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The Combat Exclusion

written by Erin Solaro
on March 04, 2010

By law, U.S. servicewomen are barred from the ground combat arms and precluded from being assigned to small ground units (which are infantry, armor and artillery battalions, plus special operations forces). However — and this is the root of the dishonorable dishonesty of the combat exclusion — servicewomen can be and are "temporarily" attached to such units. In reality, this means that women experience and participate in ground combat. They just don't get credit for it, because technically speaking, "women aren't in combat."

Let's be clear. Combat is the core of the profession of arms, and the military has an absolute right to expect servicewomen to engage in it. In a sense, the U.S. military always has expected women to engage in combat. Women have been serving on Navy surface combat vessels and as combat pilots and air crews for well over a decade, and the Navy is actively considering placing women on submarines. For nearly ten years in Iraq and Afghanistan, women have participated in combat without getting credit. The combat exclusion — what's left of it — should be repealed, because to do so is morally right and militarily effective. It should also be repealed to reflect the reality of what women already do in the military — a reality that the Pentagon and Congress, for reasons of political convenience and moral cowardice, refuse to recognize.

In Cold War Europe, the U.S. policy of assigning women to units that did not engage in direct combat as a primary mission (logistics depots, intelligence units and higher headquarters) concentrated servicewomen in units that were high on Soviet conventional targeting lists. The result was that, had the Cold War gone hot, U.S. servicewomen would have died in numbers hugely disproportionate to their presence in the military. And most of them would have died without even knowing how to fight. The military was able to elide this fact by presuming that any conventional war in Europe would have gone nuclear very quickly. Perhaps it would have, back then. But these days, the military can no longer hide behind such presumptions. The combat exclusion needs to be repealed now.

The combat exclusion disqualifies women from the career fields and experiences that lead overwhelmingly to high command, and that matters. But the combat exclusion also says something far darker about U.S. servicewomen. It says that in a profession dedicated to bringing harm to the nation's enemies, it is far more acceptable for the enemy to kill U.S. servicewomen than for them to kill the enemy. The ban stigmatizes women as untrustworthy in a fight; it makes them, at best, second class auxiliaries. This stigma also leaves women vulnerable to harassment, abuse and assault by men who "think" that women should not be in the military or in combat.

The combat exclusion also says something terrible about the military's male leadership. Women now routinely go into combat situations with combat units. The Army has been using "Lionesses" (groups of female support soldiers) since the early days of the war in Afghanistan, sometimes to handle Muslim women and children, sometimes as medics or communications or intelligence specialists. "Lioness platoons" are now routinely attached to male Marine infantry battalions. There are also women in combat simply as troops: medics, intelligence specialists, drivers, gunners. (I once had an infantry brigade commander tell me he preferred a particular female gunner: she made him feel safe.) Today, U.S. servicewomen fight. But whether they are credited with combat service and awarded the decorations they have earned depends on how the unit commander feels: many are not in favor of recognizing women's combat service, and I've even heard of women killed in enemy action being listed as non-battle casualties. Little is more disgusting than this refusal to acknowledge women for their service, and it is reminiscent of the old military attitude that Blacks and Jews did not win high decorations for valor.

When you press male officers about the combat exclusion, they hide behind the fact that only Congress can repeal public law. That's true. But nothing prevents male officers, particularly the military's institutional leadership, from most urgently petitioning Congress to repeal the combat exclusion law so that women can be admitted to the profession of arms on a full and equal basis. To refuse to do so, especially for those men whose retirement pensions are assured, is dishonorable: it shows a lack of intellectual and moral integrity, and it engages in cruelty towards and maltreatment of their female troops by denying them — formal and informal, professional and human — recognition as members of the profession of arms. Cruelty towards and maltreatment of a subordinate is a formal charge in the Uniform Code of Military Justice, the military's legal code. It is also conduct unbecoming of any officer, much less one who is a gentleman. And that reality is not changed by any feelings one may have, that women should or should not be in the military or in combat.

If the military's institutional leaders have any professional honor and institutional integrity at all, they will go to Congress and urgently petition that body to drop all remaining restrictions upon servicewomen, so that women may serve as men do — which is to say, as individuals, no more and no less, recognized as equal members of the profession of arms.

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