Full participation for ‘Sisters-in-Arms’ (WaPo)

Full participation for our ‘sisters-in-arms’

By Donna McAleer and Erin Solaro
Saturday, December 12, 2009

By this time next year, U.S. troops will have been in Afghanistan longer than the Soviets were. The United States has been engaged in combat in Afghanistan and Iraq longer than in any previous war. Not factoring in the increase in soldiers going to Afghanistan that President Obama announced last week, some 220,000 American women have engaged in combat operations in Afghanistan and Iraq.

In the past eight years, more than 2 million U.S. servicemen and servicewomen have served together in situations and for durations that have never existed in previous conflicts. Whatever issues remain to be resolved, the feared “disasters” did not materialize. There have been no epidemics of rape, no waves of “get me out of here” pregnancies, no orgies and no combat failures. In short, our men and women in uniform have behaved as military professionals.

Yet while U.S. women are fighting on all fronts of the war on terrorism and are regularly engaged in combat operations, there are still barriers to their work and promotion.

In Afghanistan, for example, female troops are underutilized. Explanations vary. Tom Ricks, a senior fellow at the Center for a New American Security and former Post reporter, noted in a recent article that one of the chief barriers to fully utilizing servicewomen in counterinsurgency operations in Afghanistan is not Afghan but American attitudes. Women are thought to make up about half the Afghan population, and female soldiers and Marines have reportedly had more success gaining access to Afghan women than male troops have had.

Rather than assuming that we should not impose our values on Afghans, why not consider the possibility that Afghans of both sexes might be tired of barbarism and could be delighted to see civilization backed by armed men — and women? Perhaps they would take up arms to that end. An internal Marine assessment of its “female engagement teams” that has been discussed in recent weeks on military Web sites quoted an Afghan village elder as saying, “Your men come to fight, but we know the women are here to help.”

Navy Secretary Ray Mabus announced in October that he and Adm. Gary Roughead, chief of naval operations, were close to finalizing plans for the integration of women into the submarine fleet as early as 2011. There has been no feminist agitation for bringing women into the submarine fleet, one of the elite naval positions, as permanent crew. Indeed, organized political feminism as we remember it from the 1970s through the 1990s committed suicide on Sept. 12, 2001, when it refused to call women to the colors in this odd war we are fighting against Islamic fundamentalism. Nor has internal agitation based on limited manpower been reported.

Is it possible we are seeing the beginnings of a top-down campaign to end the 1994 policy that has excluded women from assignment to direct, sustained ground combat?

If so, we are likely to hear much chatter soon about sex on submarines and alternate use of limited bathroom and berthing space on notoriously cramped vessels. Common sense and courtesy should go a long way toward resolving such issues. And why should anyone object that those are unreasonable expectations of sailors? No one who cannot deal in a civilized manner with female comrades-in-arms and shipmates needs access to a rifle, much less torpedoes or nuclear weapons.

These concerns are at the core of the issue of dropping the remaining restrictions against servicewomen (and, for that matter, the “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy banning openly gay and lesbian troops from the services). Twenty-five percent of military jobs are not open to women, and those jobs lead disproportionately to higher command. Yes, it’s true that few men become commandant of the Marine Corps or sergeant major of the Army, but men can. Military women, however, need not aspire to the pinnacle of their profession.

This issue is profoundly moral. Combat is the core of the profession of arms. The military has an absolute right to expect servicewomen to engage in combat, as female Americans have been doing in Iraq and Afghanistan for years. It should be a matter of personal honor and institutional integrity for the military’s senior (male) leadership to say:

“Servicewomen long ago earned the right to be treated as our sisters-in-arms. To that end, we urgently petition Congress to drop all remaining restrictions against them. As for the men within our ranks who disapprove of this: The man who hurts or disrespects our sisters-in-arms, excuses their rapes and harassers or collaborates with their assailants is not our brother.”

Our century will become only more violent. American women and gays have a stake in the survival of our republic, and the military will continue to need to draw on their strength, intelligence and courage. It is time the military acknowledged them and welcomed them into the profession of arms, rather than using, ignoring or discarding them.

Donna McAleer, a West Point graduate and former Army officer, is the author of the forthcoming book “Porcelain on Steel: Women of West Point’s Long Gray Line.” Erin Solaro is the author of “Women in the Line of Fire: What You Should Know About Women in the Military,” based on her research during embedded tours with troops in Iraq and Afghanistan.


One thought on “Full participation for ‘Sisters-in-Arms’ (WaPo)”

  1. FYI. rd

    As published in US Naval Institute Proceedings, February 2000, pp. 26-30…

    Women in Submarines
    (See R. Boyle, p. 96, December 1999; C. Earls, S. Mercogliano, pp. 17-19, January 1999 Proceedings)
    Captain John L. Byron USN (Retired)

    A Proceedings discussion is usually a cut above the current harangue about women serving in submarines, which so far has suffered from a surfeit of opinion untroubled by facts.
    Some facts:
     By law and regulation, women have equal opportunity to serve in warships and combat aviation in the Navy. The opposing argument ended in 1994 with passage of that year’s Defense Authorization Bill, which repealed the entirety of 10 USC 6015, the combat exclusion clause. Subsequently the Secretary of Defense, as enjoined by the new law and on advice of the Navy Secretary, set the current policy putting women into combat crews of ships and Navy aircraft.
     The many opinions about the suitability of women for duty in submarines are inoperative and irrelevant inside current law and regulation. The only factor that keeps women from submarine duty is the policy exception provided for ship types in which the cost to accommodate women is prohibitive. At present this proviso precludes women from serving in four classes of ships: submarines, mine countermeasure ships, mine hunters, and patrol craft.
     Women currently serve with honor and competence in warships and aircrews. The dire predictions echoed in the current debate have proven groundless, as measured in combat readiness rates and actual unit performance. Some sincerely believe that women cannot suitably serve in warships, but this opinion is proven wrong every day in the fleet.
    And now some opinions in counter to the troglodyte thinking of Richard Boyle and the others who would keep women from an equal chance at success in submarines:
     Prohibitive cost is a legitimate argument for excluding women from existing classes of attack submarines, but it doesn’t wash for the Trident hulls nor for the new class of attack submarine not yet built. Vice Admiral Roger Bacon, then Commander Submarine Force Atlantic, said precisely this in an interview in the early 1990s: Tridents could easily be modified to accept two-gender crews and the new attack boat design likewise could easily be so adjusted.
     In recent comments against women in submarines and in their failure to direct the minor Trident hull changes and new-class design modifications necessary to accommodate women, the Navy’s senior uniformed leadership is pandering to the reactionary elements of the all-male submarine force and especially to the most reactionary old bulls in the retired ranks. The no-women-on-boats position reflects more the isolation of the Navy’s senior officer corps from current American values than it does any refined naval thinking. It shows also a sharp disconnect between the leaders in uniform and their civilian bosses who, under our system, should, must, and do have ultimate control.
     Positive benefits flow from accepting women in submarines, most importantly access to a second source of competent individuals who can succeed in the tough jobs and challenging training demanded by modern submarining. Keeping submarines manned has been a huge challenge for three decades. Denying entry to the one unutilized new source of talent for frivolous reasons generally counter to law and regulations is pretty dumb.
     The downside—the oft-hinted-at potential for frigging in the rigging—is a silly non-issue. As a friend says, submarine duty may be the ultimate birth control—in submarines, privacy ain’t. And if the males in the submarine force truly cannot contain their concupiscence in their workplace at sea, they have a pretty bleak potential in the rest of the Navy and later in civilian life, where gender errors end careers.
     You want to kill submarines? Keep women out. The larger downside of denying women entry to submarine duty is in the future, when the submarine force would stand as a macho male bastion completely isolated from the rest of the Navy and from society itself, the last place where it is safe and good to be a misogynist. That creates an ultimately untenable submarine-unique set of social values totally at odds with the world outside the pressure hull, circumstance that will wither public support for the submarine force and cripple recruiting.
    Simply and clearly, it is not in the submarine force’s long-term interest to emerge as the prime element of the American military to “entrench ancient gender roles, with women at home and men at work,” to quote from The New Republic of 10 January. The strategic view puts the submarine force back in the mainstream as quickly as can be done, making the changes needed to accommodate women in existing Trident hulls and the new attack-class, actively recruiting the best of both genders to serve in submarines, and encouraging the competition between the current cadre and the new hires that can only enhance submarine performance and readiness.
    It’s the year 2000 and the 100th anniversary of the submarine force. For the submarine force to have a new century as glorious as its first, it must accept society’s irreversible embrace of women’s equality and the realities of now-well-settled law and policy putting women in warships. The current fight is feckless—women should serve in submarines, to the permanent benefit of the submarine force and the Navy.

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