Women in Combat: Equal Opportunity Meat Grinder

by , January 18, 2011

Not a month after the repeal of Don’t Ask Don’t Tell, a move that allows gays to serve openly in the military, one of the Army’s top brass is saying that the meat grinder – er, playing field – could be getting even more level.

(Photo by Seth Robson/Stars and Stripes)

When asked a question Jan. 6 about finally letting women into combat assignments in the war zone, Army Chief of Staff George W. Casey Jr. said publicly that “we’re looking at revising the policy. … We’ve had some work going on for a while, and that’ll double back up to the secretary, I would think, in the next couple of months.”

This wasn’t just a one-off response, apparently. A week later, the Associated Press wrote that a key military panel was preparing a report that recommends women should be allowed to serve officially in combat duty.

It’s “to create a level playing field for all qualified service members,” members of the Military Leadership Diversity Commission (MLDC), established by Congress two years ago, said Friday. Their comments and upcoming report follow a like-minded paper issued by the panel in November [.pdf].

Combat is considered the “final frontier” for women in the military, though they have already been serving, albeit unofficially and off the books, in combat-related roles throughout the current conflicts in Afghanistan and Iraq. It will be interesting to see if it again it becomes a cause célèbre for feminists at the level of say, the 1990s, when women like Democratic Rep. Pat Schroeder and Sara Lister battled openly against the he-skeptics in the Republican Party over gender discrimination in the ranks. The debate became a mostly academic, glass ceiling affair, and eventually opened up many new military positions for women, but not combat.

But that was then – peacetime – and this is now – wartime – and the feminists have, up to now, been pretty distant from the issue of women in the Global War on Terror, though women now make up some 14 percent of the total Armed Forces and 255,000 of veterans who have served overseas in Afghanistan and Iraq. Truth is, without a draft, the military would not have been able to fight the Long War without them. Women have been flying combat aircraft and serving as military police, gunners, interrogators and prison guards – as close as it gets to the action.

“It’s something whose time has come,” said retired Navy Capt. Lory Manning of the Women’s Research and Education Institute. She said ending the ban on women in combat would be “a logical outcome of what women have been doing in Iraq and Afghanistan, where the Army and Marines have been essentially ducking the policy.”

Indeed, everything looks “logical” on its face. Why wouldn’t anybody want to be recognized and rewarded for the work they are already doing? No doubt women are missing out on valuable promotions and short changed in so many other areas. However, as the war zone has been going through a 10-year “shock integration” that they had themselves set into motion, feminists and many proponents of full combat equality for women have been rather quiet about all the bad things that have happened to women precisely because of their desire to be treated “just like men” in war.

It’s this dark side of shock integration that no one seems to want to acknowledge, and will likely get short-shrift in the looming debate over women in combat. For example, the number of sex assaults perpetuated against female soldiers by their male counterparts go up every year. According to a 2008 study, 15 percent – one in seven – of every female vet who sought medical VA medical care, had experienced some sort of sexual trauma in-theater. These women were 59 percent more at risk of a mental disorder, the study said, but mounting evidence indicates that women are getting less adequate treatment for their psychological problems when the get home from war.

Mothers – including an estimated 1,800 single mothers overseas – are pulling more than one tour of duty, and in many cases, they risk nasty custody battles and worse, losing their children to other people, including state foster care, when they are gone. Destructive relationships, adultery and the sexual dynamic among male and female members stationed together is yet another taboo subject. Data on the number of overseas pregnancies is elusive, but it seems to be enough of problem that one general tried to pass punitive measures last year to deter it.

Meanwhile, when female soldiers get pregnant stateside, they can be forced to deploy within four months of giving birth. They are at a greater risk of getting divorced. Then there is the institutional discrimination, which has never really been addressed as the Army has rushed into wartime roles with any warm body it could find without ensuring the male-dominated climate wouldn’t recoil and put women systematically, and culturally on constant defense.

One female ex-Marine told me last fall that the problem of women being assaulted by fellow service members is much more prevalent than we even know, mostly because women are afraid to tell anyone when they are raped or abused. “It’s huge,” Joyce Wagner, 27, said of the number of rapes in the war zone. She was assaulted overseas seven years ago and never told. “[Women] just don’t report it.”

This is certainly not what the feminists expected when they fought to tear the barriers down for women – but they hadn’t anticipated that 9/11 would have launched the country into a two-front war and a 10-year empire-building exercise called the Global War on Terror, or that women would become so essential to recruitment. But they have. That’s why it would be surprising if the Army pushed hard against any recommendations for women in combat.

Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said only recently:

“No matter how many doors we have opened for women in the military – and there have been many – there are still too many others yet closed. …

“Today, women are rising through our ranks and expanding their influence at an ever-increasing rate, serving magnificently all over the world in all sorts of ways. More critically, in these wars of ours, they’ve served and sacrificed and led every bit as much and every bit as capably as any man out there. Well over 200,000 women have served in Iraq and Afghanistan, demonstrating tremendous resilience, adaptability and capacity for innovation.

“Indeed, they have given us a competitive advantage. … There are, indeed, many doors yet to open.”

People can point out that women aren’t conscripted, they’re volunteering for the meat grinder. In fact, there are thousands of female veterans who would surely find fault with my line of commentary. As I’ve written before, most women have proven their mettle in this war and much of the time, it is their male commanders and counterparts who make the case for them. When they come home, those women who have not been traumatized fall into similar patterns as other vets, joining pro-military advocacy groups and engaging the levers of the establishment to see that their interests are addressed on Capitol Hill. Right now, one of those interests is seeing women get their due in “official” combat. It hardly serves them to look like victims, or to question whether this war is just, or if it is even the best arena for their special talents and commitment. Meanwhile, pro-war think tanks and their accommodating media friends have done their part to shape and champion their cause.

No doubt, the fair-weather feminists will now re-emerge to comply with the narrative, too. We can already hear the flags unfurling and see the signs being hoisted. The op-eds are certainly beginning to pop in favor of women fighters on “progressive” political websites like the Huffington Post. Nancy Duff Campbell, co-president of the National Women’s Law Center and vice-chair of the Defense Advisory Committee on Women in the Services, writes:

“In 2006, rejecting efforts to enshrine in statute a limited combat role for women, Congress required only that the secretary of defense provide 30 days notice of any change in current policy to both the House and Senate. As a matter of national security and civil rights, it’s time for Secretary of Defense Robert Gates to give that notice, eliminating all restrictions on women’s military service. Only then will, in President Obama’s words, the ‘sacrifice, valor and integrity’ of military service not be defined by gender.”

Sounds effective, but the more salient question to ask – which the mainstream will of course fail to ask – is if we have had nearly 10 years of “shock integration” in which women have been serving in unofficial combat, cheek-to-jowl with their male counterparts, pulling multiple tours of duty, why don’t we have more comprehensive data and analysis on how it’s all working out?

Probably because, as described in part above, it’s not going to help anyone’s political cause to know. Especially the military. “The military has consistently glossed over problems and denied them, denied access to information that could reveal problems. To a large extent it is in nobody’s larger interest to reveal that information,” complained Kingsley Browne, a conservative law professor at Wayne State University and co-ed combat critic, who spoke with me for my 2008 American Conservative report, “Women at War.” As far as I can tell, the government has been no more forthcoming with information that could help us understand the effects of shock integration today than it was three years ago.

And frankly, it’s pretty politically incorrect on both ends to talk about it even in superficial terms. The truth is ugly and liberals don’t want to concede the argument that there are genuine differences between men and women, that the system is stacked against them and it’s uncomfortable to advocate a woman’s right to go overseas and impinge on another’s right to live like a human being. Meanwhile, pro-war right wingers (many of whom resist the idea of women in co-ed combat) don’t want to concede that the military is anything but a virtuous pillar of American life, and that the war is just as virtuous, and winnable, and unfettered by human weakness.

So the upcoming debate will likely run the same ground as “don’t ask don’t tell,” with advocates for women in combat insisting this is about “choice” and civil rights, and opponents talking mostly about physical fitness disparities between the genders, and whether women will hurt morale living in close quarters with men in small combat units. These lines of argument are so familiar they are almost comforting in comparison with what they really could be talking about. Whoever wins out will depend on where the political winds are blowing. As I’ve said before, the military needs every warm body it can get so we kind of know where this is going.

Don’t expect much in any creative response from the general population, which most of the times seems out to lunch on controversial issues of war, and has pretty much ignored the rise of women in the war zone, much less their plight. They’ll shrug this off as another debate over “rights” that they’ve been conditioned politically to either support or oppose. Liberals will knee-jerk “yes!” while conservatives knee-jerk “no!” Both sides will talk over each other, the debate will flare and explode on talk radio and in the blogs, then we will all move on to the next thing, while women are left to their own devices in the trenches.

Why not say “hang on!” – it’s not too late to talk about this hungry machine we’ve been feeding since 2001. In fact, this might be the perfect time to talk about it, as more Americans are expressing their disdain for the war and for the price we’ve paid so far. This isn’t about denying rights to women, it’s about hitting “pause” before making it easier to throw even more of our mothers and daughters needlessly into the meat grinder, and our humanity along with them.

Read more by Kelley B. Vlahos