There was some loose talk in the comments last week about
women in combat. Here's some
Take it away, Donna.
By Donna McAleer
Best Defense giant slalom correspondent
In March 2011, the Military
Leadership Diversity Committee issued a report to President
Obama and the 112th Congress recommending the elimination of the
Combat Exclusion Policy.
Retired Air Force
Gen. Lester L. Lyles, commission chair, said the recommendation is one way the
congressionally mandated body suggests the military can get more qualified
women into its more-senior leadership ranks. "We know that [the exclusion]
hinders women from promotion," Lyles said in an interview with American Forces
Press Service. "We want to take away all the hindrances and cultural biases" in
Written in 1994 combat exclusion policy, precludes women from being "assigned" to ground combat units, but
women have for years served in ground combat situations by serving in units
deemed "attached" to ground units, Lyles said. That distinction keeps them from
being recognized for their ground combat experience -- recognition that would
enhance their chances for promotion, he said.
In mid-November Rowan Scarborough
of the Washington Times reported that top defense officials
are wrestling to find a collective position on whether to allow women in direct
ground combat. This seems to be a
never-ending, perpetually debated and continually unresolved issue.
Earlier this year, Australia lifted all gender-based
restrictions on its servicewomen. Other
nations where women are able to serve in active combat roles include Holland,
Canada, Denmark, Finland, New Zealand, Sweden and Israel. The Dutch repealed formal restrictions on
women in combat roles in 1979.
The United States has been engaged in combat in
Afghanistan and Iraq longer than in any previous war. More than 230,000
American women have engaged in combat operations in Afghanistan and Iraq. Women
make up nearly 15% of the active-duty force.
In 2011, National Defense Authorization Act Congress required the
defense and service secretaries to review policies "to determine whether
changes are needed to ensure that female members have an equitable opportunity
to compete and excel in the Armed Forces." That report was due to Congress on
April 15. The Pentagon requested an extension through October. As of Nov. 16, 2011, that reported had not
the perpetual debate, perhaps it is not surprising that the Department of
Defense failed to meet an October deadline.
General James Conway was quoted, "I don't think you will see a change because I
don't think our women want it to change. There are certain demands of officers
in a combat arms environment that our women see, recognize, appreciate and say,
‘I couldn't do that.' "
I beg to
differ with Gen. Conway. There are
others who say: I would do that, I want to do that and I am doing it. Many
servicewomen and veterans particularly those serving in engineering, military
police and military intelligence units find it insulting considering so many
have patrolled mounted and dismounted in the same areas of operation as
General Ray Odierno, Chief of Staff of the Army, has
publicly acknowledged he wants and supports some of the restrictions being
lifted such as female
intelligence and signal officers being able to serve below the brigade level in
combat battalions. Women are a combat
them there. We need their talent," the Army chief said. "This is about managing
talent. We have incredibly talented females who should be in those positions.
So I have to work toward us taking a better look at that." This was a similar position taken by Chief of
Naval Operations Admiral Gary Roughead and Secretary of the Navy Ray Mabus in
the October 2010 announcement decision to open two of the four classes of
nuclear submarines to women.
Women play a critical role in counterinsurgency operations
(COIN) in Afghanistan. More than two
years ago, the Marines created Female
Engagement Teams (FETs) as a force multiplier to
engage and interact with both Afghan women and men in a way not possible for
Recently, the U.S. Army Special Operations Command began
deploying servicewomen as part of front-line commando units. Cultural Support Teams (CST), as
they are known, assist Special Forces and Ranger units with the female and
child population in Afghanistan providing intelligence support and social
The combat exclusion policy was instituted for a linear
battlefield with front and rear lines of combat clearly demarcated. Today's
asymmetric battlefield requires soldiers to prosecute the war and engage in
combat in a 360-degree environment. Women are everywhere on the battlefield.
The law has not yet caught up to the historical as well as present reality of
war. The exclusion policy does not keep women out of combat, but it does
prevent them from gaining the battlefield experience required to rise to positions
of strategic decision-making and national and international security influence.
"The challenge facing the president will be to
identify leaders who will provide him with disinterested advice, informed by a
concern for the national interest, and in, doing so, to avoid the appearance of
the reality of politicizing the senior leadership," said Andrew J.
Bacevich, a retired Army colonel and professor of history and international
relations at Boston University. Following a decade of war, budget cuts and economic
turmoil, senior military leaders will contend with even greater fiscal
constraints, the need to modernize, and to improve significantly the health and
morale of Armed Forces personnel stretched beyond their limits.
While the US Army has its first female 4-star general,
women comprise less than 6 percent of that service's senior leadership, despite
constituting more than 17 percent of the Army's active duty officer corps.
Including women at the senior most strategic leadership and decision-making levels
is an issue of national security. No women are eligible to serve at the top
ranks within the military itself.
United States would be well served by increasing the
number of sharp minds at the planning and negotiating tables. To do this, the
ground combat exclusion policy must be abolished to grant women the opportunity
to gain the same experience as their male counterparts. If abolished, it will
take a generation, at least 30 years, for military women to gain the
appropriate tactical, operation and strategic experience.
Perhaps the inclusion of a few more women with broad
tactical and operational experience would provide some fresh thinking on waging
war, creating peace and influencing international security.
Combat is the core of the profession of arms. The military
has an absolute right to expect servicewomen to engage in combat, as female
Americans have been doing in Iraq and Afghanistan for years. This debate has been going on for decades,
with advances that seemingly are at times best measured with a micrometer.
Nothing spotlights better gender equality of our military in the field than
this fact: women are shedding blood and dying on battlefields side-by-side with
men. Bullets, RPGs, and IEDs know no gender.
How many reports will be required to determine that
eliminating the combat exclusion policy will increase the military's ability to
maintain an agile, flexible, committed and responsive force?
It is time for the Department of Defense and service
chiefs to stop skirting the combat exclusion policy and eliminate it all
together. This should be a matter of
institutional integrity for the military's senior (male) leadership.
Donna McAleer of Park City, Utah, is a West Point
graduate, a former Army officer and the author of Porcelain
on Steel: Women of West Point's Long Gray Line (Fortis Publishing,
Israel Defense Forces/Flickr