In 1993, I was involved in the Navy’s transition of women from non-combatant ships to combatant ships — from support craft like oilers and salvage vessels, to warships like destroyers and cruisers, in other words. Newly-elected President Clinton and his defense secretary, Les Aspin, determined — after the success of women in Desert Storm — that it made no sense to exclude them from serving on combatant ships and aircraft.
The idea of “protecting” women from the rigors of the battlefield was becoming untenable: there is no safe place in a war zone, as a Scud missile that killed 28 behind the front lines in Saudi Arabia in February 1991 sadly showed. Yet neither Congress nor the Pentagon was ready to rescind the rules for women in direct ground combat. No one in power saw that as a problem. War is war, and war is not pretty. One has to do her or his duty. However, in recent years, the reluctance to accept casualties, male or female, became tantamount to the kiss of death, career-wise, for any commander with troops in harm’s way.
Desert Storm was a wash…so few war-related casualties over the short period of actual combat gave us Americans a false sense of security. We were invincible. We were the most powerful military in the world. We had God on our side.
Then 9-11 happened, and we happened into a two-front war in Muslim lands. After much trial and error, our military leaders finally determined this an unconventional war needing unconventional tools. But one of the problems is that cultural norms in the Middle East forbid men from inspecting, talking to, guarding, confronting, or otherwise dealing with, women.
In 2005 local commanders in Iraq took matters into their own hands created ad hoc teams of untrained-for-combat women volunteers they called “Lionesses.” It made a huge, positive difference. The military women have both guarded and calmed the Arab women while dodging the rigors of combat.
More recently, trained teams of female Marines have become Female Engagement Teams — dealing with local Afghan women – also often in harm’s way. And Military Special Forces recently added trained teams of women, though not considered “Special Forces”, to their ranks. But they’re not given full-combat status – nor the awards, promotion opportunities and – let’s face it – bragging opportunities that go along with it. Women are serving in combat, in combat roles, but the policy and the reality are at odds.
It is time to make policy match reality. The U.S. military has come a long way in expanding opportunities for women — but it must shuck this last vestige of paternalism. Women should be welcomed into the combat ranks for one simple reason: it would make the world’s best military even better.