Defense & National Security

Women Soldiers Serving at Greater Risk

The entire nation has been moved by the dramatic stories of three female soldiers captured from a maintenance unit in the early days of Operation Iraqi Freedom.

First we saw the grisly sight of several slain soldiers, and the frightened face of Spec. Shoshana Johnson, single mother of a two-year-old. She and four others were interrogated on videotape, moved around Iraq by their captors, and eventually found by American forces.

A Fedayeen thug slapped Army Pfc. Jessica Lynch, a courageous and severely injured 19-year-old soldier, within the sight of a compassionate Iraqi man who initiated a rescue mission rarely executed successfully in the past 50 years. Special Operations Forces and Marines had to dig with their bare hands to retrieve from shallow graves the bodies of eight more soldiers from the same unit. Among the dead was Pfc. Lori Piestewa, a Hopi Indian and single mother of two young children.

These stories inspire strong emotions, including pride in the brave women who are serving their country well. Military personnel policies regarding women in combat cannot be based on singular stories, however. The views of enlisted women, who outnumber female officers by more than five to one, differ from those who aspire to flag rank. A 1998 General Accounting Office report, quoting a Rand study, found that only 10% of female privates and corporals agreed that “Women should be treated exactly like men and serve in the combat arms just like men.”

Many people, including the family of Spec. Johnson, thought that their daughters, sisters, and nieces could serve their country without undue exposure to close combat. But in 1994, then-Secretary of Defense Les Aspin quietly abolished the Defense Department’s “Risk Rule,” which spared women in support units from assignments close to the front line. Aspin also eliminated “substantial risk of capture” as a factor that exempted women from involuntary assignment in or near hundreds of previously all-male positions. Exceptions include the infantry, armor, multiple launch field artillery, Special Operations Forces and helicopters, Navy SEALS and submarines.

The controversial rule changes were billed as career enhancers, even though military women have been promoted for decades at rates equal to or faster than men. The Clinton Administration chose to appease a few civilian feminists and ambitious female officers who won’t be happy until a woman chairs the Joint Chiefs of Staff. As a result, thousands of women, especially those in enlisted ranks, are serving at far greater risk.

It is unfortunate that Secretary Aspin ignored the advice of experienced combat leaders who testified before the 1992 Presidential Commission on the Assignment of Women in the Armed Forces. To summarize a huge body of testimony and evidence compiled by the commission, women do not have an equal opportunity to survive, or to help fellow soldiers survive in combat.

Glib talk about “sharing the risk” of war ignores the fact that women face unequal and greater risks. Few women have the strength to cope with physical burdens, including high-tech equipment, which exceed weights carried by Julius Caesar’s Roman legionnaires.

Realities of warfare cannot be denied, but they can be disguised. Gender-normed training standards measure “equal effort” instead of results. Such techniques reduce female stress fractures and create the illusion of equality, but everyone knows that there is no gender-norming on the battlefield. A recent survey conducted by the Center for Strategic and International Studies found that only 36% of both sexes agreed that women would pull their fair share of the load in combat or hazardous situations.

Feminists continue to celebrate the capture of the three brave but unfortunate enlisted women as a “victory” for equal rights. On the contrary, approval of gender-neutral violence signals a breakdown in civilized values. Americans need not sacrifice cultural respect for women on the altar of “equality.” It should matter that the International Red Cross and other experts on prisoners of war have reported differences in the harsh treatment of male and female prisoners. Brutality that is uniquely cruel to women, including sexual assault and rape, frequently has been used as a weapon of war against women, but rarely men.

At times the nation has had no choice but to send men to defend America. We do have a choice about sending young women, including single mothers, to fight our wars. Now that the military phase of Operation Iraqi Freedom is coming to an end, the Pentagon should reassess the Clinton-era policy of deploying female soldiers in previously all-male and support units that involve “a substantial risk of capture.”

The Pentagon must compile and release complete and candid information on the consequences of putting women at greater risk. Also on the list for review should be gender-normed and “adjusted” training standards, the effects on children of long-term separation during a war, personal discipline issues, and the effect on readiness of personnel shortages caused by medical problems and pregnancy. The Pentagon should also drop pressures for recruiters to spend extra time and scarce resources meeting gender-based “goals,” which are never called “quotas.”

In future wars field commanders should be given permission to use their own best judgment, to the greatest extent possible, regarding the assignment of women in support units. Without further delay, the Army should also end co-ed basic training, which it admits is inefficient. That way, instructors would be able to devote more time to essential weapons training instead of “sensitivity” classes.

Finally, it is essential that young women recruits be informed of rule changes that put them at greater risk than was the case prior to 1994. The American people need to think hard about what that really means, and let the Defense Department know that it is time for a change.


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