Rumsfeld Dithers on Women in Combat

Retired generals have fired volleys at Donald Rumsfeld, but he will stay as secretary of Defense. This is only fair, since Rumsfeld should have to deal with the consequences of problematic personnel policies that were set in motion on his watch.

Under Rumsfeld, social engineers have accelerated their agenda. Rumsfeld is known for abrading subordinates, but not Army officials who continue to violate policy and law on the issue of women in land combat.

All deployed soldiers, men and women, are serving "in harm’s way." But even without a "front line," the missions of direct ground combat units have not changed. Infantry, armor, and Special Operations Forces attack the enemy with deliberate offensive action under fire. These fighting battalions, and support units that "collocate" with them 100% of the time, are required by Defense Department regulations to be all male.

If the Army wants to change the "collocation rule," the secretary of Defense must approve and formally report the change to Congress approximately three months (30 legislative days) in advance. The law also requires an analysis of proposed changes on young women’s exemption from Selective Service obligations.

These requirements have not been met, even though the Army has placed female soldiers in formerly all-male support units that collocate with infantry/armor battalions in the Third and Fourth Infantry, 101st Airborne, and First Cavalry divisions.

Army Secretary Francis Harvey denies a need to inform Congress of such assignments — but there is a "catch." Female soldiers are administratively "assigned," on paper only, to legally open (brigade level) units. In reality they are placed in "attached" forward support companies that collocate with land combat battalions, and are required to be all male.

Secretary Harvey has claimed that female soldiers will be removed (somehow) when battalions begin "conducting" or "performing" direct ground combat. Even if the Army had sufficient resources to evacuate women on the eve of battle, the disruption could cause missions to fail and lives to be lost.

Where is Congress on this? In 2005 House Armed Services Chairman Duncan Hunter (R.-Calif.) conducted an investigation, and led the first major debate on women in combat in 15 years. Army officials initially denied illicit assignments, but later used semantics and sophistry to justify them. Dissatisfied members of Hunter’s committee passed legislation to codify current Defense Department regulations.

Instead of issuing a swift order to bring the Army back into line, Rumsfeld persuaded Hunter to withdraw his legislation. A substitute amendment in the 2006 Defense Authorization Act mandated a detailed report on women in land combat, due on March 31, 2006. Rumsfeld’s office ignored the deadline and diverted the task to RAND Corporation, which will not produce a report until December 31. If a Democratic Administration displayed such contemptuousness, Republicans would be up in arms.

But congressional oversight on matters affecting women in the military should not be a partisan matter. Some legislators on both sides of the aisle are taking this issue seriously, but most seem unconcerned about the consequences of decisions being made by default.

The cost of doing nothing starts with confusion among soldiers who are beginning to doubt the judgment of their leaders. No one has provided data proving shortages of men for the combat arms, but deficiencies could occur if the institutional Army continues to supply CENTCOM with an unsuitable "inventory" of soldiers who are not eligible for the infantry.

Substituting women for men in combat-collocated support units increases danger for everyone. Female soldiers are brave, but proximity matters. In combat collocated units soldiers need to be strong enough to individually lift and evacuate a wounded infantryman under fire.

When feminists demand "career opportunities" in infantry battalions, how will Rumsfeld respond? The devil is not in the details, but in the priorities used to determine policy. If career considerations are paramount, incremental changes will increase demands for "consistency" in Army and Marine infantry, armor, and Special Operations Forces. And if the land combat notification law is not enforced, a similar one regarding female sailors on submarines has no meaning either.

Enter the ACLU, which will file another lawsuit challenging male-only Selective Service registration. The Supreme Court has upheld women’s exemption because female soldiers are not ordered into direct ground combat. If the rules change, deliberately or by default, the ACLU will probably win. Voters will notice when their daughters are denied college loans for not registering with Selective Service.

In the combat arms, physical capabilities are critical. Soldiers routinely carry weapons and equipment weighing 100 pounds or more. Servicewomen experience stress fractures and other injuries at rates far higher than men, but Army leaders pretend that male and female warriors are virtually interchangeable. Gender-normed training standards, which never would be used when choosing football players for the Army/Navy game, contribute to the illusion of a "gender-free" Army.

Officials also pretend that sexual entanglements can be perfectly managed. But sexual misconduct in the forced intimacy of the combat arms, on either end of the "hostile/romantic" behavior spectrum, would more seriously affect discipline and deployability, cohesion, and trust. No one should be surprised when demoralizing scandals similar to Abu Ghraib inspire more criticism of the military.

All soldiers — male and femaledeserve our pride and support. They are not responsible for military leaders who disregard policy and law, but the Secretary of Defense is. President Bush, the ultimate "decider," should pay attention and intervene. Events in Iraq are beyond the President’s control, but the Pentagon is not.