February 1, 2013

Women in Combat

A week ago, Secretary of Defense Panetta announced that he had decided to repeal the restriction on women serving in combat units. Stating the obvious, there were howls of derision and near-apocalyptic warnings on one side of the spectrum while at the other end long-time advocates for such a change cheered themselves hoarse. (A handy quick-reference source for a good sampling of the arguments pro- and con- can be found here.) Those in favor cited the American principles of 'equality' among people, 'equal opportunity' to serve one's country, and 'equal opportunity' to compete for promotion to the most senior levels of leadership within the military Services regardless of gender. Those opposed raised a host of issues from the physical ability to perform tasks associated with combat units, to whether 'unit cohesion' would be damaged by the introduction of women, the impact of readiness issues stemming from different biological traits (pregnancy, etc.), the frictions that accompany mixed-gender settings, and whether performance standards would be lowered to ensure women would 'succeed' even at the potential risk of lowering the combat effectiveness of a unit. 

From all the statements I've read issued by senior leaders in the Department (both civilian and military), I take it as a 'done deal' that women will indeed by allowed to serve regardless the findings of the various studies now underway in the Army and Marine Corps. The Administration has committed to making this happen and the Services will salute smartly and get it done. Personally, I think it's a very bad idea for reasons that include some of those already mentioned by critics but mostly for a reason I've not heard raised at all in the current debate. I've posted below some thoughts I shared with friends/colleagues earlier this week on this issue. Before jumping into it, however, I just want to be clear that I have the deepest respect for the women who do serve our country in uniform, whether in the military services, law enforcement, as firefighters, or other 'first responder' professions. In my three decades of service to our country, I have had the distinct honor of serving with or around some of the most capable and professional women imaginable. Whether here at home, while deployed aboard ship, or serving in combat zones abroad, the women Marines I've worked with more than held there own right alongside their male colleagues. But I hope you see the larger point I try to make below. Without further ado...
Secretary of Defense Panetta’s decision to open the “combat arms” career field to women has stirred a hornet’s nest of response both in vigorous support and horrified opposition. Having served a career in uniform as a U.S. Marine, in peace and war, and remained involved in the Defense community for several years since retiring I have my own thoughts on the matter. They derive from two pillars: maximizing effectiveness in combat (get the dirty job done as quickly and effectively as possible) and acknowledging in our policies what I think to be key values-based cultural issues. 

Women involved in combat actions incidental to war are one thing; committing women to offensive combat actions intentionally, especially in ground actions, is quite another...and I don't mean having them drive a truck along an IED-strewn road or conducting the myriad tasks necessary to sustain combat ops in a theater of action. Women have participated in "war" in one form or another as long as people have fought. They have certainly suffered the nastiest effects of war wherever it has occurred and have been at the forefront in 'cleaning things up' when all the shooting stops - getting a society back on its feet, dealing with the devastation imposed on families, shouldering the burden when the men don't come back from the front, etc. In my mind, there isn't any question about whether women can endure, or have endured, in such settings nor whether they have the ability to pull a trigger as well as any man or have the stamina to hold up under extended hours of hard work under arduous conditions. Examples abound across the field of human endeavor. Even in ground actions there have been notable examples. One of the most effective snipers in WWII was a Russian woman (one of over 2000 Russian women who served as snipers) who tallied an extraordinary toll of dead Germans (309). But is this really the point? For me, it isn't. The real point, in my mind at least, is how a society views warfare and the extent to which it willingly commits its population to undertake some of the most horrible tasks imaginable. 

In Spielberg’s classic film “Saving Private Ryan” there is this heart-wrenching scene in which one of the soldiers looking for Ryan finds himself engaged in a brutal hand-to-hand fight with a German soldier. He ends up dying as the German gets the upper hand and slowly shoves a big fighting knife into his heart. Most combat actions take place at extended ranges via rifle, artillery, and aerial-delivered fires. But the whole purpose for ground forces in war is to 'locate, close with, and destroy the enemy by fire and maneuver or repel his assault by fire and close combat.' At some point, it gets close and personal, and brutish, and very, very physical. 

Current cop shows on TV featuring 'hardened but vulnerable' female detectives and SWAT team members, news footage of young women serving in the 'front lines' in Iraq and Afghanistan, and the now-ubiquitous drone of 'drone ops' convey the sense that the combat-of-old just isn't the way it is in the 21st Century. Poppycock. Mankind has always searched for ways to 'touch the enemy' with effect and from increased distances. But mankind has also learned that ultimately it comes down to who owns the terrain and successfully imposes his will on his opponent. What our most brutal enemies will conjure-up is what will eventually happen on a battlefield - i.e. brutal treatment of a captured female for effect. Just look at the reporting out of Syria about rape being systematically used as a weapon. The same thing has occurred in other conflicts, of course, and is now occurring with nauseating regularity among the 'brush wars' raging in western Africa 

Various commentators have observed that cultures or countries can be assessed or judged by how they treat their women. Some societies dominated by “Islamic fundamentalists", for example, tolerate and even espouse beating their women and denying them the most basic rights, respect and dignity. That says something. What can be said for a culture that willingly and completely unnecessarily commits its women to the brutality of “waging war” on their fellow Man for the purpose of showing how 'equal and just’ we can be?

I'd prefer no one had to undertake the task. But history plainly shows that odious regimes and vile individuals arise from time to time that can only be stopped by force. Given this, I'd prefer to showcase our better cultural nature, apply as effectively as possible the resources (meaning 'people') best able to complete the job as quickly as possible, and thus bring the crisis to a close. "[Most] effectively", "best able", and "as quickly as possible" in such situations typically call for the aggressive application of violence against one's enemy when lesser measures fail...as they often do. Why lessen our odds for success, and trumpet as an “achievement”, that we’re happy to have even more of our society participate in the harsh, ugly practice of killing the enemy all for the goal of ‘leveling the career playing field’ or showing just how 'equal' we can be?

Whatever supposed gain we might achieve by the change in policy, I think we will have lost something much more important in this exercise. We won't notice it immediately, of course, but it will have an effect on who we are as a people.

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