Disorder in the Ranks

by Kathryn Jean Lopez

As the Joint Chiefs of Staff testify on Capitol Hill this week, Elaine Donnelly, president of the Center for Military Readiness and former member of the Presidential Commission on the Assignment of Women in the Armed Forces, talked with National Review Online about the Pentagon, women in the military, sexual assault, and what to do.

KATHRYN JEAN LOPEZ: Why is it flawed thinking to say that sexual assault in the military would decrease if women had access to all roles in combat?

ELAINE DONNELLY: In January Joint Chiefs chairman General Martin Dempsey and outgoing defense secretary Leon Panetta announced incremental moves to order (not “allow”) women into direct-ground-combat battalions. These are the “tip of the spear” fighting units — Army and Marine infantry, armor, artillery, and Special Operations Forces — that attack the enemy with deliberate offensive action.  

There is no military reason for doing this, so General Dempsey came up with an old argument that is a throwback to claims made by then-congresswoman Patricia Schroeder in 1991. At a Las Vegas Tailhook convention, male and female aviators partied wildly, and two women were groped in a hotel hallway gauntlet. The Colorado Democrat maintained that if female pilots entered tactical aviation, respect for women would increase and sexual assaults would decrease.

More than 20 years later, Schroeder’s theory is discredited. Respect for military women is higher than ever, but rates of sexual assault are soaring with no end in sight. Feminists and Defense Department officials nevertheless are planning to transfer the consequences of their own policy mistakes into the combat arms.

LOPEZ: The latest Pentagon report has sexual misconduct in the military on the rise. What do you attribute that to?

DONNELLY: Military men and women do not make policy; they should not be blamed for the consequences of ill-advised policies made by Pentagon officials. Problems associated with sexual misconduct, both voluntary and involuntary, are escalating because Pentagon officials are making policies based on questionable theories. These include the belief that human sexuality does not matter, and men and women are interchangeable in a “new gender order” that exists nowhere in the world.

Military leaders always seem surprised when annual reports of the Sexual Assault Prevention & Response Office (SAPRO) reveal alarming trends. According to Volume I of the 2013 report, between 2004 and 2012, completed assault numbers including civilians nearly doubled, from 1,700 to 3,374. Cases of sexual assault among military personnel escalated from 1,275 to 2,949, an increase of 129 percent.

More signs of problems appear in Volume II of the SAPRO Report. This section sets forth “virtual” findings extrapolated from the Workplace and Gender Relations Survey of Active-Duty members. Of the nearly 26,000 WGRA survey respondents, 6.1 percent of women and 1.2 percent of men said they had experienced some form of “unwanted sexual conduct” (USC) in the past year — far more than actual complaints filed.

The New York Times did the math and concluded that more men (13,900 of 1.2 million) than women (12,100 of 203,000) said they had experienced unwanted sexual contact in 2012.

LOPEZ: What does it do to combat effectiveness in a military — and a country — when women are seen as interchangeable with men at war?

DONNELLY: Policies that pretend there are no differences between men and women are on a collision course with the facts of physiology. More than 30 years of tests and research projects in the United Kingdom and the United States have provided abundant evidence that women are not the physical equals of men — particularly in upper-body strength that is essential for survival and mission accomplishment. In the direct-ground-combat environment, women do not have an equal opportunity to survive, or to help fellow soldiers survive.

The physical strength issue goes beyond the obvious, however. In order to create what theorists have called a “gender-free military,” demoralizing gender-normed standards have to be used to create the illusion of equality. It is okay to have gender-specific training programs in basic or pre-commissioning training programs that promote fitness and wellness, but not in training for the combat arms.

LOPEZ: If the training standards are the same for both men and women, shouldn’t women be included in land combat?

DONNELLY: In January General Martin Dempsey admitted that if women cannot succeed in tough training, the standards will be questioned. As in the past, officials will implement gender-specific (gender-normed) standards that are “equal” but lower than they are now.

Current leaders deny this, but President Obama soon will select new military service chiefs who fully support implementation of his women-in-combat agenda by 2016. Before long they will make unannounced changes in Army Ranger and Marine infantry training programs so that a sufficient number of women can make it through. Gender-normed standards (sometimes called “gender neutral”) will reward “equal effort,” not equal results. In a single generation, these policy changes will weaken tough training in the combat arms, putting everyone at greater risk.  

LOPEZ: What would you do to combat sexual assault and misconduct in the military?

DONNELLY: For starters, the Army, Air Force, and Navy should join the Marines in separating male and female recruits in basic training. Experienced drill instructors know that gender-separate basic training improves concentration, which is required during the initial process of transforming civilians into disciplined servicemembers.

In 1996, a rash of sex scandals at Aberdeen Proving Ground, the independent Kassebaum-Baker commission unanimously recommended that co-ed basic training be ended, noting that it has resulted in “less discipline, less unit cohesion, and more distraction from training programs.”

The same military and congressional leaders who disregarded the commission’s recommendation are now expressing surprise that at Lackland Air Force Base, more than 20 military training instructors (MTIs) are being prosecuted and punished for sexual abuse of recruits.

Some members of Congress want to reduce sexual assaults by removing or reducing the role of commanders in enforcement of the Uniform Code of Military Justice (UCMJ). Caution is advised, since the military protects individual rights, but it must be governed by different rules.

In a letter to House Armed Services Committee Chairman Buck McKeon, Campbell Law School Professor William A. Woodruff, a former Army colonel and judge advocate general, expressed concern about proposals that would undermine command authority.

Programs to improve legal representation of both complainants and persons accused of sexual misconduct are a step in the right direction, but there are good reasons why adversaries in sexual-assault cases should not be automatically assigned “victim” or “perpetrator” status, and why the presumption of innocence should not be replaced with a presumption of guilt. As reported recently in the Washington Times, the SAPRO review of completed cases found that 17 percent of sexual-assault allegations were unfounded, up from 13 percent – a 34 percent increase since 2009.

LOPEZ: Culturally, do we really buy that men and women are interchangeable? We do seem quite upset when a woman gets caught in the line of enemy fire — or torture.

DONNELLY: During eleven years of war since 9/11, we have witnessed extraordinary courage among our military women. They have done everything asked of them and the nation is proud and grateful for their service. But there has been a cultural price that was predicted in 1992. Air Force survival, evasion, resistance, and escape (SERE) trainers who testified before the presidential commission described training to prepare men for the sight and sound of women being abused by the enemy. For women in combat to succeed, they said, the entire nation would have to get used to combat violence against women.

The majority of commissioners opposed that cultural change for a reason that was best stated by commissioner Kate O’Beirne: “Good men protect and defend women.” With little public notice, more than 138 women have given their lives in the wars since 9/11. The nation, it seems, has become accustomed to violence against women, as long as it happens at the hands of the enemy.

LOPEZ: Is this “social experimentation” an extension of our popular culture/conventional wisdom/academic mainstream?

DONNELLY: Our military is not a conservative institution; it is on the cutting edge of social and cultural change. All branches of the service are coping with social problems ranging across the spectrum from inappropriate (romantic) relationships to sexual harassment and worse. Confusion about male/female relationships and a growing tolerance for combat violence against women is showing up in military training. Some men are encouraged to get physically rough with female counterparts in training – often on their way to mandatory sessions teaching sensitivity toward women.

Cultural dissonance is evident everywhere, with the big push for co-ed combat being portrayed as a gift or reward for women. Never mind that most of the women in enlisted ranks, who outnumber female officers five to one, do not want to be treated like men in the infantry.

As a nation we should consider whether this misguided form of chivalry is a step forward for civilization or a step backward. The answer to a perceived “war on women” is not to send our daughters and granddaughters to fight our nation’s future wars.

LOPEZ: What would you have Congress do to respect military women, without being patronizing?

DONNELLY: To truly honor and respect our military women, members of Congress should take this issue seriously, applying the same due diligence they apply in other matters of national defense. Congress should define and codify women’s exemptions from direct-ground-combat battalions that attack the enemy, while recognizing contingent or incident-related combat “in harm’s way” in a war zone.

This is the best way to keep Army Ranger and Marine infantry standards high and to avoid costly, politically futile attempts to gender-norm male-oriented combat training. (Historically, feminists have always demanded removal of tough standards that they consider to be “barriers” to women.)

Congressional action to codify sound, reality-based policies also would preserve women’s exemption from Selective Service obligations and a possible future draft, which the Supreme Court tied directly to women’s exemptions from direct ground combat.

LOPEZ: Is there really any turning back?

DONNELLY: It is not “turning back” for Congress to establish sound policy on any issue, including women in the military. Members should bring law and policy in line with current realities and lessons learned since September 11, 2001, while maintaining classic principles that improve the readiness and effectiveness of the All-Volunteer Force.

Last month the Pentagon announced a list of combat-contingent positions open to women which did not include infantry battalions. Responsible congressional action to “draw the line at the point of the bayonet” would be consistent with current Defense Department policies.

Following that, there should be extensive hearings and an objective review of both historic data and recent research findings compiled in 2012. Proponents of further change should be required to bear the burden of proof, and to show how women in the infantry would benefit and strengthen the all-volunteer force.

LOPEZ: If you were defense secretary for a day, what would you get accomplished?

DONNELLY: Among other things, I would abolish the Military Leadership Diversity Commission (MLDC) and rescind its most controversial recommendations. The MLDC is a largely civilian, Defense Department–endorsed group that has been pushing hard for gender-based “diversity metrics,” another name for “quotas” to achieve a “critical mass” of women in the combat arms. 

The MLDC report recommends that the new “Chief Diversity Officer (CDO)” with the power to impose diversity criteria that are“not about treating everyone the same.” This can be “a difficult concept to grasp,” admits the MLDC report, especially for leaders who grew up with the EO-inspired mandate to be both color and gender blind.”

The “new diversity” is not about individual rights; it’s about gender-based, discriminatory group rights. The concept is a radical departure from the military’s honorable tradition of recognizing individual merit — the key to  successful racial integration long before it had occurred in the civilian world. None of this is necessary, since military women have been promoted at rates equal to or faster than men.

LOPEZ: What drives your work fighting bad policy in the military?

DONNELLY: This is the 20th anniversary of the Center for Military Readiness, which advocates for high standards and sound priorities in the making of military personnel policies. It has been a privilege to analyze and write about constantly changing social issues, especially since our men and women in the military are not truly free to speak on issues that affect their lives directly. The military’s culture of obedience to civilian orders makes the institution vulnerable to orders that are unwise. It is therefore up to civilians and elected officials to guard and reinforce sound priorities and high standards in the only military we have.