four female veterans filed suit against the Defense Department. They say the combat exclusion policy unfairly discriminates against women, making them second-class citizens.

Critics of the policy also point out that, in fact, by taking part in rescue or intelligence-gathering missions, women are increasingly taking part in ground combat. But because these operations are deemed as combat "support" or “service,” these female soldiers do not receive the same benefits as their male counterparts. This makes it more difficult for them to win promotions, raises, and generous retirement packages on an equal footing with men.

The problem is recognized within the Pentagon. But most officials insist that female inclusion should take place incrementally, not immediately. They warn that ending the combat exclusion policy could harm national security by undermining unit cohesion and discipline. Others say it could put troops in harm’s way. They insist that women have lower levels of endurance and strength, which compromises troop security on the battlefield.

As U.S. courts weigh the case before them, what do you think? Is it fair to put women in combat situations but deny them the type of recognition that men receive? Would troop morale and performance suffer if women were immediately given direct ground combat roles? 

By Marlene Spoerri

For more information see

Gayle Tzemach Lemon, "ACLU Suit: Allowing Women in Combat Is About Equality and Recognition," The Daily Beast, November 29, 2012

"Women in Combat," The New York Times, June 3, 2012

The Invisible War

Jena McGregor, "Military women in combat: Why making it official matters," The Washington Post, May 25, 2012

Erin Gloria Ryan, "Critics of Women in Combat Worried Ladies Will Make Men Worse at Killing," Jezebel, October 4, 2012

Helen Benedict, "The Combat Ban: Female Soldiers Are Already in Combat," POV - Regarding War (PBS), February 24, 2010


Photo Credits in Order of Appearance:
James Vaughan
U.S. Army/Colby Brown
U.S. Air Force [also for picture 11]
U.S. Army/Marcus Fichtl
U.S. Army
U.S. Air Force/Ryan Crane
U.S. Army/Patricia Caputo
U.S. Army/Blair Neelands
Department of Defense/Molly A. Burgess
David B. Gleason
U.S. Army/Desiree N. Palacios
U.S. Army Jospeh Rivera Rebolledo
Expert Infantry

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