Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta’s decision, on his way out the door, to lift the ban on women serving in combat units has engendered much consternation among traditionalists both in and out of uniform. On a recent visit to Quantico, the base near Washington where Marine Corps University is located, I got an earful from combat veterans who fretted that standards would be lowered to allow women to serve in combat units. The concern is especially acute when it comes to infantry units, because infantrymen have a particularly arduous and important specialty, one that has long accounted for the majority of casualties suffered in America’s wars. I supported Panetta’s decision to lift the ban but I have to acknowledge that the concerns are valid. How they are addressed will determine whether lifting the ban is a success or not.

A New York Times reporter who was allowed to observe the Infantry Officer School at Quantico found out why two recent female candidates washed out—and why future female candidates are likely to face steep barriers. Literally. As James Dao notes: “It all begins with the Combat Endurance Test, a slog through rolling forests that requires physical strength, endurance, military knowledge and willpower. Students must swim, assemble weapons from jumbled parts, navigate from point to point and carry weight over distances.

The endurance test is no anachronistic remnant of a sexist culture—it is the closest approximation possible in training conditions of the kind of stress and challenges that infantry marines will encounter in battle. Those who cannot pass the test in training should not be allowed to lead marines in battle: lowering the standards endangers lives on the battlefield.

Lifting the ban on women in combat makes sense only if it does not result in a distortion of the hard standards that combat soldiers must pass. If women can make the grade, by all means let them in—but the standard must be the same for men and women because the battlefield does not discriminate based on gender. The odds are that, if standards are maintained, few if any women will be able to qualify for the infantry—but they will still be able to serve on the battlefield, as they do today, in a variety of billets from military police to intelligence to pilots.

The fact that Chuck Hagel has served in battle as an enlisted man gives him perspective unique for a secretary of defense in making the crucial decision about whether to redefine the standards or not. If he maintains current standards, he can still offer opportunities to women without endangering the combat performance of the armed forces. But if he knuckles under to pressure to change the standards, he will be doing serious damage to the forces that he once served in and now leads.  

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