The Best Defense

Now that the gay thing is resolved, can we let soldiers be openly female in combat?

There was some loose talk in the comments last week about women in combat. Here's some factual background.

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 promotions.

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  The Dutch repealed formal restrictions on women in combat roles in 1979.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 been submitted.

Given the perpetual debate, perhaps it is not surprising that the Department of Defense failed to meet an October deadline.

Marine Corps 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 infantry units.

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 multiplier.

"We need 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 male soldiers.

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 outreach. 

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, 2010).

Israel Defense Forces/Flickr

The Best Defense

Out of Iraq: Only 26 shopping days left

The U.S. Embassy just tightened restrictions on movements of American personnel inside the Green Zone.

Meanwhile, when someone is right, I listen. Adam Silverman called Iraq right this year. Here are his thoughts now.

By Adam L. Silverman, PhD[1]

Best Defense guest columnist

A little over a month ago Tom wrote a column dealing with the US's rapidly approaching deadline to leave Iraq.  At the time I sent him some remarks, which he asked me to pull together for a guest column.  I agreed on the condition that I would have the time to tone down the tenor, if not the content, as this topic hits close to home for me - as I'm sure it does for many Best Defense readers, as well as many other Americans (and our coalition partners as well). 

As we are within final month in Iraq, we are once again beginning to see reports of new violence.  As I have written here at Best Defense, as well as other sites, I think this is likely to become the Iraqi reality once we draw down to just the military personnel assigned to the Embassy.  Part of the reason for my take is that the Iraqis have been communicating to us - in words and in deeds -- for several years that this is what is going to happen.  Even as the Sawha/Awakenings was first gathering press, it was clear in what little reporting there originally was on the movement, its leaders, and its goals that their long term intention was to strike at the Shi'a, specifically the exile Shi'a that we had empowered, once they were able to do so (as in once we were gone).  I interviewed dozens of tribal and religious leaders, (local) elites, notables, non-elites, and internally displaced Iraqis.  The vast majority of them, both Sunni and Shi'a, had grave concerns over the government we helped to empower, as well as the members of that government and their ties to Iran and how this all related to the average Iraqi.

The Shi'a exile dominated government of Iraq, especially Prime Minister Maliki, has made no pretense of indicating it wanted to roll up the Awakenings' membersFrom a very heavy handed Sons of Iraq (SOI) transition that failed to foster and promote societal reconciliation and civil society reformation to cracking down on both the Awakenings and the SOI, Maliki has demonstrated that his goal is consolidation of power.  One of the three Iraqis elected to parliament on the Iraqiyya list earlier in the year, then suddenly faced with an arrest warrant by Maliki's government in order to change the electoral outcome was an Awakenings and SOI leader (full disclosure -- he was also the subject of one of my social history/tribal study interviews, which you can read at the link).  Add to this the fact that the Kurds still have plans of their own for Kirkuk, let alone an independent Kurdistan, and post U.S. presence Iraq looks to be unsettled and unpleasant for a long time to come. 

When it comes down to it, and what I think has so many so upset, anxious, and out of sorts regarding the looming US departure from Iraq, is that it did not necessarily have to be this way.  To paraphrase the Best Defense reader and commenter who asked about accountability in regards to Don't Ask, Don't Tell -- at what point do journalists, let alone the American people, hold those who made wildly inaccurate assessments, predictions, estimations, and gave absolutely horrid, hugely uninformed, gigantically incorrect policy advice responsible for the strategic failure that is Iraq?

While we had many tactical and operational successes in Iraq, ultimately the failure to leverage the openings we were presented with as a result of the Awakenings, the Baghdad ethnic cleansings, and then the consolidation through the Surge to pressure the Iraqis to do the hardest of things -- societal reconciliation is an act of strategic malpractice that should be a warning for all future generations.  The national ends that were established, or reestablished, in 2008 to capitalize on the opportunities we had been presented with and worked so hard to solidify were so far out of touch with the reality on the ground, let alone the strategic reality of what needed to be done, that it makes one wonder if the folks giving advice could actually spell Iraq, let alone find it on a map!  Provincial elections and an outsize SOFA agreement, really, that's what we needed to focus our strategic, government to government efforts on in 2008?  And what is even worse is that the people we hand picked to run Iraq turned right around and thanked us by running out the clock and rolling us on these two issues, let alone settling the last election not in Baghdad, not in DC, but in Tehran and Qom, so that we never got to the hardest part of any COIN fight: the societal reconstruction.  And all of these failures track back to, or were cheered on by, the same group of names.  They still have their think tank positions or their spots doing written or television commentary and punditry, many are already advising the next batch of GOP presidential hopefuls or biding their time for a change of party in the White House to wind up back at the center of the game instead of its periphery.  Some of them even managed to get on TV a week or so ago to be expert questioners at a GOP primary debate.  All of them should be examples of who not to listen to when it comes to foreign, defense, security, and I would argue, any other policy!

The simple fact of the matter is that the end game in Iraq was all too obvious to predict.  The planning for what to do after the initial invasion was virtually non-existent and definitely not a priority for the Bush (43) administration.  The wise men making the decisions, the elder statesmen advising them, and the brain trusts cheering them on from perches at think tanks, TV, radio, and print media knew best.  The highly qualified individuals we sent to oversee the initial reconstruction known as the Coalition Provisional Authority had all the right answers.  They knew all about Iraq and Iraqis and Arabs.  Not because they had any particular expertise regarding Iraq, Iraqis, Arabs, and/or the Middle East, but because they had fancy titles (like Insert Adjective Here Scholar) or fancy op-ed positions (in which to posit that just six more months would do the trick) or they had the right connections (always good to carefully pick one's own parents or colleagues before they get a government appointment) or because they had drunk their own or other's kool-aid.  And they are back providing the same type of insightful and courageous analysis of what is going on in Iran and arguing that once again American men and women, military and civilian, should be put in harm's way - just as long as none of those American men and women happen to be them or their relations.  There is a just and righteous virtue in being a leader in the 101st Chairborne Division and members of that elite and crack unit never have to say they are sorry or wrong.

The sad reality is Iraq might not have had to go down the way it did.  Regardless of what one might think of the reason, or reasons as they kept growing and evolving, for invading Iraq, once it was underway some proper planning, a modicum of humility and competency, and bringing to bear some actual knowledge and understanding of Iraqi identities (from the micro to the macro), structures and institutions (and how to line them up with the identities), and how the interactions between these things produce resiliency to or willingness to accept change might just have allowed us to achieve better strategic outcomes.  The strategic failure that Iraq metastasized into does not negate all the hard tactical and operational work or reduce the successes at those levels, but it did not have to turn out this way either.

[1] Adam L. Silverman, PhD is the Culture and Foreign Language Advisor at the US Army War College.  The views expressed here are his own and do not necessarily reflect those of the US Army War College and/or the US Army.