On 3 December, 2015, U.S. Defense Secretary Ashton Carter announced that all positions in the U.S. military will be opened up to women. “There will be no exceptions…they’ll be allowed to drive tanks, fire mortars, and lead infantry soldiers into combat. They’ll be able to serve as Army Rangers and Green Berets, Navy SEALs, Marine Corps infantry, Air Force para-jumpers, and everything else that was previously open only to men” (Matthew Rosenberg, 2015). Although new and controversial in the U.S., it is obvious that it has been a long time coming.

Here in Canada, all trades and roles were opened up to women way back in 1989. The one exception was submarine service, due to inadequate space, which was finally opened up with the acquisition of the new and more spacious Victoria-class submarines in 2000. While every experience is different, Canada and the U.S. do have similar cultures in many respects, and the Canadian experience with integration of women may provide some guidance and cautions for our cousins.

First, I will make a few things clear: I’m not going to waste much, if any, space arguing whether I feel that they should be allowed to assume combat roles. There is no shortage of opinions being aired out there, and I don’t think another one would really contribute much. This isn’t therapy for me, the change was made here long before I ever thought of joining, so we’re more or less over it. Once the decision has been made, it’s important to just get on with it. As I alluded to, it was a long time coming and it’s highly unlikely that it’s going to be reversed. Anyone who hasn’t seen this train coming has had blinders on.

As always, we need to focus on what’s within our circle of control, and adapt to what isn’t. Another reason for staying out of any fight to reverse the decision is that by doing so, you will find yourself being sidelined from shaping its implementation. It will be obvious that any arguments made are simply crafted to keep women out instead of maintaining combat effectiveness. If combat effectiveness is truly your concern, it’s better to remain agnostic on the inclusion of women and keep tightly focused on objective standards. Veterans and serving personnel alike are the ones best qualified to implement this decision, and if they’re marginalized from the debate, it will be worse for everyone.

A Canadian's View on Women in Combat

I think it’s important to swat away some of the silly, stupid, and even some of the plausible-sounding arguments against integrating women, before I get into the very serious issues of getting on with it. It’s important because the more they get shouted around, the less credibility we will have in shaping the policy implementation. First, we live in a democracy with certain rights and principles that are enshrined in our constitutions. In Canada, it is the Charter of Rights and Freedoms, and in the U.S., it is the Equal Rights Act. In practice, of course, we’re talking about equality of opportunity; some (mostly college/university students) mistake this for equality of outcomes—not the same thing. There have always been limitations on this, but the trend has always been expansion of these rights, granting them to more and more groups—not retraction.

It is a massive hill to climb to say someone should be denied the right of opportunity, and the weight of evidence is on proving their rights should be denied, not that there is some advantage for granting the rights. You can’t make a case on small percentages, either. Denying handicapped access to federal buildings because it’s expensive to install ramps that only one percent of employees or visitors will use is a non-starter; saying this recent move is costly considering the small percentage of women who will ever want to join or qualify for combat trades is essentially the same. And if you vehemently disagree, don’t yell at me through your computer screen, go after your courts and legislators.

Some of the really ridiculous arguments being thrown out there are about how combat is no place for women; it’s a violent nightmare filled with blood, guts, and fear. True, but then women have been exposed to this forever. It’s as if we forget that they fill our medical ranks, and support trades certainly aren’t immune to combat, either. There aren’t any discernible front lines anymore, and we have certainly managed just fine with letting women outside the wire without them breaking into mass hysteria at the first rounds fired at them or the sight of blood.