A question forwarded
to David Perry on 13 July 2005 by Randy Cohen, New York Times Magazine columnist
I was an Army officer deployed to Iraq in 2003 and 2004. One of my
duties was as a convoy commander. When assigned to a convoy, I would be given vehicle s
and personnel to accomplish the mission. One soldier assigned to me was a young woman, 20
years old, who had been sent to our unit near the middle of our year in Iraq. I had come
to learn that she was a single mother, with an infant child in the care of her mother back
in her hometown in the Midwest. She joined the Army in part to provide a steady paycheck
and good medical care for herself and her child, after her former husband refused to
reliably pay child support after their divorce.
While I don't support anyone's contention that they joined the military
for the pay and benefits alone, and I often counsel young people considering a stint (or a
career) in the military to seriously examine their motivations and their willingness to be
put in harm's way, particularly single parents, I had serious reservations about taking
this particular soldier on one of the most dangerous missions. I was concerned that she
wasn't selected for me based on her fitness for the mission, but because she wasn't fully
integrated in the unit, and that the unit's NCOs (noncommissioned officers) viewed her as
a marginal contributor to daily work on our FOB (forward operating base, a 'camp' or
When I saw she was assigned to my mission, I walked the barracks area
and found a replacement for her, a young unmarried male soldier that I had taken along
with me several times before, either as one of my drivers or 'gunners' (machine gun
operators, who sit in the gun mount in the center of the roof of a Humvee.)
I had a few concerns about her suitability; she is small of stature
(about five foot two inches) and not terribly strong, and I wasn't confident of her
ability to perform in a crisis. On top of everything, I could not manage to discount that
she was a young single mother. The idea of her becoming a casualty of war and leaving a
child effectively orphaned appalled me.
The replacement didn't know he was replacing anyone: I just said I was
shorthanded and informally asked for volunteers from a set of soldiers (all men) that I
had worked with before and in whom I felt the most confident. The soldier being replaced
didn't know she was being selectively dropped from the mission: I told her that I no
longer needed her along and she was released from duty for the mission, and that she
should report back to the company headquarters for further work.
Personally, the small conflict I feel solely because of the blatant
sexism of my decision was outweighed by the satisfaction I felt for protecting her from
some additional significant risk. Even though I hold largely egalitarian views, even about
military service and service by women in combat roles, I also think that young parents
should not be exposed to likely combat situations if it can be helped, and that the
arrangement we're currently experiencing in today's Army is a holdover from a long period
of peacetime staffing.
Was my decision to circumvent "business as usual" and make
changes to the composition n of my convoy ethically justifiable, even without considering
my judgment that she would not be as effective as her replacement?
The response sent by David Perry to Randy Cohen later that day:
Here are some comments that you're welcome to publish, as long as somewhere you include a
caveat such as, "None of Dr. Perry's views should be construed necessarily to reflect
those of the U.S. Army":
I strongly admire the questioner for the depth and scope of his/her
reflections and the solid traits of compassion and fairness that they reveal. This is
exactly the kind of officer we want commanding our soldiers.
I would concur with his/her decision, though not exactly for the same
Military commanders bear the tough moral burden of knowingly placing
their soldiers in harm's way to accomplish
various missions. All American soldiers (including the single mom) are volunteers, and
know when they enlist that they must be willing to risk their lives if legally ordered by
their commanders to do so.
On the other hand, as the officer reminds us, current U.S. laws
prohibit women from taking on direct combat roles. (I regard that prohibition as
patronizing and unfairly discriminatory, but I can't fully defend that view here.) It's
true that there are few obvious "front lines" in our counterinsurgency wars in
Iraq and Afghanistan, so all female soldiers deployed to those countries are closer to
"combat" (even in convoys) than they might have expected when they signed up.
But in theory, a commander could affirm the spirit of the no-women-in-combat rule by
assigning only men to the most dangerous missions.
In other words, even if the young woman in this case had no children,
the officer might have discretion under the law to make a "blatantly sexist"
decision to substitute a male soldier on this mission. And the male soldier taking her
place could probably understand that rationale if informed of it, even if (like me) he
felt that it places unfair burdens on males.
In addition, the woman being a single mom and the male having no
children are certainly relevant ethically in the officer's deliberations. The value of
both the male and female soldiers' lives is equal, of course, and the prospect of their
death or serious injury equally tragic for them. But I'm also sympathetic to the officer's
desire to minimize harm to the woman's child: matters of fairness aside, limiting
harms to all affected by a decision is a noble intention.
However, I think that it's too much to expect commanders to make such
complicated calculations before assigning soldiers to risky missions. Consider if the male
soldier was an only child, and the female soldier had numerous siblings: presumably the
death of the man would be more devastating to his parents than the death of the woman to
hers. On the other hand, how can any commander know how much their soldiers are loved and
valued by their parents, children, siblings, friends, fellow soldiers et al.? And if they
start down that road, could they lose sight of the value of individual soldiers' lives to
them? (Recall the analogous ethical concerns that arose in the early 1960s, when a
hospital committee in Seattle allocated scarce kidney dialysis machines based in part on
whether someone had any dependents or not.)
Finally, although the officer wants to exclude consideration of the
female soldier's effectiveness, that's clearly an important moral factor in this
situation. Any soldier who doesn't measure up to basic standards regarding physical
strength, skills in using weapons etc., risks compromising missions where those are
essential. If this particular female soldier falls short on those requirements (she's a
"non-contributor" according to her former NCO), she might not be capable of
defending herself or her fellow soldiers in a firefight. It's unfortunate that our
military forces are so stretched now that officers sometimes have to make do with
"unfit" soldiers (male and female). It also means that skilled soldiers in
effect are forced to take up their slack and incur more risks. But in the situation
described, no commander would want to entrust convoy security (e.g.) to a soldier with
inadequate skills, since that could endanger both the mission and the lives of her
comrades. Giving that soldier other duties would not exhibit sexism in this case.
David L. Perry, Ph.D.
Professor of Ethics
U.S. Army War College
Carlisle, PA 17013
Final text of Randy Cohen's "Ethicist" column, New York Times Magazine,
28 August 2005:
Mother in the War
By RANDY COHEN
As a convoy commander in Iraq, I had serious reservations about the effectiveness of a
young single mother in my unit, but what really appalled me was the thought of her leaving
a child orphaned. When she was assigned to a particularly dangerous convoy, I replaced her
with an unmarried man. He didn't know why; I just said I was shorthanded and asked for
volunteers. Did I act ethically? Ray Doeksen, Chicago
You did the right thing for the wrong reason. If this female soldier
was indeed unqualified for the assignment, she would be a danger to herself, her comrades
and the mission. You could replace her on those grounds, but not because of her home life.
Few commanders have sufficient knowledge of the private lives of all their troops to
consider such a factor equitably. Perhaps one of your soldiers was a single dad. Another
might care for a dozen siblings. And even if you knew all that, how would you balance such
David Perry, professor of ethics at the U.S. Army War College, concurs.
Responding as a private citizen, he said in an e-mail message: ''It's too much to expect
commanders to make such complicated calculations.... How can any commander know how much
their soldiers are loved and valued by their parents, children, siblings, friends, fellow
soldiers et al.?'' Indeed, as Perry implies, such reasoning comes uncomfortably close to
valuing some lives over others.
That you replaced this young woman with a volunteer doesn't get you off
the hook. Because you withheld pertinent information, the replacement was unable to make
an informed decision.
When deciding who is eligible for military missions, it is reasonable
to consider domestic obligations. But such decisions should be a matter of policy applied
consistently and transparently.
It should not be an ad hoc matter for individual commanders, who would
do better to treat all their soldiers equally.