Hidden Agenda: Women in Combat
Following is background from Your Business Blogger in an article published just after 9.11. Things have changed since then. A little.
Booby traps at the Pentagon: Charmaine and Jack Yoest introduce you to the Pentagon’s babes in arms. What do they want? An “open dialogue” on breastfeeding.(Defense Advisory Committee on Women in the Services)
Originally published in The Women’s Quarterly; January 01, 2002;
ON SEPTEMBER 10TH,  the Defense Advisory Committee on Women in the Services, the group most responsible for promoting women in combat, gathered in Pentagon Conference Room 5C1042. This civilian advisory committee, whose members have the protocol status of three-star generals, monitors the concerns of women in uniform. And what was the topic on the eve of the worst attack in U.S. history?
After briefings from representatives of the Army, Navy, Marine Corps, Air Force, and Coast Guard, DACOWITS, as the committee is known, issued a formal request for more information on what they deemed a matter of paramount military significance: breast-feeding.
As the terrorists prepared to hit the World Trade Center towers and the Pentagon itself, our military leaders were directed “to engage in open dialogue” on lactation tactics.
The Defense Advisory Committee on Women celebrated its fiftieth anniversary last April. At the birthday party, President Bush’s deputy secretary of defense, Paul Wolfowitz, a man well regarded for his level-headed and conservative approach to military issues, lauded DACOWITS in his address as an outstanding organization” and told the
assembly of earnest women that he “looked forward to [their] advice.”
DACOWITS was established by then-secretary of defense, General George C. Marshall, with a mission of advising the secretary on how to recruit, retain, and best use women in the armed services. The committee is composed of thirty to forty civilians appointed by the secretary of defense and is responsible for visiting military installations to talk to women in uniform and to formulate recommendations.
The latest round of appointments to the committee was announced in the final days of the Clinton administration on December 21, 2000, by then-Secretary William Cohen. Cohen’s eight appointees, who serve three-year terms, had their appointments ratified in January 2001–after President Bush’s inauguration–by a Clinton holdover in the Defense Department cleverly using Secretary Donald Rumsfeld’s new autopen, according to the Center for Military Readiness, which is led by former DACOWITS member Elaine Donnelly.
One of these Cohen legacies, Silvana Rubino-Hallman, wrote her doctoral dissertation on women in combat. She concluded that combat is a “male-defined environment” and that women are excluded because “representational practices” have constructed a “reality” defined by “discursive practices” that understand the concept of “warrior” to be implicitly male. Look for a future DACOWITS recommendation: Examine discursive practices as they relate to warrior conceptualization. Institute and enforce gender-neutral usage of warrior terminology.
CHAIRMAN OF DACOWITS is Vickie McCall, a real estate agent and former Utah alcohol and beverage control commissioner. She told U.S. Air Forces in Europe News Service, “You have to understand. We don’t report facts, we report perception.” Huh?
The DACOWITS recommendations from the last ten years read like an act from The Vagina Monologus. sexual harassment directives as a constant refrain; lobbying for increased child care services; and, most critically, a persistent drumbeat for expanded combat roles for women. A recommendation from 1991 chastised the Marine Corps for continuing to use the slogan: “A few good men.” The previous year featured a suggestion that the secretary of the Air Force develop a maternity coat as a uniform option.
Suggested new recruiting slogan: “A gynecologist on every aircraft carrier!” (See the Spring 2001 recommendations where “comprehensive gynecological care immediately follows “creating opportunities for shipboard experience and warfare qualifications.”) Apparently DACOWITS never got word that Newt Gingrich was pilloried for positing a possible connection between field conditions and female infection. Fall 2000 recommendations recognized the need to “ascertain what treatment of gynecological infections is available” and an instruction to the services to “ensure an adequate supply of hygiene products during deployment.”
How can military leadership resolve the cognitive dissonance shown by gender activists who present themselves as saber-swinging “women warriors” — understood discursively or otherwise–but require an Equality Management Subcommittee to protect them from gender discrimination perpetuated by boorish buccaneers who engage in sexist behavior” and make “crude and offensive remarks”? And when DACOWITS follows a recommendation to expand opportunities for women in combat with a recommendation that the secretary of defense start collecting data on “all violence against military women,” should we assume that excludes violence they might encounter in combat?
While the debate over whether differences between men and women are biologically determined or socially constructed continues in the civilian world, the women of DACOWITS seem grudgingly reconciled to the idea that women are different. Their recommendations include a call for implementation of height, weight, and body fat standards that acknowledge gender differences. In a surprisingly girlish fashion they call for “taking into account differences in body fat distribution” and plead with the Army to discontinue noting in the records when “the solder” has run afoul of regulation 600-9–the Army Weight Control Program.
YET DESPITE THEIR WILLINGNESS to recognize that women differ from men in size, strength, health needs, and family demands, DACOWITS and its supporters refuse to acknowledge that those differences might be, in any way, detrimental to the imperative of military readiness. They typically substitute desire and commitment for competence as qualifying factors in an arena where performance failure is unforgiving and often fatal. When McCall was asked by a reporter about the possibility of women serving in special forces units, she replied: “Women are as patriotic as their brothers.”
This highlights what has become the primary item on the DACOWITS agenda: combat for women. Indeed, heading the recommendations for 2001 were DACWOITS’ top three combat-oriented objectives: placement of women on submarines, opening Multiple Launch Rocket Systems to women, and the deployment of mixed-gender Special Operations Forces rotary wing aviation crews.
In fact DACOWITS has been largely responsible for shoving women ever closer to combat. Their recommendations have pushed combat for women year after year. Although they operate only in an advisory capacity, their very existence, and persistence, have created a political gravitational pull in their direction that appears nearly irresistible. A window into how the pressure is applied and the system works: During the fall of 1993 and spring of the next year, DACOWITS called for the Army to open the Airborne’s elite Pathfinder (first on the ground in the combat zone) training to women; when the army complied DACOWITS issued a “Statement of Appreciation.”
Their biggest coup to date, however, came when DACOWITS issued a “recommendation” in 1993 that the secretary of defense “open combat aviation to women immediately.”
How high did you say? One week later, Secretary Les Aspin ordered all of the service secretaries to begin integrating women into combat aircraft units. One year later, Aspin went further and narrowed the definition of “combat” so that women were no longer barred from serving in areas where “risk of capture” existed and are now excluded only from units that are clearly designed for direct land combat.
The Center for Military Readiness is reporting that even this barrier is being breached. An Army official, Lt. Col. Margaret Flott, head of the Women in the Army office, and liaison to DACOWITS, has tried to ensure that women train to serve in new Interim Brigade Combat Teams, which are light infantry “full spectrum combat forces” that the Army is developing. DACOWITS sees the military as simply another workplace plagued with garden-variety office politics, but offering unusual career opportunities. Feminists often argue that having women in combat is a necessary prerequisite to having a woman as president. The DACOWITS goal, McCall mused to reporter Shane Montgomery, is “to assure that the future that we want for our sons is also available for our daughters.” Similarly, she commented to Kathleen Rhem of the American Forces Press Service, that “we have a military that gives women opportunities that they would not have in other countries.”
DACOWITS partisans have approached the military as if it were a good ole boy law firm, or even an all-male country club. Retired Lt. Gen. Claudia Kennedy, herself an alleged victim of sexual harassment by a fellow general, began a speech to West Point cadets in 1997 by declaring, “This is not your father’s army anymore.” Indeed, women now comprise 15 percent of the United States military force.
Still, the battlefield is not exactly an OSHA-friendly environment. The reality of an exploding hand grenade or mortar round cannot be discursively redefined; death doesn’t care about gender.
ON THE ARMY Physical Fitness Test, only about 3 percent of women score the same as the average male. One component of unit cohesion is the sure knowledge of every soldier that he will be cared for if wounded, and he will be carried home on someone’s back if necessary. Elite unit tradition is that not even your dead body is left behind. This instills cohesion, camaraderie, and courage. But can male soldiers expect women to carry them to safety if injured? That kind of doubt itself impairs unit cohesion.
In the Summer 2001 issue of Parameters, the Army’s War College quarterly, which is a peer-reviewed journal, Majors Kim Field and John Nagl argued that the discrepancy between male and female physical capabilities should not be an impediment to women serving in combat. They advance a “modest proposal”: Set a high standard for combat qualifications and open it to all comers.
Elegant in its simplicity, their proposal ignores the political realities of a DACOWITS-ruled world. All of the services today use gender-normed physical fitness standards; even so, women still suffer injuries at a much higher rate than men and, in the wake of basic training, have a 50 percent first-year attrition rate, compared to the men’s 30 percent. It costs $10,000 to recruit a soldier, so the attrition rate hurts. The report to Congress issued by the Blair Commission on Military Training and Gender-Related Issues noted that Army recruits are “required” to complete five of seven throws of a hand grenade. The last two throws must be of live grenades. However, if the recruits do not throw the practice grenades adequately, they may be excused from the live throws. Would that it were so in real combat.
Nevertheless, there are some women who could pass the physical standards under Field and Nagl’s system. That is, of course, as long as they are not in need of those jazzy DACOWITS-inspired military-issue maternity uniforms. Field and Nagl, discounting this argument, report that at any one time, less than 1 percent of the Army is pregnant. However, they include in a footnote annual pregnancy rates for the various services from the Non-Deployable Personnel Report that range from 3 percent of Marine Corps officers, and 5 percent of Air Force officers, to as high as 12 percent of both officers and enlisted women in the Army, and 13.4 percent of Navy enlisted women. The Field/Nagl proposal would include a mandatory “birth control regime” as part of routine predeployment “immunizations.”
It is this constant threat of sexual activity that has inspired the “no talk, no touch” doctrine the military now uses in basic training to attempt to contain sexual activity and eliminate sexual harassment. Feminists want women to experience the battlefield bond, yet expect that connection to be bounded and constrained by regulations about permissible contact.
Anna Simons, an anthropologist who teaches at the Naval Postgraduate School, argues that sexual tension is an immutable dynamic between men and women, and offers an alternative to Field and Nagl’s view in the same issue of Parameters. Simons, the wife of a former Green Beret, reports that “women automatically alter the chemistry in all-male groups.” As she acutely notes, the biggest factor women-in-combat advocates choose to ignore is that if there is one unifying experience all heterosexual men share, it is “a graphic fascination with women.” Putting the object of that intense interest in their midst and then saying, “Don’t touch!” is an approach doomed to failure.
Simons argues lust is a grave threat but that “love may actually be worse. Love rearranges loyalty The good of the group shrinks to two.” Or, in some cases, only one: Love bears all things; love risks all things–for the good of the loved one. All things that is, except the loved one’s life. But in combat, that’s precisely what’s on the line.
In the end, among the well-worn statistics about strength, and the debates about sex, the issue comes down to this: Is there something intrinsically different about women that is worth protecting from combat? Not just for women themselves, but for the greater good of American society? Simons argues that it isn’t just women’s presence on the battlefield that is the problem, it is the lack of their absence that is so mortally wounding to our ideals. Combat involves cold-blooded killing, an act that threatens the soldier’s humanity “When absent,” argues Simons, “what [women] evoke includes home, family, the future, and everything that’s worth fighting for–nonviolence especially.”
As this article is being written, the news from Afghanistan includes more American casualties, a painful reminder that the military is neither a law firm nor a country club to be integrated. By missing this distinction, DACOWITS should be dishonorably discharged because of military necessity.
Charmaine Yoest is a Bradley Fellow at the University of Virginia in the Department of Government, and Jack Yoest, a former Army captain in the Armored Cavalry, is a management consultant.
Thank you (foot)notes:
On Sunday funeral services were held for another American service member killed in combat in Iraq. Another female in uniform. According to the Air Force, Elizabeth Jacobsen was an airman first class who was killed by an IED (improvised explosive device) while providing convoy security.
The continuing battle to put women in combat has a disturbing legacy, with supporters in the Pentagon itself.
Elaine Donnelly from the Center for Military Readiness argues that Harriet Miers is part of continuing this legacy:
As White House Counsel, Ms. Miers either approved of the Defense Department’s illicit assignments of women to units required to be all-male, without prior notice to Congress as required by law, or she was unaware of the long-term legal consequences of those improper assignments, or she gave sound advice that the president did not heed.
Be sure to attend the celebration for the Center For Military Readiness.
The solution to the Army’s recruiting problem is hiring more women for harm’s way with combat pay?
Mudville Gazette has Open Post.