Setting the record straight regarding the assignment of women to front-line roles in the U.S. military
Mac Owens is a really smart guy, and I frequently enjoy reading his columns in National Review Online. However, today's column titled "GI Janes, By Stealth
" gets it wrong. [So does the Washington Times in this news article
. Prof. Owens dramatically writes:
The U.S. Army is quietly making a radical change in its personnel policy that may well see the 3rd Infantry Division redeploy to Iraq early next year with mixed-sex support companies collocated with combat units. The move violates not only Defense Department regulations, but also the requirement to notify Congress when such a change goes into effect. Wrong.
In the late 1980s and early 1990s, the military opened a number of specialties to women, permitting them to serve on the Navy's fighting ships and to fly Navy and Air Force combat aircraft. There were several reasons for this. First, some military women — mostly officers and pilots — and their civilian supporters argued that women could never attain the highest levels of command unless they had the opportunity to serve in combat. Second, there was widespread acceptance of the view that technological advances had completely "changed the nature of war": Emerging technologies and "information dominance" would reduce the risks inherent in warfighting. If this were the case, why did we need these old restrictions that hampered the progress of women? As former congresswoman Pat Schroeder famously remarked, a woman can push a button just as easily as a man.
Even so, women continued to be excluded from units that engaged in direct ground combat. This prohibition extended to the support units that were collocated with these forces as well.
The indefatigable Elaine Donnelly of the Center for Military Readiness has discovered that the Army has surreptitiously begun to violate these regulations without advising Congress, which requires notification of any changes to policy within 30 legislative days, and when both houses are in session. Unfortunately, Ms. Donnelly's longtime commitment to the combat effectiveness of the military is often not matched by that of the very leaders who are responsible for ensuring it. As she has illustrated time and again, no branch of the military is completely free of political correctness.
Right now, for example, the Army is beginning to implement an innovative structural reorganization designed to make its new "units of action" (UAs) more rapidly deployable while maintaining a high degree of lethality. One of the factors enhancing the effectiveness of the original UA concept was that support troops would be collocated with maneuver battalions 100 percent of the time — essentially becoming an organic part of the direct ground-combat units. But if such a forward-support company (FSC) is part of a maneuver battalion, current Defense Department policy says that it cannot include women.
So Army commanders have simply transferred FSCs from the maneuver battalions into "gender-integrated" brigade-support battalions, thereby avoiding the requirement to report the policy change to Congress. Of course, no matter where the FSCs appear on a table of organization, the fact is, they will live and work with the maneuver battalions all the time.
I've interviewed Ms. Donnelly, and I appreciate where she comes from on this issue. However, she has taken Prof. Owens for a ride here.
is that these policy changes have been in place for some time, the 3ID MTOE redesign is merely the latest evolution of policy changes made during the 1990s which opened ground combat positions to women. Those changes were first introduced in 1995 as part of the Army's Force XXI redesign, which made a number of very significant changes to the tables of organization and equipment for logistics units, combat support units, and combat units in the Army. As I write in "War Dames
", for the December 2002 Washington Monthly, these changes reflected evolutions in the nature of warfare, as well as the way the Army wanted to task-organize for future conflicts:
... one quieter transformation was also on display in the desert: Capt. Streigel--first name: Jennifer --is a woman. Ten years ago, Streigel could never have commanded a front-line chemical company in the U.S. Army. But the next time the United States goes into battle, women will be as close to the front lines as any infantryman. During its minefield operation, Streigel's company fought shoulder to shoulder with the combat engineers and deployed more armored vehicles than a tank company--and four of its five officers were women. In fact, Streigel is just one of thousands of women who, since the Gulf War, have been steadily migrating to assignments that place them at or near the line of battle.
Since the Gulf victory in 1991, a series of largely unnoticed policy changes have opened new opportunities for women to fight alongside, and even to lead, front-line troops. The Navy and Air Force, with some fanfare, allowed women into the cockpits of fighters and bombers. But less well known is how vastly the Army has expanded the role of women in ground-combat operations. Today, women command combat military police companies, fly Apache helicopters, work as tactical intelligence analysts, and even serve in certain artillery units--jobs that would have been unthinkable for them a decade ago. In any war in Iraq, these changes could put thousands of women in the midst of battle, far more than at any time in American history.
This new role for female U.S. troops is the product of three different forces. One is congressional pressure to integrate the military by gender as it previously had been integrated by race. Another is the ongoing enlistment shortage; the military remains reluctant to admit women yet is unable to recruit enough competent men to staff an all-volunteer Army. But the most important reason has been pressure from women within the Army who need combat experience to advance their careers, nearly all of them in the officer corps. And yet this experiment has been conducted largely below the threshold of public awareness.
The wisdom of this integration is sure to be tested in any sizable ground war with Iraq. If female soldiers perform poorly, they could put their comrades' lives at risk, strengthen the hand of conservatives who oppose women serving as soldiers, and provoke a backlash from the American public. But if, in the heat of battle, women fight bravely and effectively, it could spark a different sort of debate among the military and the public at large over why regulations and military culture still conspire to keep women from many prime assignments in the nation's service.
* * *
In response to the Gulf War, the Defense Department Advisory Committee on Women in the Services moved to open up a wide range of military occupations to women. When Bill Clinton became president, the committee's more activist members and their allies in the military found a kindred spirit in the White House. Suddenly, high-level Pentagon officials were more receptive to recommendations for opening combat roles to women. Key members of Congress, who had watched women perform well in the Gulf, were also more supportive. Through their efforts, Congress repealed the combat exclusion laws in 1992. Two years later, Secretary of Defense Les Aspin revised the risk rule in favor of a "Direct Combat Probability Code" ("DCPC" in Pentagon-speak) that measured risk more narrowly--by unit, not by geography--and created thousands of new opportunities for wo-men by allowing them into all positions but those most likely to see ground combat: the "trigger-puller" front-line formations such as infantry, armor, artillery, and Special Forces.
As it happened, the trigger-pullers saw most of the action in Afghanistan. But if the United States invades Iraq, women will play a far wider role than ever before in any ground offensive. Female chemical officers will lead the way through contaminated areas; female engineer officers will help direct any efforts to bridge the Euphrates; female helicopter pilots will shuttle the infantry into and out of combat areas during any assault.
Army policy still forbids women from being assigned to combat units at the battalion level and below. (A battalion contains 300-500 soldiers and is likely to be very far forward.) But women can serve in infantry, armor, artillery, and other units at the brigade level and higher--the units directly behind combat battalions on the battlefield--as well as support units like military police and aviation that often work alongside combat units. Recent changes in Army practices and policies include, for example, formally assigning female lieutenants to mixed-gender brigade headquarters while informally attaching them to all-male combat battalions, as the Army does at Ft. Hood, Texas. Why? Because the shortage of male lieutenants is particularly acute in specialties like chemical warfare and intelligence.
Since 1995, the Army has also experimented with a new organizational design for its combat units, transferring many support positions from all-male combat units to mixed-gender support units. Consequently, large numbers of fuelers, medics, and mechanics who now support the fighting arms are women--a change now spreading through the rest of the Army, including the reserves, that will potentially shift thousands of women farther forward on the battlefield than ever before.
Granted, I support the assignment of women to front-line roles. I served in the 4th Infantry Division during its Force XXI redesign, and I led mixed-gender platoons of combat support MPs in Korea with the 2nd Infantry Division and Fort Hood with the 4th Infantry Division. So I have a bias here. But I also have experience here that tells me women can be as effective (if not more so) in many roles than men. And when women can't do the job, it's not because they're women per se
— it's because there's a standard for performance that they can't meet. That standard should be applied evenly to men and women, but its existence should not be used as a bar to completely exclude women.
At the end of my piece
, I offer this parting thought on the future of women in ground combat:
... so far, as in the Gulf, the worst predictions have not come true--no reports of mass pregnancies or other issues have come to light in Afghanistan. "I'm learning what grunts do, [and] they learn what I do. As MPs, we search people and look for weapons ... I never thought we would be walking for hours or be on the front," MP Sgt. Nicola Hall told a reporter in Afghanistan after the mission. "[The 82nd Airborne soldiers] have been nothing but respectful to us; as long as you walk, carry your own weight and don't whine, you're respected." By and large, I think the record is clear
Indeed, if mixed-gender units perform as they have in the California desert--and in Somalia, Haiti, Bosnia, Kosovo, and Afghanistan--it would strengthen the integrationist trend in several ways. The least likely possibility would be the elimination of all rules barring women from full combat service, from special forces to light infantry. But even if this were to happen, surveys suggest that only a small number of women would apply. And only a fraction of those who do would have the physical ability and fortitude to make it through, say, the crucible of Army ranger school, from which a majority of qualified men wash out before graduation.
The second, and more likely, possibility is that certain combat jobs currently off-limits to women would be opened. For instance, women can currently serve in Patriot air-defense units, but not in short-range air-defense or offensive artillery units closer to the front--even though the skill levels are virtually the same. Female soldiers frequently win the Army's highest awards for marksmanship and even participate on the U.S. Olympic marksmanship team--but outside the MPs cannot be snipers. If Saddam's Baathist regime falls to U.S. forces that include women, these kinds of job limitations may collapse, too.
: women have performed well in Afghanistan and Iraq, in every job imaginable save those select few (e.g. the infantry and special operations forces) where they're still excluded. Several of my close female friends from the military have served in harm's way as MPs (fighting essentially as HMMWV-mounted infantry), Apache helicopter pilots, chemical warfare officers, intelligence officers, civil affairs officers, physicians, and the list goes on. They have all done well; none have failed to accomplish their mission.
The 1st Battalion, 22nd Infantry Regiment
, has a motto: "Deeds, not words
." It's a powerful motto to me, because it sums up what it means to be a professional warrior. It's not about the uniform, the medals, the show, or the bragging. It's about what you do when you're in a tough spot and your unit is depending on you. Women have proven, by their deeds, not words, that they are worthy to serve our nation in uniform — and to do so in harm's way.