Women in Combat

Kelley Beaucar Vlalos rightly calls attention to a neglected angle of the Iraq War in her American Conservative article, Women at War. Despite Congressional mandates and Army regulations to the contrary, and with little notice by either government, the media or the public at large, women soldiers have largely been integrated into the modern asymmetric battlefield in both Iraq and Afghanistan.

Some strident language aside (blaming this development on “Clinton-era liberals,” for instance), Vlalos’ larger point is balanced and timely. She complements the iconic “Women of Iraq” (Jessica Lynch, Lynndie England and Janice Karpinski) with the neglected stories of rape, sexual harassment, and isolation experienced by women soldiers in theater. She condemns the hypocrisy of congressional and military leadership for ignoring the very obvious violations of the Combat Exclusion Policy and ban on collocation instead of exploring ways to reform them. Most importantly, she acknowledges both the sterling combat performance of our women soldiers, as well as the reality that respecting the policy is not really an option, as to do so would deprive the American military of 15 percent of its deployable (wo)manpower (yet another component of President Bush’s hidden Iraq War draft).

In addition to bringing an important issue into the spotlight, Vlalos’ article also got me to finally read through this Army War College compendium (.pdf) that I’d bookmarked weeks ago, titled appropriately enough, Women in Combat. At 83 pages, it’s a bit long to annotate, so I’ll just copy & paste this section from the executive summary:

The nature of the current battlefield makes it impossible to apply strictly the existing rules for excluding women from combat without serious reduction in combat capabilities, degrading the professional development and thus status of women, and producing a potentially serious reduction in overall readiness. . .

Observations from this compendium and the material gathered by the contributors may be summarized as follows:

-The Combat Exclusion Policy with its attendant “collocation” restriction is incompatible with the nature of the war in which the U.S. Army is currently engaged and the forms of conflict it is likely to be engaged in for the foreseeable future;

-The Combat Exclusion Policy and the associated “collocation” restriction is likewise incompatible with the Army’s transformation to a modularized force;

-The U.S. Army today cannot be manned adequately without the broad participation of women;

-While serious ambivalence remains toward the integration of women into infantry, special operations, and armor/cavalry units, obstacles to career development through other branches should be removed — ability should be the measure of merit — period.

-Perhaps the most important conclusion this effort brings to light is the almost complete reversal of attitude by the American public toward women in military service — the American public accepts female casualties as part of the price of war. (pp. vii-viii)

If you don’t have the time to read through the entire thing, I recommend in particular the article by Col. Michele Putko (pp. 27-35) on the impact of the Combat Exclusion Policy on both the Army and the careers of women soldiers, and Col. Mark Lindon’s very brief treatment (pp 37-42) of public opinion regarding women in combat (short version: most people don’t have a problem with it, especially among the younger generation). There are also very impressive accounts by commanding officers of the performance of women officers in “logistical support” units that effectively led to combat roles.

The compendium avoids any discussion of the difficulties women serving in combat roles face. Instead, it emphasized that, judging by performance-based criteria, there is no objective justification for keeping women out of combat roles. And in fact, if you read Vlalos carefully, it seems like her objections have less to do with women serving in combat roles so much as with women serving in combat roles alongside men, as the problems she identifies are mainly sexual violence, and to a lesser extent fraternization. What both Vlalos’ article and the compendium bring home, however, is the need for this discussion to be carried out openly, in a clear and coherent manner, both for the good of the military, but especially for the women we’re asking to shoulder an increasing share of the burden of war.