StLP-D - Should Women Be In Combat?
July 10, 2005
Should Women Be In Combat?
By Mary Delach Leonard, Of the Post-Dispatch
For 13 months, Sgt. Jennifer Lien saw Iraq from the windows of the 22-wheel flatbed tractor-trailer she drove, hauling supplies to U.S. soldiers. Sometimes, she slept on the ground under the hulking semi, her "home on wheels."
"We were on the road for a day to 10 days at a time," Lien said. "Everything I owned was in the bottom of our truck."
Lien, 23, of St. Louis, served with the 1221st Transportation Company, Missouri National Guard. From June 2003 to July 2004, the 1221st drove 1.5 million miles, delivering tons of food, water and equipment to infantry units such as the 101st Airborne and the 82nd Infantry.
I can not fully express my respect and admiration for the transportation corps folks, among others, who worked so long and hard to keep our lines of communication and supply open in support of operations in Iraq. Really, my hat's off to them. As it happens, my company task force provided its own transportation and supply support internally, but it was TC folks like Sgt. Lien's unit who got the beans and the bullets (and the mail!) to where we could pick it up and run our own convoys from places like LSA Anaconda out to our teams. That was dangerous enough. Doing it every day and all day? Good job, soldier.
Lien and co-driver Sgt. 1st Class Shannon Andrews, 36, her platoon leader, put 40,000 grueling miles on their truck. During those long hours on the road, they would pass the time by discussing all sorts of issues — including women in the military, Andrews said.
Lien believes it is time to put the gender debate to rest.
"The question should be: Is a person capable of doing the job?" she says. "Aren’t we past this yet?"
On the ground, in theatre, the question is settled. Women can do any job that they're equipped and trained for, presuming they meet the physical requirements of that job.
Militarily, the question is then one of physical requirements; perhaps only a small minority of women would meet the physical requirements for such jobs as line infantry or artillery, due to the physical requirements of lugging heavy rucksacks or upper body strength requirements for loading artillery munitions or positioning equipment.
Gender norming is not the answer. It's deceptive, politically-correct, and does a disservice to the female soldier by deluding them into thinking they're more qualified to meet the physical demands of their jobs than is in fact the case. Sort of like the self-esteem crap that has resulted in American school children "feeling" that they're good at math, when international test results bear out the opposite truth.
Reworking manpower requirements, reprogramming some tasks as two-person lifts instead of one-person tasks is inefficient and uneconomical, as well as impractical and dangerously delusional for a combat environment.
Politically, the question is still should women be in combat. Congress seems to say one thing on paper and to their constituents, but turns a blind eye to the reality of the DoD.
Andrews said that some male soldiers have a problem with the fact that physical testing standards are lower for female soldiers. But he said that wasn’t an issue with Lien because he found her to be an exceptional soldier who could handle the rough life on the road.
Gender norming. But if Sgt. Lien was able to perform some of the heavy maintenance tasks necessitated by her job as a tractor-trailer driver, then SFC Andrews, her platoon sergeant and co-driver, was certainly in a position to know.
"She was one of the most self-sufficient soldiers I’ve ever met," Andrews said. "She wasn’t afraid to get in the middle of it. We had to be pretty aggressive drivers over there, and she fell into that role."
The debate over the role of women in the military has been going on for more than half a century, since the Women’s Armed Services Integration Act of 1948 first allowed women, other than nurses, to serve on active duty in peacetime. The arguments have remained consistently familiar: Some believe women should be allowed to be all that they can be.
Others say it is wrong to put women in harm’s way. With 22,000 women currently deployed in Iraq and Afghanistan, it is clear that they are vital to the war effort. The question that remains is whether women should be allowed to serve in direct ground combat units — infantry, artillery and armor — and that’s a wall that Americans don’t appear as eager to cross.
According to a CNN/USA/Gallup poll taken in May, 72 percent of respondents said they approve of women "serving anywhere in Iraq." Just 44 percent said they would support women being assigned to ground combat units that "are doing most of the fighting."
But the issue is clouded in Iraq, where insurgents are as likely to attack support units as combat units. "The front line is the highway," veterans of the war often say, and support units, such as the 1221st, travel that line every day. In policy, women aren’t allowed in combat units, but that doesn’t mean they don’t have to fight. When a Marine convoy was ambushed in Fallujah last month, three of the dead and 11 of the wounded were women.
Lien remembers one particularly close call.
Every soldier, regardless of specialty, is expected to be able and capable of acting to defend themselves when attacked. That's why combat support and combat service support soldiers are armed in the first place, although at need they can be retasked for direct combat service, as many combat support and combat service support soldiers have directly experienced in the Iraq TOO.
TOO = "Theatre of Operations."
She was driving the lead truck in a convoy that had just left the town of Najaf when a bomb exploded there, killing a Shiite cleric.
"There are always attacks on the road," she said.
For the history books
These are historic times for women in the military, and first-woman stories have been making the news since the war started.
In June, Sgt. Leigh Ann Hester, 23, of the Kentucky National Guard became the first female soldier to be awarded the Silver Star since World War II. She killed three insurgents who attacked her convoy near Baghdad.
Sgt. Hester was acting defensively. Not at all to diminish her accomplishments, but her military police unit was not tasked with offensive operations, such as fighting house-to-house in Fallujah, but with convoy security. In the course of her defensive fighting, she acted professionally, indeed heroicly, and in the finest traditions of the Military Police Corps, the Kentucky National Guard, the Non-Commissioned Officer corps, the U.S. Army, and the Planet Earth.
In October 2004, Spc. Jessica Cawvey, a single mother of a 6-year-old daughter, was the first military mother from Illinois to die in Iraq. An explosive device exploded next to her truck.
And, of course, there was Pfc. Jessica Lynch, the first rescued prisoner of war.
Women make up about 10 percent of the 230,000 U.S. troops serving in Iraq and Afghanistan. They are medics and military police, truck drivers and helicopter pilots. Since 1994, 95 percent of military jobs have been open to women, according to Pentagon policy.
Is that actual jobs, or merely 95 percent of military jobs as in military occupational specialties, which seems more likely. Out of the hundred-odd MOSs, only the direct combat MOSs such as infantry, artillery, armor and special forces MOS exclude women. There are even women in the 12C MOS, as Bridgers in combat engineering units, although MOS 12B (Combat Engineer) may still be male-only.
Of the 1,731 U.S. troops who have died in Iraq, 39 have been women; nearly 300 women have been wounded. Six women have died in Afghanistan.
From time to time, the issue of women at war is revisited by public debate, as was the case with the ambushed female Marines.
On his new cable TV show "The Situation," political commentator Tucker Carlson demanded to know why the U.S. military wasn’t taking precautions to protect servicewomen; he referred to the situation as "barbaric."
Hmm. The U.S. military does take precautions to protect women. They're given basic combat training, weapons training, pre-deployment training, equipped with weapons, ammunition, protective gear such as helmets and body armor; just like the precautions given to men.
And on military.com, a Web site for current and retired military personnel, the forum chatter about women in the military is always heated.
"How many lives are you willing to lose for equality?" asked a recent contributor.
This is an excellent, albeit political, question. It's not a military one, not anymore.
A political skirmish
Command Sgt. Maj. Cynthia Pritchett, the senior enlisted adviser in Afghanistan, was clearly miffed as she took off her desert camouflage jacket before she would answer a question from the audience at a conference in Washington in May on women in the military. She had been asked about an amendment in Congress to limit the role of women in combat, backed by Rep. Duncan Hunter, R-Calif., the chairman of the House Armed Services Committee.
"This is Cindy Pritchett’s personal reaction, not Sgt. Maj. Pritchett’s reaction," she said, speaking to a roomful of career military women. "I think it could set women back years from all we’ve accomplished. First of all, we always tell little girls you can grow up to be anything that you want to be, and then we get into the military and we say, all except for what you’re going to do in the Army, Navy, Air Force and Marines."
The amendment, which was later withdrawn, would have made combat exclusion of women the law. Top Army leadership and Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld opposed the proposal.
So did feminists and lawmakers from both parties who charged that it would have sent the wrong message to female soldiers and caused confusion on the battlefield.
"Confusion To The Enemy!"
Not confusion to us, Pogo's legendary witticism notwithstanding.
Elaine Donnelly, whose Center for Military Readiness specializes in military personnel issues, criticized the Pentagon for violating its own exclusion policy by locating mixed-gender support troops with combat battalions that are supposed to be all-male.
"specializes in military personnel issues" . . . . er, isn't that "specializes in female military personnel issues"? I mean, when have you ever heard of Elaine Donnelly weighing-in on military personnel issues having nothing to do with women in either the military or combat?
Rep. Ike Skelton, D-Mo., who fought the amendment, said it would have severely affected support battalions by removing women from vital jobs they are doing in Iraq. He disagreed that the Pentagon was trying to manipulate policy; rather, it was reacting to a new type of warfare.
Methinks Rep. Skelton is half-right: the amendment would have severely affected support battalions' capability to perform their assigned missions in Iraq. The women are there, they're integrated into the units at the functional, team level. Pulling them out is disruptive, even more-so in a combat environment. Combat is sufficiently disruptive without further assistance from Congress.
On the other hand, the Pentagon (a building that seems to have limitless capacity for trouble-making, irrespective of occupancy) is trying to manipulate policy. It is trying to manipulate policy to match capability and missions with which it (the DoD) is tasked by the national leadership (i.e., Pres. Bush and Congress itself).
"The type of conflict has changed," Skelton said. "A bomb going off in downtown Baghdad, a bomb on the road, an ambush on the road, a helicopter going down — all those can bring about casualties of both men and women. They’re not on any front line, but sadly that is what happens."
The fracas illustrates a still-deep divide between advocates who push for advancement of women in the military and opponents who believe that women will weaken it.
Evelyn "Pat" Foote, a retired Army brigadier general who served on the Army task force on sexual harassment, believes the Pentagon’s exclusion policy is outdated.
"If we are to complete the mission successfully, the military must be free to utilize combat support where and when they are needed," Foote said. "Women are serving. Women are in danger. Get over it. They’re there. They’re volunteers. They know they’re in danger. So why can’t you accept the fact? The volunteers accept it," Foote said.
BG Foote has the right of it, IMHO. The question of women in combat MOSs is another question, which her statement does not address. BG Foote addresses only combat support, which may be presumed to include combat service support arms.
Donnelly believes the push for women in combat is more about career advancement than the good of the military. She believes that women have a worthwhile role in the military, but not in combat units.
Donnelly cites studies that show that women lack upper-body strength and cannot carry what the average male soldier can carry, and would not be able to rescue a fellow soldier.
She believes the issue is not equal rights or opportunity, but survival on the battlefield.
Others argue the issue on philosophical and religious grounds. They say it’s not whether women can go to war but whether they should go to war.
Allan Carlson, president of the Howard Center in Rockford, Ill., a pro-family values think tank, worries that when a nation sends women to war, society will be weakened.
"We’re trying to break with human history," Carlson said. "I think it’s wrong. The whole human experience is to protect the future of your society, and you don’t do that by sending mothers to war."
Carlson concedes that there has been little public outcry over the issue, but he wonders if that would change should a draft be reinstated.
The Rev. Leroy E. Vogel, a retired Navy chaplain and professor emeritus at Concordia Seminary, is pushing churches to tackle the issue, based on Scriptural study.
"The church has remained silent, and I think it is evidence of cowardice," he said.
Can’t we get along?
Sgt. Lien believes that if women are capable and want to serve in combat, they should have the opportunity.
"I wouldn’t do it, but I’m sure there are women who could do it," she said.
Lien said that she got along well with the male soldiers in her company because they knew she could do her job.
"I never felt like I didn’t belong," Lien said.
But some who study the military worry that mixing men and women in combat situations won’t work.
Mackubin Thomas Owens, an associate dean of academics at the Naval War College in Newport, R.I., believes that the presence of women in a combat environment would increase friction and have a negative impact on unit cohesion.
Owens has written, "All the social engineering in the world cannot change the real differences between men and women or the natural tendency of men to treat women differently than they do other men."
Although the military has strict rules on sexual harassment, critics argue that all the training in the world can’t make it disappear completely.
Sgt. Kim Endicott, 28, of Ste. Genevieve, Mo., and Staff Sgt. Melissa Squires, 36, of O’Fallon, Mo., who served together in Iraq with the 203rd Engineer Battalion, Company B, Missouri National Guard, were angry when they found graffiti that insulted female soldiers on the walls of a camp bathroom.
OMG! Insulting graffiti!
I think our female soldiers can handle a little graffiti. If they can handle the wretched conditions of the "camp bathrooms" themselves (what a wonderful euphomism, as anyone who's been in theatre for real will attest), they can handle some crude comments and drawings.
Oh the stories, and such awful stories they are, I could tell you about "camp bathrooms" in Iraq. You want scary war stories? Ask an OIF veteran about latrines in Iraq. She or he might be reluctant to start, but believe me they have at least one hair-raising tale that no one who's never served will truly understand.
"It happens in every unit in every deployment, and there’s no way around it," Endicott said.
She agrees that women should be allowed to serve in combat if they are capable, but she thinks it would be hard for some male soldiers to accept.
"A guy soldier told me he couldn’t handle seeing a female soldier die," she said. "It’s just how everybody’s been raised."
On the other hand, Staff Sgt. Bob Haug, 42, who served in Iraq with the 2175th Military Police, Missouri National Guard, said his unit could not have done its job without female MPs.
"They would go outside the wire with us every day. They held their ground, and they did their job without flinching," he said.
"We have to have females in our unit — it’s part of the job of law enforcement. When we apprehend females we need females to process them. They have to be searched. I think anybody who’s got an issue with it is absolutely narrow-minded. They’re dinosaurs, and they should retire."
Sgt. Andrews said that he’s observed a tendency on the part of some leaders to treat female soldiers differently.
"I’ve seen some poor female soldiers, but you’ve also got guys looking for an easy way out," he said. "When a guy does it, you tell him to get his butt to work. But you can get in trouble if you talk that way to a female soldier."
When the draft ended in 1973, the doors opened wider for women, who now make up about 15 percent of the armed forces.
Natalie Skyles, 19, of Ballwin, who graduated in May from Marquette High School, is one of 86 female recruits who joined the Missouri National Guard this year. She wants to be a police officer and heard that the military police offer good training. She leaves for basic training on July 13.
"I’m excited to go and a little nervous about leaving home," she said.
By volunteering, she knows there’s a chance she could go to war.
A chance? Why yes, if you consider 100 percent to be a "probability," then there's a "chance" she'll go to war.
"If they need me, they need me," Skyles said. "I’m not afraid to go anywhere."