“Full Participation for our sisters-in-arms”

The Washington Post
Saturday, December 12, 2009
By Donna McAleer and Erin Solaro

By this time next year, U.S. troops will have been in Afghanistan longer than the Soviets were. The United States has been engaged in combat in Afghanistan and Iraq longer than in any previous war. Not factoring in the increase in soldiers going to Afghanistan that President Obama announced last week, some 220,000 American women have engaged in combat operations in Afghanistan and Iraq.

In the past eight years, more than 2 million U.S. servicemen and servicewomen have served together in situations and for durations that have never existed in previous conflicts. Whatever issues remain to be resolved, the feared “disasters” did not materialize. There have been no epidemics of rape, no waves of “get me out of here” pregnancies, no orgies and no combat failures. In short, our men and women in uniform have behaved as military professionals.

Yet while U.S. women are fighting on all fronts of the war on terrorism and are regularly engaged in combat operations, there are still barriers to their work and promotion.

In Afghanistan, for example, female troops are underutilized. Explanations vary. Tom Ricks, a senior fellow at the Center for a New American Security and former Post reporter, noted in a recent article that one of the chief barriers to fully utilizing servicewomen in counterinsurgency operations in Afghanistan is not Afghan but American attitudes. Women are thought to make up about half the Afghan population, and female soldiers and Marines have reportedly had more success gaining access to Afghan women than male troops have had.

Rather than assuming that we should not impose our values on Afghans, why not consider the possibility that Afghans of both sexes might be tired of barbarism and could be delighted to see civilization backed by armed men — and women? Perhaps they would take up arms to that end. An internal Marine assessment of its “female engagement teams” that has been discussed in recent weeks on military Web sites quoted an Afghan village elder as saying, “Your men come to fight, but we know the women are here to help.”

Navy Secretary Ray Mabus announced in October that he and Adm. Gary Roughead, chief of naval operations, were close to finalizing plans for the integration of women into the submarine fleet as early as 2011. There has been no feminist agitation for bringing women into the submarine fleet, one of the elite naval positions, as permanent crew. Indeed, organized political feminism as we remember it from the 1970s through the 1990s committed suicide on Sept. 12, 2001, when it refused to call women to the colors in this odd war we are fighting against Islamic fundamentalism. Nor has internal agitation based on limited manpower been reported.

Is it possible we are seeing the beginnings of a top-down campaign to end the 1994 policy that has excluded women from assignment to direct, sustained ground combat?

If so, we are likely to hear much chatter soon about sex on submarines and alternate use of limited bathroom and berthing space on notoriously cramped vessels. Common sense and courtesy should go a long way toward resolving such issues. And why should anyone object that those are unreasonable expectations of sailors? No one who cannot deal in a civilized manner with female comrades-in-arms and shipmates needs access to a rifle, much less torpedoes or nuclear weapons.

These concerns are at the core of the issue of dropping the remaining restrictions against servicewomen (and, for that matter, the “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy banning openly gay and lesbian troops from the services). Twenty-five percent of military jobs are not open to women, and those jobs lead disproportionately to higher command. Yes, it’s true that few men become commandant of the Marine Corps or sergeant major of the Army, but men can. Military women, however, need not aspire to the pinnacle of their profession.

This issue is profoundly moral. Combat is the core of the profession of arms. The military has an absolute right to expect servicewomen to engage in combat, as female Americans have been doing in Iraq and Afghanistan for years. It should be a matter of personal honor and institutional integrity for the military’s senior (male) leadership to say:

“Servicewomen long ago earned the right to be treated as our sisters-in-arms. To that end, we urgently petition Congress to drop all remaining restrictions against them. As for the men within our ranks who disapprove of this: The man who hurts or disrespects our sisters-in-arms, excuses their rapes and harassers or collaborates with their assailants is not our brother.”

Our century will become only more violent. American women and gays have a stake in the survival of our republic, and the military will continue to need to draw on their strength, intelligence and courage. It is time the military acknowledged them and welcomed them into the profession of arms, rather than using, ignoring or discarding them.

Donna McAleer, a West Point graduate and former Army officer, is the author of the forthcoming book “Porcelain on Steel: Women of West Point’s Long Gray Line.” Erin Solaro is the author of Women in the Line of Fire: What You Should Know About Women in the Military based on her research during embedded tours with troops in Iraq and Afghanistan.

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