U.S. Women May See Fighting in Iraq

Changes in U.S. law and policy over the past 11 years have integrated American women deeper into the core operations of the U.S. military, making it far more likely they will see combat in a new Iraq war than it was in Desert Storm in 1991.

Although the prohibition on women’s serving in "direct ground combat" has remained in effect, President Clinton used his two terms in office to push women into combat aviation forces, onto combat surface ships, and into ground units that could easily be deployed close to the front in a war.

"Many of the roles being filled by women today were implemented by the Clinton Administration," said Elaine Donnelly, president of the Center for Military Readiness (CMR). Under the first President Bush, Donnelly served on the Presidential Commission on the Assignment of Women in the Armed Forces, which made recommendations on the role women should play in the military. "Clinton did exactly the opposite on most of them," she said.

Most of the new roles given to women in the military were the result of regulatory changes made by civilian Clinton appointees, not by acts of Congress, said Donnelly.

"The law against women in combat aviation was repealed in 1991, after Desert Storm [when President Bush was still in office]," she said. "But it was not until the rule was changed in 1993 that women were put into those roles."

Clinton also repealed the rule against women serving "in high-risk areas for close combat on the ground," leading women to be assigned, for example, to engineering units that may build bridges for the first armored units that cross Iraq’s Euphrates River in a drive to Baghdad.

In 1994, Clinton allowed women to serve on combat surface ships.

So far, few women have been involved in the military aspect of the war on terrorism because Marines and Special Forces units have carried out almost all the action, said Donnelly. The Marine Corps is only 6% women, and that 6% is concentrated in non-combat roles. Army, Navy, and Air Force Special Forces are all male, and so, too, are their close-air-support units.

According to the Pentagon, there were 114 active-duty female fighter and bomber pilots in the U.S. military in Fiscal Year 2001 as opposed to 7,735 male fighter and bomber pilots. In FY1991, there were 22 female fighter and bomber pilots, who, because the air combat exclusion rule had not been repealed, were not allowed to fly combat missions. At that time, there were 10,004 male fighter and bomber pilots.

Female active-duty pilots for other fixed-wing aircraft, including transport and reconnaissance planes, totaled 366 in FY2001, up slightly from 342 ten years earlier (note that the U.S. military as a whole shrank considerably in that decade). The number of male pilots on other fixed-wing aircraft dropped to 8,244 from 12,719.

Female active-duty helicopter pilots now total 653, up from 426 in FY1991. Male helicopter pilots total 13,279, down from 18,140 ten years earlier.

Maj. Sandra Troeber, Pentagon spokeswoman, said that the Department of Defense had no way of quantifying how many women might be exposed to combat. For example, she noted, the enemy might engage transport and reconnaissance aircraft flown by female pilots. "Any female pilot could be considered in a combat zone if they fly over that area," she said.

Since the deployment of women on surface warships, the Navy has placed a large number of women in combat roles, even if it is anticipated those roles will be carried out far from the front lines of some modern conflicts. As of Jan. 11, 2002, the Navy had 10,511 "Navy women on sea-duty" in what the service described as a "combatant" role. The total number of Navy women on sea duty, including 472 female Marines, was 18,524.

Donnelly said that the number of women in combat in Iraq would depend on how our forces are deployed. "It’s too soon to know what’s going to happen," she said. "I think the initial assault would involve some women pilots."

The chances of female pilots or women serving on ships engaging in close combat with the enemy is very low, though two women died in the attack on the USS Cole on Oct. 12, 2000. However, the Washington Post reported on September 29, "If the United States attacks Iraq, the biggest single difference from the 1991 Persian Gulf War would be that this time, U.S. forces would go all the way to Baghdad. And to get to the Iraqi capital, the U.S. Army would have to cross multiple channels of the Euphrates River, the wide, slow-flowing barrier where it halted 11 years ago. Over the last week, the armor-heavy 1st Cavalry, which is said by Defense Department officials to be likely to be used in any new attack in Iraq, conducted a huge river-crossing exercise involving much of the division."

According to the Post, the military believes that Army soldiers crossing the Euphrates could easily come under attack as they tried to get the first tanks across. "During the Gulf War, there were no women in the engineering units that did front-line, river-crossing work," said the Post. "In the 220-strong unit handling this crossing, 20% of the soldiers were women."

A spokeswoman for the Army said that 132 enlisted Army combat engineers are women, and 390 female officers are either combat engineers or general engineers. She said that "very few" female officers are assigned to combat engineering units that take to the field.

Rep. Walter Jones (R.-N.C.), a member of the House Armed Services Committee who has four military bases in his district, including the Marines’ huge Camp Lejeune, told HUMAN EVENTS he believes women should be removed from all combat roles, and especially from positions on the ground at high risk of close combat. "I’ve always felt that, in a combat situation, to have women in the front lines, maybe because I was raised a Southern gentleman, I don’t like the idea of women fighting and shooting guns," he said. Jones said that he would support the Bush Administration if it decided to roll back women’s combat roles.

Sen. Jim Inhofe (R.-Okla.), ranking member of the Senate Armed Services Subcommittee on Readiness and Management Support, believes that women should be removed from combat roles but that now, on the brink of war, is not the time to call for that change. "That would be Sen. Inhofe’s preference ultimately, but right at the moment there is no prospect of changing the rules and the military needs to go forward with the rules it has," said spokesman Gary Hoitsma.

The Bush Administration has already taken one step in that direction. In May, the Defense Department confirmed that it had removed women from Army Reconnaissance, Surveillance, and Target Acquisition (RSTA) squadrons, which are units designed to enter hostile areas. The Clinton Administration had ordered that women be integrated into these squadrons.

The Bush Administration also allowed the charter of the feminist DACOWITS (Defense Advisory Committee on Women in the Services) to expire on Feb. 28, 2002. Its new charter and members will likely be much better, said Donnelly.

Iraqi forces captured two American women in the first Persian Gulf War, and one of them later admitted she had been sexually assaulted though not raped, said Donnelly. "If we have a large number of women or even a few women captured [in the next war], it might change public opinion," she said.