Army Plays Games With Women-in-Combat Rule
It’s very late. Does the President know what the Army is doing? On the issue of women in land combat, it seems no one is in charge. High-level civilians are circumventing law and policy, members of Congress are being misled and decorated generals seem to have lost all perspective.
President Bush has been a strong leader on national defense, which makes it difficult to understand why he is saying one thing, but the Pentagon is doing another.
During an interview with the Washington Times in January, Bush declared, “No women in [land] combat.” He was referring to current Defense Department regulations that exempt female soldiers from land combat troops such as the infantry and from smaller support companies that “collocate” with them.
A Little Bit Pregnant
If the Defense Department wants to change those rules, federal law requires formal notice to Congress 30 legislative days (approximately three months) in advance.
Despite these directives, Army officials are implementing plans that would force (not “allow”) female soldiers into smaller forward support companies, which operate with land combat troops 100% of the time. These unprecedented assignments will needlessly complicate combat missions and undermine the progress of Army “transformation,” which is complex enough.
The Defense Department has sent out contradictory signals on this issue. Early in November 2004, several flag officers told congressional staffers that they had no intention of repealing the collocation rule. A different briefing by Human Resources Policy Director Col. Robert H. Woods, Jr., to Army Staff Director Lt. Gen. James Campbell, inside the Pentagon on November 29, called for elimination of the regulation.
On January 13, Secretary of the Army Francis Harvey assured House Armed Service Chairman Duncan Hunter (R.-Calif.) that the Army has not changed or violated Pentagon regulations. Eleven days later, the secretary’s office prepared a “Women in the Army Point Paper” that indicates otherwise.
The four-page document–which is described as “unofficial” but is being implemented anyway–actually changes the wording and meaning of the Pentagon’s collocation rule. It also alters the “gender codes” of 24 of 225 Army positions–mostly mechanics–in a typical forward support company (FSC), opening up 10% of these previously all-male positions to women. This arbitrary change in status, which is comparable to being “a little bit pregnant,” clearly violates current Defense Department rules. FSCs differ from transportation and other support units that come and go intermittently. All soldiers are at risk, but FSC personnel are trained to operate in constant proximity with land combat troops that engage in deliberate offensive action against the enemy.
During a February meeting at the Pentagon with an associate and me, Army Secretary Harvey and Gen. Richard Cody, the Army vice chief of staff, confirmed that female soldiers are serving in forward support companies. Thirteen of the newly co-ed FSCs recently deployed to Iraq with the 3rd Infantry Division. This does not violate the rules, the officials told us, because female soldiers will not be collocated with combat troops when the battle begins.
This made no sense until we received the “Women in the Army Point Paper” from Harvey’s office. This document includes a subtle but consequential change in Defense Department rules, which the Army is not authorized to make.
Current Defense Department regulations exempt female soldiers from support units that collocate with troops, such as the infantry, which are “assigned a direct ground combat mission.” The Army’s revised version adds the word “conducting” to that definition. This creates a new collocation rule, which applies only when a combat unit is actually “conducting an assigned direct ground combat mission.”
Army officials claim that the new wording–call it the “collocation catch”–makes it unnecessary to provide legal notice to Congress, since the rules have not been changed. This is not a valid argument, but even if it were, how would the plan actually work?
Imagine a hapless battalion commander standing in front of a gender-mixed support company, telling the men that they will go forward to the battle, but the women will not. After that divisive moment, he will have to find a way to send the women elsewhere.
“Beam me up” transporter machines are in short supply. An active duty infantry officer estimates that it would take one Chinook, two Blackhawk, or six Huey helicopters, or two five-ton trucks, or 12 up-armored Humvees to evacuate 24 fully loaded female soldiers in a single forward support company.
That’s assuming that the women would be willing to go. A female officer wrote to the Center for Military Readiness: “That is ridiculous. When does the combat begin?…[C]ommanders in the field will not follow those guidelines.” The Army’s top leaders told me, “They will have to.”
So, field commanders are supposed to decimate their own support troops (remove 24 of 225) at times when they are needed most. A former armor officer described that scenario as “nuts.” Responsible combat battalion leaders will not allow sophistry or semantics to detract from mission requirements.
The battlefield has changed, but land combat realities have not. When an infantry soldier is wounded under fire, his ability to survive may depend on a single male support company mechanic who can lift and carry him to life-saving emergency care. A female mechanic trained with “gender-normed” standards could not do the same. Under the Army’s equivocal plan, there might not be any support soldier nearby at all. So much for “train as we fight” and the concept of “unit cohesion,” which depends on mutual trust for survival in battle.
Doublethink definitions have consequences. The Army’s revised collocation rule sets a new precedent for all land combat support units subject to Defense Department regulation. Absent intervention, this will affect all Special Operations Forces and eventually the Marine Corps. The “Women in the Army” blueprint even presumes to eliminate multiple launch rocket systems (MLRS) and Stryker brigade reconnaissance surveillance target acquisition (RSTA) squadrons from the list required to be all male.
Why is this happening? More than one general has told me that the objective is to “grow” the careers of female officers, including their own daughters. This is careerist groupthink, which cannot justify incremental changes that will force the majority of enlisted women and men to pay the ultimate price.
A May 2004 Pentagon briefing speculated about insufficient “inventory” of male soldiers for the combat support companies, but presented no data to support that concern. If there are shortages of men, officials who retained gender-based recruiting quotas for women–including Defense Under Secretary David Chu, his deputy, Charles Abell, Army Chief of Staff Gen. Peter Schoomaker, and Personnel Vice Chief Lt. Gen. Franklin Hagenbeck–should be held accountable for their failure to plan ahead.
The military needs sound leadership on personnel policies, not problematic decisions by default. Members of Congress should insist on compliance with the law requiring advance notice of proposed policy changes, including the effect of the revised collocation rule on women’s exemption from Selective Service registration. Officials might claim that the new wording is “pre-decisional” (even though it appears in the Army’s official magazine Soldiers). If that is so, immediate revocation should not be too difficult.
The ultimate responsibility to bring the Army back into compliance with law and policy resides with the commander in chief, President Bush, and Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld. The time for principled leadership is now.