Politics & Policy

The Army’s Gender War

A new policy is unfair to both men and women soldiers.

I recently heard from a female soldier who feels betrayed by the Army. Calm but justifiably angry, the soldier said she is being assigned to a forward-support company that will “collocate” with the Army’s new, modular infantry/armor land combat battalions. This is a serious change in policy, unfair to men and women soldiers alike.

Under current regulations, women cannot be forced to serve in smaller direct ground-combat units such as infantry or armor battalions, or in companies that collocate with them. If the Defense Department wants to change these rules, law requires that the secretary must notify Congress no less than 30 legislative days in advance, when both houses are in session. Despite the “collocation rule” and the congressional notification law, the Army is unilaterally assigning women to previously all-male forward-support companies in its new “unit of action” land combat teams, which are key to the Army’s “transformation” to a lighter, faster force.

In letters signed by underlings, the Army claims compliance because the units in question will belong to gender-mixed brigade-support units operating elsewhere. This is only an administrative sleight of hand, which a May 10 Army briefing admitted could be seen as “subterfuge.” Pentagon planners rearranged blocks on organizational charts, but in practice the forward-support companies in question will still be collocated with and organic to the Army’s new combined infantry/armor maneuver battalions 100 percent of the time.

What’s worse, Army officials have tried to mislead Congress about their intent. During a November 3, 2004, briefing for congressional staffers, Pentagon officials denied any violation or change in rules exempting female soldiers from assignments in land-combat-collocated units. A different briefing conducted inside the Pentagon on November 29 stated that the preferred “way ahead” is to “rewrite/eliminate the Army collocation policy.”

When the Washington Times reported the duplicity on December 13, Army Staff Director Lt. Gen. James Campbell immediately issued a widely distributed memo warning about “Information Security” and the loss of “positive control of pre-decisional briefing materials, decision memorandums, and otherwise generally sensitive information.” President Bush and the Congress should ask, Why is this matter so sensitive?

Some military decisions must remain confidential, but this is not one of them. The 3rd Infantry Division, based at Fort Stewart, Ga., has been quietly training women for the new land-combat forward-support companies, while arrogantly claiming that the notification law does not apply. “Lessons learned” from the division’s impending redeployment to Iraq will be declared a “success,” but if (when) anything goes wrong, officials will blame the collocation rule that they intend to eliminate. Either scenario will betray the trust of soldiers and undermine the Army’s own best interests.

Some officials have made the unsupported claim that female soldiers will have to make up for shortages in male combat soldiers for the Army’s new land-combat teams. To the extent the problem exists, gender-based recruiting quotas are to blame.

Instead of dropping the gender quotas, the same officials are pursuing an illicit course of action that will erode the effectiveness of all land-combat troops, and eventually apply to special-operations forces and the Marine Corps. The Army has also defied logic in retaining co-ed basic training, acknowledged in 2002 to be “not efficient” in transforming civilians into disciplined soldiers. Revised “warrior training” programs sound impressive, but gender-normed standards emasculate the concept by assuring “success” for average female trainees. Soldiers know that there is no gender-norming on the battlefield.

The nation is proud of our women in uniform, but that is no excuse for forcing unprepared female soldiers, many of whom are mothers, to face the physical demands of violent close combat and a higher risk of capture than exists today. In the Army’s own surveys over a decade, 85 to 90 percent of enlisted women said they strongly oppose such policies. Their opinions matter no more than those of male soldiers, who will have to bear new “female force protection” burdens that could complicate dangerous missions.

Combat commanders will have to cope with significant personnel losses, distractions, and social turmoil that will be more intense in the heat of war. Predictable problems include far higher rates of medical leave and evacuations, primarily due to pregnancy, which Army officials refuse to reveal or discuss. Making the mix even more volatile will be sexual attractions, personal misconduct, and accusations of same.

Forget feminist legends about Amazon warriors and push-button wars. The modern land-combat soldier carries weapons and high-tech equipment weighing 50 to 100 pounds, with body armor alone weighing 25 pounds. Such burdens would be disproportionately heavy for average female soldiers, who are certainly brave but shorter and lighter, with smaller hearts and bones, 25 to30 percent less aerobic capacity for endurance, and 40 to 50 percent less upper-body strength.

Politically correct group-thinkers and Clinton-promoted generals in the Pentagon apparently have forgotten certain realities affirmed by overwhelming evidence: In direct ground combat, women do not have an “equal opportunity” to survive, or to help fellow soldiers survive. No one’s injured son should have to die on the streets of a future Fallujah because the only soldier near enough to carry him to safety was a five-foot-two 110-pound woman.

The concerned soldier who contacted me recognized that the Army is about to conduct an unannounced, extremely dangerous live-fire social experiment under wartime conditions. With deployments imminent, what can be done?

President George W. Bush and Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld must intervene to enforce the notification law and encourage the recruitment of young men. In long-overdue congressional hearings, members should require Pentagon officials to document alleged shortages of males, and explain why female soldiers should have to pay the price for the Army’s bureaucratic errors. Congressmen worried about the sexual abuse of military women should be consistent in expressing concern about the elevated risk of combat violence at the hands of the enemy.

Today’s changing battlefield makes it even more important to retain personnel policies that recognize combat realities that have not changed. The collocation rule should be strengthened, not weakened, and applied consistently in all units that collocate with direct ground-combat forces. At times we have no choice but to send young men into land combat, but we do have a choice when it comes to sending our women there.

Elaine Donnelly is president of the Center for Military Readiness, an independent public policy organization that specializes in military personnel issues.


The Latest