Women in Combat: Catching Up with Reality


Door gunner overlooking the Hindu Kush mountains. Male or female? Can you tell? Does it matter?

Secretary Panetta announced that the combat exclusion ban for women in the military is being lifted, and shortly thereafter my phone rang with folks who were kind enough to wonder what I thought.

So I told them:

There’s never enough time in an interview to say all that I have to say on an issue, but I tried to hit a few main points in my talks with both The Takeaway and The New York Times, plus some other important points if there was time to mention them.  Some of my talking points regarding the reality of women’s service in recent conflicts:

  • Women have been serving honorably and effectively for years in both Iraq and Afghanistan alongside their brothers in combat arms–as medics, military police, intelligence specialists, female engagement teams, civil affairs, and other critical job specialties.  Yet they typically do not receive equal credit for their “tip of the spear” assignments in their personnel records, promotion packets, or other status signifiers. 
  • More than 150 women have given their lives in combat in Iraq and Afghanistan, and thousands of women have been wounded
  • Women have performed capably under fire, even despite the fact that none have received the same training as their male counterparts in combat arms.  Equal access to training will not only improve their capabilities and performance, it will increase their survivability in combat.
  • Modern warfare requires skills that go far beyond brute strength; to succeed in our latest conflicts, we’ve needed to be effective at critical thinking, problem solving, building relationships with host nation security forces and the populace, and reaching across large cultural and language gaps to establish trust and rapport.  Generally speaking, men have not been excluded from jobs because they cannot meet these new requirements for success.  Yet even women who meet the physical standards and who excel at these “soft skills” have been excluded.  Broadening the talent pool will only strengthen our military’s capacity to adapt and succeed on today’s battlefield.

The best quote I’ve heard on the subject was from Col. Martha McSally (USAF, Ret.):  “So, Justin Bieber can do it, but Venus Williams can’t?”  Col. McSally was the first American woman to fly combat missions in 1991, and surely she’s heard all of the opining, excuses, and rationalization before.  She’s lived it.  Why do we still have to keep talking about this?  When will politics and public opinion fully catch up with reality?

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