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Women in Combat is a Moot Point

written by Jessica Scott
on March 10, 2010

The Difference Between Combat and Combat Arms

The debate surrounding women in combat is a moot point. Everyone in the military knows that women are already in combat, or direct ground combat, or direct action or closing with the enemy. However you wish to phrase it, women are in combat in both Iraq and Afghanistan. Yet the media and some groups continue to insist that women are somehow marginalized by not being allowed "in combat." The problem with this discussion is that when the media speaks about "combat" it actually means "combat arms." The distinction is critical, and ignoring it reduces the general understanding of how the Army fights. While there is real discussion about women in combat, such as Public Affairs soldiers being attached to a combined arms battalion, the real debate is whether or not women should be allowed in combat arms.

The October 1998 General Accounting Office Report, Information on DOD Assignment Policy and Direct Ground Combat Definition, lays out several relevant definitions for this discussion. The latest definition restricting women's roles came into effect after Desert Storm, when commanders and Congress realized that everyone in theater was at risk, regardless of whether they were on the so-called front lines or not. The rule, as it stands, "excludes women from assignments to units below the brigade level whose primary mission is direct ground combat."

The below brigade exclusion rule, however, only applies to Brigade Combat Teams (BCT) and similar units, which are made up of Combined Arms Battalions, Armored Reconnaissance Squadrons and Field Artillery battalions. There are two other battalions in a standard BCT and these are the only two battalions where women are allowed to serve: the Brigade Special Troops Battalion and the Brigade Support Battalion. These two support units have missions to support the warfighters. So women are allowed below brigade level, just not in combat arms battalions.

Women in Operations Support Units

In the years since Desert Storm, the Department of Defense (DoD) opened up a significant portion of previously closed positions to women who have quickly filled the ranks of operations support units. The fact that our Army has been at war for almost a decade on two fronts means that there aren't enough men on active duty in the operations support branches left to fill those positions at battalion and below exclusively without creating entirely female units as a second order effect. Women are in combat, either as support personnel or as attached personnel, such as intelligence gathering teams or assigned to search and interact with local female populations. They are not, however, directly assigned to the combat arms, and that is where the media confuses the issue.

Starting with the ambush that resulted in the capture of Jessica Lynch and Shoshonna Johnson, the Army realized that operations support units — and by extension women — were going to face combat. Furthermore, that ambush caused the Army to reevaluate how it trained its operations support, its non-combat soldiers, which has lead to more effective tactics, techniques, and procedures designed to train all soldiers to defend themselves. That ambush served as a wake-up call to the operations support branches, alerting us to the fact that we would be expected to defend ourselves and that we would start training accordingly.

Before engaging in our current conflicts, operations support units didn't worry about tactics or maneuver because we always thought we'd be safe and protected, well behind the front lines. These attitudes were based on doctrinal training for a conventional war with front lines and rear echelons, not based on sexism, as some have claimed. Women were not singled out to receive less training; rather it was how the Army trained its operations support units. It was how I trained and was trained as a signal non-commissioned officer. I never expected to have to lead my soldiers in direct combat other than basic site defense, because the prevailing attitude was that someone else was responsible for protecting us. That is, protecting signal soldiers, not female soldiers.

Within the military, we know that combat arms can't fight without operations support. And that means the Army can't go to war without women going into combat, period. Because they are only allowed in operations support units, women serve in significant numbers in the battalions that provide this support to the warfighter. So you can argue that by keeping women from combat arms units keeps them out of direct action, but that denies the reality on the ground and the tactical necessity that requires women go out into combat to support the warfighter and bring that infantryman beans, bullets and bandages.

It is also well known within the military that combat arms battalions have forward support companies attached to them. These units are attached to the combat arms battalions and provide direct logistics support to the warfighter. This habitual relationship is critical to the way the Army fights but it also forces commanders to violate the DoD Assignment Policy because these forward support companies are collocated with the combat arms battalions that they support.

The simple solution of filling the support companies with all male soldiers is impossible, unless the Army is willing to accept that other units will be made up of majority females as a result. Given that operations support soldiers are assigned regardless of gender, there are not enough males to fill these units 100 percent with all men without taking females out of brigade combat teams and filling noncombat units almost exclusively with females. So commanders must make a choice: either send these units out half filled to meet the combat exclusion policy or assign female soldiers to these forward support companies. No commander is going to send a unit out half staffed when there are trained and willing soldiers to fill those positions.

As a Rule, Women Should Not be Assigned to Combat Arms Units

There is a distinct difference, however, between being in combat and being assigned to the combat arms. I am not advocating for a wholesale opening up of all military occupations to women. Part of the problem with using Iraq and Afghanistan as a model for whether or not women can serve in the combat arms units is that we are moving into a mature environment. There is a big difference between high intensity offensive operations and the low intensity conflict that has defined Iraq. As always, this is just my opinion based on my experiences in the military. Others may feel differently, but I believe selectively allowing women to serve in combat arms will allow the final barriers to fall gradually, without causing undue harm on the Army's warfighting capability.

Using Iraq and Afghanistan as examples, I believe women can be assigned to combat arms units by exception. In my officer candidate company, out of approximately 100 candidates, there were two women that could have even come close to cutting the mustard in a regular infantry platoon and that was only based on physical capabilities. But then again, most of the men in my class would have had trouble holding their own in an infantry platoon, too.

It's an unspoken rule that soldiers who don't meet a unit's standards are moved around to the job where they will do the least amount of harm. They're shuffled to the staff or to another unit and the local commanders are the ones who make that decision. It's not about whether they're male or female or any other equal opportunity issue. It's about whether or not they can hold their own and that decision, ultimately, remains with the commander. If you mandate that women serve in combat arms units, the first time a female fails a physical fitness test and is moved out of her squad leader position and decides to fight the decision, the unit will be embroiled in an equal opportunity case that will distract from the mission of training for war.

If you allow women to serve in combat arms units at the commander's discretion, you will gradually see women begin to compete for these positions, just as men compete for them now. They will know that if they go to an infantry platoon, they've got to keep up with — if not lead — the men, in all things. If a woman wants to go to Ranger School, let her. But hold her to the same physical requirements that all men must meet: the 17- to 21-year-old physical fitness test standards. It will not be easy to be the first female to go through Ranger School, just as every barrier that women have broken through has been difficult to shatter. But the women who make it will be accepted, having earned their right to stay; she will be accepted because no one will be able to say she made it just because she was a female.

We Are Part of the Team

The men I've met and worked with throughout my 15 years in the military don't care if you're male or female. They care if you are a valuable member of the team. Will you do your job when it counts? That's what matters. We train together at all levels of training: basic training, officer candidate school and West Point. We fight together every day in Iraq and Afghanistan. Men rolling out the gate know that the women on the guns can shoot them. And the women out on missions know they're expected to fire those weapons and save themselves, not wait to be rescued like some defenseless damsel. We women are soldiers. We're part of the team.

I disagree with those that say excluding women from the combat arms somehow marginalizes us and makes us prone to victimization. Our service record speaks for itself. General Ann Dunwoody was the first female to attain the rank of a four-star general and commanded the Army Material Command. There are 57 active duty women wearing a general's stars or the equivalent. Those women are not marginalized. It is phenomenal that they wear those stars because the women wearing those stars today came into the Army at a time women really were marginalized. They and those who came before them, have shot through the glass ceiling and paved the way for me to serve today.

Women serve an absolutely critical role in our military and each female soldier is just as important to accomplishing the mission as each male soldier. Not allowing us into combat arms does not mean we are marginalized or second class, because as part of operations support, we are, without a doubt, already in combat and critical to the success of the warfighting mission. The Congressional definition — and by extension the media's understanding — of ground combat is completely irrelevant in today's tactical environment. Any female who moves into Iraq or Afghanistan is entering a hostile combat zone that may very well require her to engage the enemy with her individual weapon or fire a crew-served weapon to defend herself and her soldiers. We already put our gear on and face hostile fire to recover a disabled vehicle or rescue wounded soldiers. We already encounter enemy fire and risk the same IEDs as our male counterparts every time we roll outside the gates of the FOB with a fuel convoy or establish a communications site on a remote combat outpost or provide security to a route clearance team as they search for IEDs. Pretending we can keep our female soldiers safe from harm is antiquated thinking at best and harmful at worst. More harmful is moving us out of the unit we have trained to deploy with because we have to meet a requirement regarding gender based assignments.

A Moot Point

A war is neither the time nor the place to prove a point about women's equal opportunity, but the current wars have also made the discussion about women's roles in combat a moot point. I believe that forcing women into combat arms to conduct a social experiment in women's equality will result in greater harm than good, just as refusing to allow them to serve in specific units that might need them would be detrimental to overall mission accomplishment.

Lifting the combat exclusion ban requires two things: one, that all Military Occupational Specialties (MOS) be opened to women and two, removing designators of units as "male-only" because of their direct ground combat mission. Both must be accomplished in order to truly make the Army equal in the eyes of its critics. The Army assignments process does not focus on capability, just numbers. Opening all MOSs to all soldiers will result in people unable to accomplish the mission being assigned to combat arms units. I believe this would adversely impact the Army's ability to conduct full spectrum, high intensity operations, which contrary to the Army's critics, remains a real threat in today's global threat environment.

I am, however, in favor of removing restrictions on unit assignments. Allowing local commanders the flexibility to assign soldiers based on the needs of the unit, regardless of gender, would end the debate about women's equal footing in the Armed Forces.

We're already in combat. Allow commanders to decide how to complete their mission and stop pretending women are not in harm's way just because we aren't in the infantry.

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