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Paula Broadwell

Women soldiers crucial to US mission

By Paula Broadwell
August 26, 2009
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RECENT HEADLINES about whether G.I. Jane should be serving in combat or combat units - a violation of official policy - touched a nerve with women warriors.

A group called the Center for Military Readiness has been lobbying Congress to restrict women’s roles in war. But in fact, today’s wars have already decided when and where women are to be deployed. Instead of restricting women’s opportunities, it is time for Pentagon leadership to consider codifying the reality of the role of women in combat. Defense Secretary Robert Gates should keep time with the beat of reality on the ground.

On today’s battlefield, there is little differentiation between “front’’ and “rear’’ area operations. Whether they are in “combat units’’ or not, women are on the front lines, and they are invaluable. Period. By not acknowledging that in official policy, we diminish the sacrifices and contributions these women make every day.

Women have played an increasing role in recent wars, and the trend is likely to continue. Over 7,000 women served in Vietnam. In the first Persian Gulf War, 33,000 women deployed to the Gulf. Since Sept. 11, more than 220,000 of our total deployed forces have been women.

Even as the military fights wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the class that entered West Point in 2008 contained more women than any other class since women first came to the academy in 1976. Higher-ranking women are also pursuing combat command experience for promotion opportunities. If we prohibit women from acquiring that experience, they will never earn the same status as their male counterparts - although they may be doing effectively the same jobs.

Putting those concerns aside, our thin-stretched military can ill afford to keep women out of combat zones. Excluding women from combat units - infantry, armor, special operations, and some artillery units - hurts those units, because there are simply not enough male soldiers to fill their forward support companies.

Stability operations, peacekeeping, and counterinsurgency are unequivocally the norm for today’s military and tomorrow’s. These operations require winning local populations’ hearts and minds, and female soldiers are well equipped to engage with the half of the population that shares their gender. The generation of soldiers who grew up in this complex environment understands that having well-trained women helps accomplish the mission. Officially restricting such a key resource from the front lines is naive and counterproductive - as many of our closest allies have recognized.

Myriad examples of the unofficial policy illustrate women’s increasingly important front-line role in the no-boundary combat zone. In some special operations units, women are essential for cover and approach missions - and can easily and should morph into the assault elements if appropriate. Marine Female Engagement Teams (FETs) in Afghanistan also reflect the changing nature of counterinsurgents. An all-female unit of 46 Marines, the FET is the military’s latest innovation in its competition with the Taliban for the populace’s loyalty. Afghan women are viewed as good intelligence sources, and more open to the basics of the military’s hearts-and-minds effort - including hygiene, education, and an end to the violence.

Without a doubt, this is a complex question with a lot of attendant emotion. Assuming women can meet physical requirements, one of the remaining concerns centers on the potential for women to be disruptive to combat unit cohesion. Experience in Iraq and Afghanistan has proven otherwise. According to a member of the well-disciplined Special Forces, elite women have integrated smoothly into many operations without disruption.

Human sexuality will always present a challenge to organizational discipline. In an isolated combat unit, it could present challenges, and long-term infantry operations in isolated outposts could create a situation where issues of sex impede an organization’s survival skills. But on forward-operating bases, managing sexual issues should be like managing routine personnel issues. Banning sex is futile and impossible; the best approach is to set rules regarding fraternization, maintain awareness of relationships within the command, and strictly and fairly discipline transgressors.

At this point, the question is not whether women should be serving in combat, but whether we have enough women at all for today’s wars.

We are ready, and we are already there.

Paula Broadwell, a West Point graduate, is a research associate at Harvard University’s Center for Public Leadership and serves on the board of Women in International Security.

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