Women In Combat: The New Conservative Case Against Female AutonomyS

In the hours since Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta agreed to lift the nearly 20-year-old ban on women serving in military combat units, a significant number of conservative commentators have come forward to explain why the move is bad for women.

On Twitter, ostensible servicemen have claimed that having women on the battlefield will put all the other soldiers there at greater risk:


On his Twitter feed, boyish conservative commentator Tucker Carlson further criticized the decision, mocking the feminist push for gender equality in combat as being stupid and regressive:

David Frum, another conservative who usually says much smarter things than his comrade Carlson, this time joined the right-wing whining, saying last night on CNN's OutFront program that, among other issues like stress on families, putting women into combat makes them too vulnerable to sexual assault:

The people we are likely to meet on the next battlefield are people who use rape and sexual abuse as actual tools of politics. In Iranian prisons, rape is a frequent practice. Women are raped before they are executed. In Iran, in Pakistan, in Afghanistan rape is a conscious tool of subjugation and it is something women will be exposed to. In the name of equal opportunity they will face unequal risk.

At the very least, all the handwringing about women in combat, particularly when it comes from wealthy men wearing suits in television studios, is eminently patronizing. If a physically capable 17-year-old boy says he's looking to join the Army on his 18th birthday in order to fight and possibly die for his country, the average conservative tells us were to look at that boy with a mixture of pride and awe. "Support our troops!" But if a physically capable woman does the same thing—and, indeed, there were women who were suing the U.S. government to end the combat ban—the conservative response is apparently one of condescending coddling. "These women are unfit for war! And besides that, it's unsafe for them!"

To hear these men tell it, women like Amanda Trombley—a female lance corporal in the Marine Corps who, in 2010, was nearly killed when a series of roadside bombs in Afghanistan tore into her patrol vehicle—don't exist. Or at least they don't count.

You see, what the complaining about women in combat does is diminishes the fact that there are thousands of women in the military suffering from combat difficulties already. If Carlson is worried about the end of this ban meaning American women will die in battle, that's too bad, because, as Secretary Panetta said in his press conference today, 152 American women have already been killed in Iraq and Afghanistan, and hundreds of others have been injured (here is a list of 146 of the killed women). Female soldiers like Amanda Trombley have been firing at enemies and risking their lives for years in the name of America's pursuits, they've just been doing so under the combat exclusion policy, which prevented them from obtaining access to some of the honors and promotions that so frequently go along with male combat duty.

As for Frum's complaint that women fighting in wars puts them in too much danger of being raped, well, the sad fact is that even the simple act of joining the U.S. military greatly increases a woman's chances of being raped, and not by any foreign enemy. Thousands and thousands of American servicewomen (and some men) are raped by their fellow soldiers every year, and only a small fraction of those rapes are ever investigated, allowing the offenders to go forth and rape more. In October of last year, Frum asked his fellow Republicans, who have lately made equivocating about rape somewhat of a pastime, to not make the GOP "the party of rape." But for decades the military has been a place where rape has run free, and with very little complaints from either of America's leading political parties. Now, all of a sudden, we must protect our female soldiers from the filthy Pakistani and Iranian rapist hordes. Where were these concerned pundits when it was American boys assaulting their own sisters in arms, not once, but over and over and over again?

Not a single voice helping to make up the conservative outcry over women in battle is out of the ordinary, of course. As we've learned quite well in the past several months especially, a major bullet point of the Republican agenda has been coming up with new and inventive ways to prevent women from doing what they will with their own bodies. Mostly that's meant trying to force ladies into having babies they'd rather not, but that impulse can extend to scolding women off the battlefield, too. Nobody wants to see any American—any human—ripped apart by bullets in a desert somewhere, or assaulted in a filthy prison thousands of miles from home, but far be it from me to tell anyone they shouldn't risk those torments because it offends my sensibilities. I support our troops, after all.

Update: This post was updated to reflect that female soldiers do receive combat pay.

Photo: Getty.