The Best Defense

Do military women want combat jobs? The survey numbers say yes -- and so do more than 9,000 combat action badges

By Col. Ellen Haring, USAR
Best Defense guest columnist

Headlines that claim that "Few Army Women Want Combat Jobs" leave me scratching my head and wondering what constitutes a "few women" and why this is even a newsworthy headline?

I am one of the Army women who took the survey that asked us about our interest in serving in combat jobs. At a briefing in December, the Army reported the results of the propensity to serve in combat specialties survey to the Defense Advisory Council on Women in the Services. The Army reported that 22 percent of currently serving women (active, guard, and reserve) were moderately or very interested in transferring to combat specialties. According to 2011 data available at the Defense Manpower Data Center, and rounding down to the nearest 5,000 level, there are 150,000 guard and reserve women and 75,000 women on active duty. Simple math reveals that 49,500 women in the Army are interested in transferring to combat jobs. That doesn't seem like a "few" Army women.

On April 10, 2014, the Marine Corps briefed their survey results. At a briefing at Henderson Hall in Arlington, VA, Brigadier General George Smith applauded the results of their surveys that showed an even higher level of interest. Apparently, 40 percent of women Marines want the opportunity to serve in combat jobs, bringing the total number of women in just the Army and the Marine Corps that want these opportunities to well over 50,000 women. What neither the Army nor the Marines briefed was how many men "want" combat jobs. It would have been interesting to see comparative figures.

But these data only reveal part of the story: that many women do want combat jobs, not what women are already doing. After all, we joined the Army with the expectation that we would be soldiers; we didn't join the Peace Corps. Via a Freedom of Information Act request made to Army Human Resources Command, I received data documenting Army women's ground combat service. Since 9/11 and ending last month, the data revealed that Army women have been awarded 9,134 combat action badges. According to Army Award Regulation 600-8-22, combat action badges are awarded to soldiers who, while serving in a hostile environment, "are actively engaging or being engaged by the enemy, and performing satisfactorily in accordance with the prescribed rules of engagement." Additionally, 1,044 Army women medics have received the combat medical badge, which requires that the medic be "assigned or attached to or under operational control of any ground Combat Arms units of brigade or smaller size, who satisfactorily perform medical duties while the unit is engaged in active ground combat, provided they are personally present and under fire." These badges are service-awarded distinctions that simply document satisfactory service in ground combat.

Other awards are even more revealing. Soldiers who receive a valor distinction, as denoted by a "V" device on their awards, have participated in "acts of heroism involving conflict with an armed enemy." Army women have received 147 Army Commendation Medals with the "V" device, 13 Bronze Star medals with the "V" device, and one Legion of Merit with the "V" device. Two Army women have received Silver Stars. The Silver Star is awarded to a soldier for "gallantry in action against an enemy of the United States."

Army women alone (not including women in the other services) have received more than 10,000 ground combat awards and decorations since 9/11. But today, people continue to debate whether women, who volunteered to be soldiers, are "interested," "willing," or "able" to perform in ground combat. Our record attests to a reality that already exists.

It is time to move beyond this debate and let women perform in any capacity for which we qualify.

Ellen Haring is a colonel in the U.S. Army Reserve.


The Best Defense

The future of war (no. 26): Where are the professional military voices in New America's project on the future of war?

By Maj. Matt Cavanaugh, U.S. Army
Best Defense Future of War essay contest entry

Though New America is doing great service by leading some much-needed public discussion, its "Future of War" project is seriously flawed. It's not who New America selected for the team. The named panel includes two superstars from the world of academia, law, and policy, plus an innovative technology thinker, and two journalists who likely have spent more time in interesting combat zones than the vast majority of military officers currently in uniform.

The issue is the demographic not represented. The sin is one of omission. Specifically, the team New America assembled is missing a professional military voice (even if that profession might be in a state of decay). As usual, the shortcoming is human. That's not to say the team isn't incredibly impressive. Any reasonably well-informed reader would agree these are serious people, well equipped to address most of these issues. Moreover, war is certainly about more than warfare. Civilians have an important place on the panel. Unfortunately, as it stands, civilians have the only voice in the project.

This comes at the exclusion of any professional military perspective. It's almost as if New America deliberately avoided the military view, as the panel includes notable figures from law, academia, journalism, and diplomacy. Was the medical profession not available? (Should someone page Dr. Sanjay Gupta?) The oversight reminds one of the famous image of the all-male group of politicians standing around President George W. Bush as he signed a piece of abortion legislation into law. Like the women missing from that event, the military profession has an important role in this discussion and at least merits some direct involvement. In short, the military has "skin in the game" and that matters greatly. Most helpfully, this inclusion would also make the resulting product better. As Richard Betts wrote, "if strategy is to integrate policy and operations, it must be devised not just by politically sensitive soldiers but by military sensitive civilians."

Having read "Future of War" panelist Rosa Brooks's rebuttal to the feedback the group's early product release generated, this civil-military gap appears to be a critical vulnerability. Ms. Brooks was apparently surprised to find that the military profession has preferred "terms of art." Imagine a legal conference on the future of tort law without any lawyers present or, crucially, participants with any understanding or background in established common law definitions like "assault" or "battery." Exorcising this narrow negligence requires both an old priest (retired military panelist) and a young priest (active military panelist).

Provided that New America can assemble the proper panel, there are just two guidelines they ought to follow. One, a strong sense of humility, as the battlefield punishes intellectual vanity. Two, the group should agree on a basic set of assumptions to avoid the "wicked problem" black hole. Colin Gray's advice is valuable in both these respects. In 2005, he counseled readers on four "caveats" that "should be affixed to strategic predictions,"

  • "War should not be approached in ways that would divorce it from its political, social, and cultural contexts."
  • "Defense establishments are apt to develop impressive military solutions to problems that they prefer to solve, rather than those that a cunning or lucky foe might pose."
  • "Trend-spotting and analysis is not a very helpful guide to the future."
  • "Surprises happen.... Because war is a duel, there are intelligent adversaries out there who will strive to deny us a mode of warfare that privileges the undoubted strengths of our transforming military power."

As far as who represents the active military profession with New America -- Tom: try to avoid calling between 6 and 8 p.m.; that's family dinner and bedtime for our daughter. Anytime other than that is great.

Major Matt Cavanaugh is a FA59 (Army Strategist), currently assigned to teach military strategy in the Defense & Strategic Studies Program at West Point; he blogs regularly at This essay is an unofficial expression of opinion; the views expressed are those of the author and not necessarily those of the U.S. Military Academy, Department of the Army, the Department of Defense, or any agency of the U.S. government.

Tom note: This marks the end of the Future of War essay contest. The next step will be a post from me about determining the winners. My thanks to all who participated -- not just those who had essays published, but also people who tried. I learned from all of you, and I appreciate it.

Also, the answer to Major Cavanaugh's question is that we are assembling some advisory boards -- one will likely have several military professionals, and another some academic experts on strategy and history. And yes, he is invited to be on one.