What is perhaps most striking about Secretary Panetta's action is that it reverses the combat exclusion policy that was last reviewed thoroughly during the Clinton years -- and which even Democrats embraced.
There is little question that there are a number of women who might make good combat soldiers, provided they could pass the same physical, endurance and strength tests with the same acceptable scores that current combat troops achieve. But whether a handful of exceptional women might succeed -- or opt into infantry units for that matter -- is not the relevant standard. The question is, would women's presence in combat situations enhance military effectiveness or compromise it?
One study of a brigade operating in Iraq in 2007 showed that women sustained more casualties than their male counterparts and suffered more illnesses. Female soldiers experienced three times the evacuation rate of male soldiers. And of those evacuated for medical reasons, a shocking 74 percent were for pregnancy-related issues.
The high rate of pregnancy among female soldiers is one of the best-kept secrets in the military. The various military branches are loath to publicize the figures regarding female soldiers becoming pregnant while deployed. However a study released just this week shows that military women have a higher rate of unplanned pregnancy than the comparable general population -- some 50 percent higher. And the unplanned pregnancy rate for deployed women was as high as it was for those serving stateside.
And, of course, many of the pregnancies among deployed females involved sexual activity between soldiers in the field -- which brings up one of the chief objections to women serving in combat roles.
Feminist ideologues have pooh-poohed the notion that sexual attraction is a major problem when you put young men and women together in close quarters for long periods of time under the stress of combat situations. They act as if both males and females will resist temptation and if they don't that there will be no significant consequences anyway.
Funny, those same feminists seem to believe quite differently when it comes to putting other young men and women together under similar, if less life-threatening situations. Most college campuses these days take it for granted that students will have sex during their years on campus. Many schools provide condoms in the dorms, access to other forms of birth control, lectures on sexual activity (even classes for college credit whose subject matter is the study of sexual activity in various forms). It's just assumed, you put young people together and sex naturally follows.
But the consequences for love affairs gone wrong, rivalry among suitors or even the distraction that sex can provide from other duties are very different in a college setting than they are in the middle of battle.
Unit cohesion is a major factor in the success of any military objective. Inject sexual rivalry and tension into a small group of soldiers whose decisions mean life and death, and you are likely to get more of the latter.
Yes, men and women can bond in non-sexual ways, but sexual attraction is one of the most powerful human emotions. To ignore it and pretend that it can be overcome without great effort is foolhardy. And jealousy is nearly as powerful an emotion as love. What happens when a couple in a unit breaks up but must still work side-by-side, facing an enemy whose sole purpose is to kill them? And when pregnancies occur -- as they inevitably will -- what happens then? Do you allow a physically fit pregnant solider to risk not only her life but that of her unborn child, too?
It is unfortunate that the Obama administration acted unilaterally without putting this issue up for open and honest debate before Congress and the public. By acting unilaterally -- no accident I'm sure, right after the president's re-inauguration -- the administration has done a disservice to the American people and the finest military in the world.