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Army semantics and sophistry over women in combat are dangerous.


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If the moms and dads of America find out what the Army leaders are planning for their sons and daughters considering military service, recruiters are going to have a much tougher job than they do now.

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General Peter Schoomaker, speaking at an American Enterprise Institute symposium on April 11, raised eyebrows when he dismissed the women-in-combat controversy as not a “gender issue.” The Army chief of staff was responding to a questioner who rightly praised the courage of female soldiers, but expressed concern about the unprecedented number of women being maimed or killed in Iraq (33, to date) and Afghanistan (5).

General Schoomaker’s rambling answer confirmed a supposedly “unofficial” plan for women in combat, being implemented in the 3rd Infantry Division despite frequent denials that anything has changed. The blueprint appears to be a “Women in the Army Point Paper” prepared by the office of Army Secretary Francis Harvey on January 24, which includes a subtle but significant change in the wording of Defense Department regulations.

Current directives exempt female soldiers from direct ground-combat units such as the infantry and armor, and from smaller support companies that “collocate” (operate 100 percent of the time) with land-combat troops. The new, unauthorized wording narrows the “collocation rule” to apply only when a combat unit is actually “conducting an assigned direct ground combat mission” (Emphasis added).

General Schoomaker recited Defense Department regulations, but claimed (without justification) that the Army has separate rules that exempt female soldiers from collocation with land-combat battalions “at the time that those units are undergoing those operations” (Emphasis added). By adding the words “conducting” or “undergoing” (a direct ground-combat mission) to the collocation rule, the Army has created a new regulation that has not been authorized by the Secretary of Defense, or reported to Congress in advance, as required by law.

Secretary Harvey’s plan presumes to alter the “gender codes” of 24 of 225 positions–mostly mechanics–in order to accommodate women in a typical forward-support company (FSC). Unlike transportation units that come and go intermittently, these units are designed to operate in constant proximity with combined infantry/armor battalions.

Army officials say they don’t have to notify Congress of any rule change because women in those formerly all-male positions are “not collocating.” For this to be true, officials would have to compromise organizational efficiency, or remove female soldiers from embedded forward support companies when their infantry/armor battalions begin “conducting” land combat. Never mind that spare helicopters and armored vehicles for evacuation purposes would be as rare as “beam me up Scotty” transporter machines.

The insurgent battlefield in Iraq has not reduced enormous demands on infantry, special-operations forces and Marine units that engage in deliberate offensive action against the enemy. In the fierce battle for Fallujah, great physical strength and psychological bonds essential for unit cohesion made it possible for soldiers and Marines to accomplish combat missions and survive.

The politically correct view is that training alone can prepare female soldiers for land combat alongside such men. According to General Schoomaker, “we have a moral responsibility to prepare those women that are serving in our armed forces…by providing them with the warrior skills and tasks that are required….” Improved training on how to evade or survive ambushes makes sense, but gender-normed “warrior ethos” training–an oxymoronic concept–cannot prove feminist illusions of interchangeable men and women in or near land combat.

When the British military replaced “gender fair” training standards “appropriate to women’s physique” with an egalitarian “gender free” regimen, injuries more than doubled. At the Naval Academy, a 1998 study documented knee-ligament injuries among women at rates nine times greater than men.

Women are smart and courageous, but Army would never send female football players to beat Navy on the gridiron. The same officials seem to believe that a few weeks of “warrior” training is sufficient to transform black-bereted female “S”oldiers into the functional equivalents of men.

Physical disparities are not the only issue. Noting that many parents teach their sons to be protectors of women, the questioner respectfully asked General Schoomaker whether such a moral upbringing can be reconciled with the Army’s current policy of sending women into hostile circumstances to kill or be killed. Admitting that he hadn’t thought about the questioner’s moral reservations, Schoomaker seemed to equate them with the attitudes of conscientious objectors, or with people who would say that “men and women can’t even share the same tornado shelter in Oklahoma”–whatever that means.

The response did not inspire confidence, especially when the Army is implementing an unauthorized “stealth” plan to gender integrate combat-collocated support companies. Secretary Harvey’s plan even eliminates several land combat units from the list required to be all male.

If the Army succeeds in circumventing law and policy, consequences will be felt in seven major areas, starting with doubts about Army leadership and legal consequences with regard to Selective Service. Military complications could needlessly cost lives and social/cultural dynamics will detract from discipline, leading to readiness/deployability problems and precedent that will eventually apply to special-operations forces and eventually the Marine Corps.

There is no military justification for an incremental, “little bit pregnant” plan for gender-integration that undermines the advantages of modularity in the Army’s new, smaller “unit of action” combat brigades. There is no evidence of a shortage of male soldiers, but if there is a need for more men, Army officials should end counterproductive recruiting quotas for women.

Recruiting is difficult, but forcing young women and mothers in or near land-combat units would degrade respect for women, and make it tougher to enlist male recruits that the Army needs now more than ever. If Army leaders are serious about its new recruiting campaign aimed at parents, they need to stop the sophistry and semantics, and take this issue seriously.

The law requires that the Secretary of Defense provide formal advance notice to Congress of policy changes regarding female soldiers, accompanied by an analysis of proposed revisions on women’s exemption from Selective Service obligations. This is a national security matter, not a less important “women’s issue.” Members of Congress, Defense Secretary Rumsfeld, and President George W. Bush should intervene to enforce the law. The future of the volunteer force depended on principled leadership now.

Elaine Donnelly is president of the Center for Military Readiness, an independent public-policy organization that specializes in military personnel issues. A shorter version of this appeared in the Washington Times.



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