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Women in Combat

Who are these people?


From: Stephanie Gutmann
To: Debra Dickerson
Subject: Keep Women Off the Ground
Tuesday, April 8, 2003, at 3:58 PM PT

With their indiscriminate use of phrases like "died in combat" (when they really mean "died in a combat zone") or "fighting for their country" (when they actually mean something like "supporting the war effort"), the news media have done an excellent job confusing the public about what exactly women do in the military these days. So, I hope you don't mind, Debra, if I try to make clear what we're going to be talking about.

Now, everybody but Debra, listen up! Women in the Air Force and Navy are currently allowed to pilot planes that engage in combat—by dropping bombs or by shooting at an enemy plane. They are allowed to serve on combat ships—which are used to launch cruise missiles and the aforementioned fighter planes. But in the Army and Marines, the services that supply the people who toil on the ground, women do not take direct combat jobs. In a combat position, as the Department of Defense puts it, a GI's "primary goal is to engage, close with and [neutralize] ... the enemy." Pvt. Jessica Lynch, for instance, an Army supply clerk, had been trained to use a gun to defend herself and her unit if need be, but she wasn't supposed to go around proactively "engaging" the enemy (and, of course, she didn't).

So, our question is, should the Army and Marines be forced to change policies that prohibit women from taking combat jobs in their infantry and artillery units? The question was brought up ad nauseam after Gulf War I (since we'd entered a period of peace and prosperity and had time to address nonessential concerns), and if we're lucky enough to have bought ourselves more peace and prosperity I think we're gonna hear it again.

But I sure hope not. The only people who truly want to see women in combat are some TV producers who think it's a "sexy" issue and approximately 500 cranks assembled on college campuses and in NGOs around the Beltway.

The national argument might be worth having if there was some vast, seething body of women longing to personally stick it to the enemy, but Debra, we both know there is not. I have friends and acquaintances up and down the rank structure and from every service—tough, bright, feisty gals all—and I have never met, and they have never met, a woman who burns to join the ground-pounders. (Several large-scale surveys back me up on this.)

The truth is, there are only about 200 women a year who could meet the physical standards required, and even fewer who would select this MOS (military job). So, we'd have a lot of tsores over a few people. And if we launch a legal battle on the subject, we'll open ourselves up to a Supreme Court ruling that might require a female draft for combat positions—and that would be a real debacle.

No, this debate has been dragged in front of congressional committees and made the subject of conferences, newspaper articles, and lawsuits by a very small claque made up of feminist academics (of both sexes), women's groups, NGOs, and a few retired female officers. These women never came very close to combat themselves and have found second careers haunting congressional hearing rooms, trying to extract maximum drama from military tours that were largely bureaucratic.

These advocates' concerns have never been practical. It's all about ideology for them. We need further integration, they say, because—like the fight to integrate the services racially (a totally unsuitable analogy)—it is the simply the right thing to do. There is an entire genre of books about why it is so essential, and it is hard to summarize, but the gist, as I can glean it from these jargon-laden tracts, is that women will never be respected as much as men or paid as much as men unless they are granted this—admittedly crucial—societal role. These advocates also think, as the president of NOW put it, that "[combat] exclusion promotes the view that women are weak, inferior, and need to be protected."

Well, there's a jumping-off point for you, Debra. Is that why you think we need a policy change?


From: Debra Dickerson
To: Stephanie Gutmann
Subject: Workarounds to the Front
Tuesday, April 8, 2003, at 4:25 PM PT

Dear Stephanie,

Speaking as a "tough, bright, feisty [woman]" who served for 12 years in the Air Force and relished the opportunities that service provided me to engage in fairly frequent bare-knuckle competitions of one type or another, I would love to give you the fight for which you so clearly spoil. (Don't you just love what can happen when you de-dangle prepositions?) But I don't see the need for a policy change either, if only because female GIs, if they pay attention to how the military world is structured (and screw 'em if they don't) can already do just about anything they want. See: the cook and supply chicks who kicked butt before holding up just as well as the male POWs—they're all equally terrified and equally susceptible to torture.

Any GI with more than a year in knows that there are an infinite number of ways to get to the front without humping a scoliosis-inducing rucksack. (Successful) GI chicks are smart and sorta positively cynical. They are very aware of their gender-based limitations, both the official and the unofficial ones. Knowing that vocal malcontents have short shelf lives and end up unceremoniously back at Mom's Air Force Base, they accept those limitations and focus on finding workarounds. Note that this is neither equality nor fairness. But it's what there is and, in most cases, it's good and better than what you'd face in the civilian world, especially for those of a non-bureaucratic bent. Yet these female GIs quietly smirk when articles circulate in the Early Bird (a daily compendium of military-related articles) about agitation to put women in combat, knowing that frontal attacks like that will do nothing but wake the sometimes drowsy (but never sleeping) giant of military sexism.

Women find a way to get what they want (or close to it) by mastering the system. Desperate for action and eager to get out of a headquarters assignment, I agitated foreeeeever to be assigned to Intel in Iceland, a NATO tripwire in the '80s. Finally, an assignments chick whispered to me that I was never going to get that without a penis and a pilot's license. I did not file suit. I did not contact NOW. I did what all GIs, who are bred for craftiness in their mothers' wombs, do. I whispered back, "What assignment can I get somewhere near at least the possibility of action?" In other words, I settled. (As a non-pilot male would have. Still, a man can become a pilot, but a woman cannot become a man. And stay on active duty. But I digress.) Six months later, I was Chief of Intelligence in Ankara, Turkey. Not half bad for a community college dropout ghetto girl. Six months after that—the Persian Gulf War. Action.

That's the thing. Women GIs don't agitate to carry rucksacks and become snipers because they already feel like they are personally sticking it to the enemy. That overarching sense of mission and group endeavor supplants the need to have their individual fingers on the trigger. They feel that they are all shooting those guns, they're all dropping bombs on Baghdad. Women don't agitate for combat because the gains they have made and the acceptance they've mostly found imbue their non-combat roles with dignity, honor, and accomplishment. They don't agitate for combat because they know they are willing to enter the fray if required. Even though I had barely tried to master the M-16 (an automatic rifle) all basic and officer trainees were required to spend a day at the firing range with, I still volunteered for the war zone. I was terrified, but I would have gone had hell frozen over and they needed me. (But first, I would have hot-footed it for the base firing range and learned to love that rifle.)

Finally, in the name of all your "friends and acquaintances up and down the rank structure and from every service," how 'bout a little compassion for the has-beens who make up those "few retired female officers who never came very close to combat and have found a second career haunting congressional hearing rooms, and trying to extract maximum drama from military tours that were largely bureaucratic"? I know exactly the type you mean, but Stephanie, do the math. If they're retired, that means they joined up before many cool jobs were open to women or before they might have feasibly switched career fields. Correctly, they feel robbed. They want to matter in a way they were not allowed to before. What they really want is an apology.

Since you couldn't get a rise out of me on the non-issue of women in combat, I know what will. Sorry, Stephanie, the military ain't even half as politically correct as you think. Readers, I refer to Stephanie's articles on this subject and her book The Kinder, Gentler Military. Rhetoric is one thing. Reality is another. How do the tip-of-the-iceberg rape scandals at the Air Force Academy occur in an environment so supposedly feminized and hamstrung by PC-ness? You really want to argue for the scaling back of women in the service altogether, don't you?



Debra J. Dickerson is the author of An American Story. Her next book, The End of Blackness, will be published in October 2003. Stephanie Gutmann is a writer living in New York and the author of The Kinder, Gentler Military.

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Remarks from the Fray:

I, like Debra Dickerson, was a female military linguist, and, for Stephanie Gutmann's benefit, the washout rate at DLI when I attended was estimated to be 60%. Six out of ten did not make it. I was one of the four left standing at the end. Many men were not. I guarantee--Gutmann's views not-withstanding--that the military would be sorely put to find good linguists if they excluded women, and there are plenty of other military positions where brain power counts for much, much more than brute strength. With the current shortage of Arabic linguists, I'm surprised that anyone would doubt what women are able to contribute, and the fact is that there are plenty of positions where a shortage of brain power would mean more lives lost. Simply put, we want the best people we can find in those jobs, and axing women from the services would guarantee that we would not get them. I intend no disrespect to the members of Private Lynch's convoy, but they saw battle--not because it was inevitable, but because somebody made a wrong turn. It surprises me then that Gutmann would use that particular example to advance the idea that brawn is the only thing that should really count in the military. We need both brawn and brains in the military, and while the two qualities are not by definition mutually exclusive, it's a mistake to think that in taking care of one, we will luck into the other. A cursory look at a Bell curve should convince anyone that, without women, the military would lose half of its brightest potential recruits.


(To reply, click

I am an Army Officer. I am a male. I have spent the predominance of my military career in Combat Arm's units, which remain segregated. Recently I have been assigned to my first integrated unit since ROTC, and I must confess that my fears have for the most part been confirmed. To begin with, it is myth that there are no females in combat roles. As a young 2nd Lieutenant, I was shocked to find a female officer in the track positioned opposite my own on the perimeter. She was one of our chemical platoon leaders, and had been attached to my company for a high risk operation that would require her platoons support. While her military role may not have been one of direct action, she was none the less as far forward as I was, and therefore subject to the same dangers… My current battalion is roughly 30% female. Of that 30%, half are pregnant or on maternity leave right now. If you do the math, we're at 85% combat power before we even get into the fight… To further complicate the situation, there are no 'filler' jobs in my battalion, every individual is a critical piece of the pie, and each individuals role is highly technical. That 15% of combat power lost off top is composed of mission critical personnel. Their loss will significantly impact the effectiveness of our unit… While I will be the first to admit that there are exceptions to every rule, women, as a whole should have a limited role in deployable military forces. They certainly have a place in the military, but that place is in a non-deployable position stateside. As for the exceptions. I have on two occasions served with females with whom I would have trusted my life to without a second thought. Most of the females I have worked with have been technically proficient, but the two exceptions I am referring to, had a warrior ethos. They would, and could fight. Ironically enough, both had older brothers. A warrior ethos among our female soldiers is almost nonexistent. As the potential of our current deployment increased, I noted a strong, angry even, resistance to the possibility that they would be expected to deploy, and potentially fight. I can not justify a military standard on exceptions. In general, the females I have served with, while highly intelligent, lack the physical strength required for daily operations, and the mental fortitude necessary for high intensity combat operations. Violence is simply not in their blood. God bless them for that… Not one to offer problems, without solutions, I have the following recommendations. First pregnancy must be dealt with. Either female roles should be limited to non-deployable support roles, or females should not be permitted to have children while in uniform. While the pregnancy issue is a sensitive one, it must be addressed. Political correctness should be checked at the recruiting office. If you're offended by my language, or by me peeing on a tree in front of you, you shouldn't be in the Army. There are limits to acceptable behavior granted, but short of physical abuse, or extreme sexual advances, political correctness should be left for civilized society. Women certainly have a place in our military. They are intelligent, and capable of working in a male environment, however, social and physical limitations must be acknowledged, and can not be allowed to reduce the efficiency of our armed forces.


(To reply, click


I am surprised that Debra Dickerson, who informs us of her service as an intelligence officer, does not point to the example of Lt. General Claudia Kennedy, the first woman to achieve three-star rank, who was also an intelligence officer. I had the privilege of meeting General Kennedy (who is a sorority sister of my younger daughter) shortly after her book Generally Speaking was published, and was delighted to later receive an autographed and personally dedicated copy. General Kennedy feels strongly that ALL military specialties should be open to women. Certainly her opinion is influenced by her own experience in the Army, when she was continually confronted by obstacles to career advancement on the grounds that she "lacked combat and command experience." Well, she finally got that command experience, but still was barred from combat. Who knows, she might have made an excellent chief-of-staff, but her gender alone precluded that opportunity. Neither General Kennedy nor I will argue that relevant standards should be lowered to accommodate persons who are otherwise unqualified for a particular role, but neither should artificial standards be imposed which exclude some of the most talented and dedicated people in uniform. Current Army policy is entirely arbitrary, and it should be changed. If a woman cannot meet physical requirements for some positions, let it be the PT test which disqualifies her, not a policy of gender exclusion.


(To reply, click here)

Ms. Gutmann, I'm having problems with your characterization of the facts. You wrote: 'indiscriminate use of phrases like "died in combat" (when they really mean "died in a combat zone") or "fighting for their country" (when they actually mean something like "supporting the war effort")' If a woman, in the line of duty, is being fired upon by combatants, she is IN COMBAT. If a woman, in the line of duty, is firing on the enemy, (whether she started it, or the Iraqis did), she is FIGHTING for her country. By profession, I am a nurse. But that does not limit my day to giving medications and closing after surgery. If I find myself in a kitchen preparing meals on a hot stove, I am COOKING.


(To reply, click here)

As a former Navy servicemember (female, 1 ea.), I agree that there's entirely too much PC-ness going on, and I'm tired of it. Too many folks took a semi-good idea and completely ruined it. But I have to just say thank you to Ms. Dickerson. I learned to "back door" a lot of the things that I wanted to do very early in my career. And many of the things that I wanted most I never got because I don't have a penis. You do learn to settle. On the plus side, most of those things are now available to women. So, should women soldiers participate in combat or have combat MOSs? I don't think so, but not because I don't think we can handle it. I don't think the male soldiers would be able to handle it. Therein lies the rub.


(To reply, click here)

Stephanie's coments seem a facile take on the question. Every service has as part of its definition of "combat" exactly those things that Stephanie cites as distinguishing the Army & Marine combat arms, and those things she cites distinguishing the Navy & Air Force combat arms. So, what's the difference? Fighter pilots close with the enemy during arial combat, close air support and bombing missions, while exposed to enemy fire. Naval warships in places like the Persian Gulf may spend lots of time in close with opposition naval units. Certainly, both of these services are stand off capable, but so are the Army & Marine Corps — just ask an American tanker 'bout fighting from beyond the range of opposition armor. By the way, every Marine is primarily an infantryman notwithstanding the servicemember's specialty.
--Tony Adragna

(To reply, click here)


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