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FEATURE | summer 2003

Yer Mama Wears Combat Boots and We're Proud

Ms. Summer 2003

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One good thing about the war in Iraq: It may finally have shot down the canard that women cannot be trusted in combat. They have aquitted themselves well all over the battlefront, and in modern high-tech war, that front can be anywhere. Today's
logistics officers are tonight's foxhole shooters, because the battle often comes to them.

Pfc. Jessica Lynch, 19, wounded but fighting with her maintenance unit until she was taken prisoner, is only the most visible of some 200,000 women who are now on active duty with the U.S. armed forces. In Iraq they flew bombers and helicopters, drove trucks and ambulances, commanded ships. They are about 15 percent of the total, and the news media gave them lots of attention. But while this new visibility for military women makes many women proud, it scares many others.

Air Force cadets

Photo by Ed Andrieski/AP Photo

"My daughter wants to join the Army. She's always been independent and a leader, but I never expected this," one mother told me. "I'm worried about the treatment she'll get during training and afterword."

Well might she worry. The Navy had its Tailhook incident of 1991, where senior officers ignored other officers' drunken sexual assaults on women attending a convention. Army leaders in 1996 delt with another set of incidents, when women recruits were assaulted by the very trainers who were in charge of them at the Aberdeen Proving Ground. Most recently, Air Force Academy brass were dismissed after scores of women cadets said they were harassed into silence when they tried to report being raped.

First the good news: The fact that these were major news events shows that they are not typical of women's military experience. But the bad news is that, in each case, investigators blamed a failure of leadership for the incidents and for the cover-ups afterward. That lack of leadership is far too prevalent, unfortunately, and it has kept the military experience a difficult one for women-- so far. Sexual harassment remains a fact of daily life, and other fundamental problems remain.

What is military life really like for women today? The U.S. Army was the first American service to welcome women, as nurses in 1901. Women began serving in separate services during World War II, and were integrated with the men's services at the end of the Vietnam draft in the 1970s, when plummeting voluntary enlistments created shortfalls and pragmatic leaders realized that women could fill the ranks. Jobs open to women expanded dramatically after the Gulf War of 1991, and now women are essential in the all-voluntary military machine-- it could not function without them. They are barred only from units whose "primary assignment" is ground combat.

This means they have not been Navy Seals or in Special Forces units in Iraq, for example, but they could command the vessels that brought in the men and run the flight deck on the aircraft carriers. They can't be infantry paratroopers, but they can fly the bombers the guys jump out of and the fighters that give them air support. Women served in the engineering units that threw instant bridges across Iraqi rivers, but could not be in the tanks that were waiting to cross. Jessica Lynch was in a maintenance unit, but that didn't stop Iraqi soldiers from attacking it.

The argument against women in combat has been that their presence will "disrupt the cohesion and discipline of the fighting unit." This attitude, enshrined in law, views women as Other, as a prize that men fight over or a weakling they have to protect and coddle, not as one of the warriors. The warrior mentality says women simply can't be trusted-- to carry out a wounded comrade, scale a wall, fight and run and sleep in a muddy foxhole-- the way the men can. Left unsaid is the attitude that "bonding" is possible with women only if it is sexual, and that would divide the group cohesion. A combat soldier must trust his buddies above all else.

The military culture is in the process of broadening its model of authority and power, which has been defined as masculine: bravery and prowess in battle, coolness under fire, loyalty to the group, a command "presence." For example, experience in combat is one of the official criteria for promotion to many elite positions-- a classic catch-22 for women who are by definition barred from combat units. Many women have been focused on outperforming the men at their own game rather than changing the rules.

Key shifts emerged from the Aberdeen Proving Ground investigations, including an attempt to change the rules. Sexual assault and rape are crimes wherever they occur, but sexual harassment has long been as slippery a concept in the armed forces as it is in society at large. Confusion about what harassment is and who gets to define it has shielded the harassers and silenced the harassed, while giving employers and senior officers an escape from taking action.

'I had no idea she didn't like my compliments,' a groping cadet might say. Or, 'she didn't complain the first five times I patted her.' Or, 'No one else objects to that.' The officer without official guidlines can say, 'I have a thousand things to do; you can't expect me to be the romance police.' The attitude, in short, has been that each incident is a personal one and that each targeted individual should be able to deal with it on her own, as privately as possible. Group cohesion is, as always, the goal, so that a woman who complains of harassment becomes guilty twice: first of 'getting herself into this situation,' and then of failing to show enough leadership or command presence to get the harasser to stop. If she complains about a superior officer, she commits a third sin: lack of loyalty. The water-cooler chat is then about her effort to ruin his career, not about his offense.

Beyond generating demoralization, anger and resignations, sexual harassment is an abuse of power. Feminists have been pointing this out for 50 years, but the armed forces are just begining to grasp the point. Once they do, however, I believe they will understand how such abuse undermines the core integrity of an institution.

Women in the Air Force

An all-female Air Force unit over Afghanistan
Photo by Capt. Elizabeth Ortiz/USAF

Where leadership climate tolerates sexual harassment, it generally also tolerates other kinds of corrupt behavior by the powerful. Examples can include expense voucher approvals, favoritism in awarding plum assignments, and consideration for promotions, all of which are based on networking. Mutual back-scratching, not merit, wins advancement, and retribution awaits those in the out-group who dare to complain. The official hierarchy comes to mean much less to an individual's daily life than then informal one.

In other words, widespread sexual harassment means the place is run like a gang, not a business-- and not like a cohesive fighting force. It means that loyalty within the group has replaced loyalty to the institution and its mission and what it stands for.

To the Army leaders, wisely, this was unacceptable. They made stopping sexual harassment a requirement for the leaders of every unit. The institution, not just the individual, was made accountable for action, and a policy of swift response to charges is now spelled out and required. Commissioned and non-commissioned officers have been given training on what to do. This approach represents a cultural change which, if it becomes reality throughout the military, will transform life in the armed services for men and women alike. But the transformation is not yet complete. Women themselves need new attitudes. First, they must come to believe that they really do not need to keep silent anymore. This alone will require persuasive counseling and many examples of swift and successful response on the part of the Army hierarchy. Women must encourage one another to report any harassment without fear of retribution, and men must also report incidents they know about.

The armed forces are rigid top-down command structures. If its leaders are serious about fully integrating women into the military, they will enforce their new rules at every level. In the wake of the Iraq war, they will recognize the reality of the all-pervasive combat zone and provide more challenging combat training to support troops-- such as logistics, intelligence and communications officers-- among whom women are common. They will revamp their promotion criteria to recognize battlefield experience in whatever form it takes, not just in formal ground combat units. They will arrange to provide child care for servicemen and women sent into war zones, because 84 percent of all personel are married and two thirds of those, men and women alike, have children. They will enforce their rules against harassment without exception, especially in the case of
field officers.

If the armed forces are serious about integrating women, the time for change is now.

Lt. Gen. Claudia Kennedy (Ret.), the Army's highest-ranking female officer, is now a military analyst for CNN.