All the Sisters and All the Brothers

All the Sisters and All the Brothers…

Erin Solaro, from The Proceedings of the US Naval Institute June 2005, original photos omitted.

All the sisters are not brave and strong. All the brothers are not virtuous. But so many of them are, so much of the time, that the Department of Defense and the armed services must now make a decision. When reality conflicts with policy, one or the other must yield. In the matter of American women in ground combat, and the larger issue of full equality under arms: Which shall it be?

In the spring of 2004, I received a grant [to go to Iraq and another grant to go to Afghanistan]. I’d been pondering this subject, and living it, for 20 years, as an ROTC cadet, Army reserve officer, Marine wife, graduate student in military history, occasional defense analyst, and journalist. Now I was going to war.

The Seattle Post-Intelligencer accredited me. I spent June and a bit of July in Iraq, embedded with combat troops in the Sunni triangle: the Army’s First Brigade Combat Team (1st BCT), First Infantry Division, at Camp Junction City outside Ramadi; and Echo Company, Second Battalion, Fourth Marines (E/2/4), in the city. I spent February 2005 in Afghanistan, working with Provincial Reconstruction teams (PRTs) and combat troops out of Bagram Air Field near Kabul and the Army’s forward operating base at Ghazni. In both countries, I went on raids, patrols, convoy security, and other operations. I lived with the troops.

My purpose here is neither to tell war stories nor to push a political agenda. My goal is to report on two emerging realities, indeed two new moral norms; to suggest that it’s time to face a couple facts about the past and the probable future; and to conclude that women’s full equality under arms is no longer a matter of individual or group “rights.” It is a military necessity, and in this case the policies and practices that ensure rights also contribute to effectiveness.

The first new norm is that, in Iraq and Afghanistan, the women are fighting and fighting well. Increasingly, they are accepted by the men on the basis of the only standard that counts in combat: can they be counted on? Women do perimeter defense, convoy security, and all those moments when the war decides to pay you an unscheduled visit. But they do more. Some medics of all-male combat units are women. The 1st BCT called women combat volunteers “lionesses”—women who accompanied the men outside the wire specifically to deal with Iraqi women and children. They were also expected to fight.

Captain Anastasia Breslow, 1st Engineer Battalion, 1st Infantry Division, said of her first tour in Iraq: “I never expected to find myself in combat. As a signal platoon leader, as an officer and a female, I always expected to be in rear areas, with echelons above combat units.” Of her first lioness mission: “I was terrified and excited, I felt obligated; if I didn’t [go], someone else would. It was a rare opportunity and scary to leave the relative safety of the base: improvised explosive devices (IEDs), sniper fire, any number of things, but I was most worried about the explosives. Everything that wasn’t just [on the] road scared me, but I would never turn down an opportunity to go on a mission. I kept thinking, I’ll be contributing something, I won’t just be sitting back here.”

The Marines in Ramadi made a point of borrowing these lionesses whenever they could (women Marines were kept on the other side of the Euphrates); some Marines wanted to attach the lionesses permanently. On 6 July 2004, I interviewed then-Brigadier General Richard S. Kramlich, U.S. Marine Corps, commanding the 1st Force Service Support Group at al-Taqqadum Air Base. He told me, emphatically, that the Marines would abide by the wishes of the American people and not send women into combat. Only the desire to keep my hosts out of trouble kept me from asking if he knew what was going on in the rifle companies.

The same held in Afghanistan, where I also encountered women who had been on multi-week missions with the SEALs and Army Special Forces. Command Sergeant Major Lynette Harper of the Joint Logistics Command at Bagram Air Field, told me: “The combat exclusion rule did not start becoming an issue until I realized that I could do anything the Army had to offer. . . . The reason I want to talk about this now is the great things I see and read about women doing with men. They’re on patrols, they’re out front. They’re searching females, and with males on combat patrols here and in Iraq. Part of what bothers me is that I’m not sharing the risks of my male counterparts in those infantry battalions. When I hear Elaine Donnelly (President of the Center for Military Readiness) saying, women shouldn’t be killed or wounded or raped . . . I ask, what about men—is this okay for them?”

In the very early morning of 23 February 2005, I went on a raid with U.S. soldiers of the 3-116 Infantry Battalion, 29th Infantry Division, the “Blues and Grays” of the Virginia National Guard, and 1-25 Military Police Company. There were three women in the MP platoon of 27 soldiers, one of whom, Sergeant Danielle Dolph, helped out that day by dealing with the Afghan women. To my knowledge, there have been no combat failures directly attributable to the presence or the performance of women. The anecdotal evidence and, I suspect, the data, indicates the opposite.

But if the women are proving they can fight, what about non-combat matters, especially prolonged integration under austere conditions and worse? Again, a new norm is emerging. Familiarity may breed contempt, but it can also breed respect. What you lose in privacy, you gain in modesty. More than once, I encountered men who weren’t that unhappy to share an open-bay barracks with women; it cut down on some of the guys’ more undesirable habits. Total integration also enhances female safety. Male harassers and predators, it seems, tend not to target women in their own units, perhaps not wanting to go into combat with an armed woman they’ve annoyed or attacked. The guys in a unit can be very protective of their sisters against outsiders. For that matter, they can be pretty protective of visiting women.

I note here that there has been no post-9/11 spike in what I’ve come to think of as “Get Me Out of Here!” pregnancies. As of press time, although the Pentagon offered me comprehensive pregnancy statistics, it has not released them; in the past, it has told me that comprehensive statistics were impossible to compile, being held at the unit level. It did release to me pregnancy discharge statistics: 2,136 in Fiscal Year 2002, 2,643 in 2003, 2,691 in 2004, declining to 1,227 for the first half of FY 2005. Without pregnancy statistics, especially from Central Command, these numbers may indicate anything from the shaking-out of unwilling or unsuitable troops to women who have already done their bit facing the fact they cannot put their children through another deployment.

In sum, I suggest here that, among the younger generations of troops and officers, new norms are emerging. To a great extent, they’re making it up as they go along, driven by the exigencies of war. But it’s happening. It’s happening because they grew up accustomed to equality; because they’re professionals; and because they’re good people. It’s happening because commanders and leaders at all levels are setting and enforcing high standards. Units with men-women problems usually have other woes. The GI Janes of the 507th Maintenance Company, Abu Ghraib, and Camp Bucca are not the new norm. Nor are the rapists and harassers. The new GI Jane, armed, modest, competent and accepted by her male comrades, is the norm; the same can be said for their brothers.

Coming out of Iraq, I spent one night in an open-bay transient barracks at al-Taqqadum Air Base, the only unarmed woman amid dozens of armed men. I felt—and was—safer there than I was the next night in a luxury hotel in Kuwait. At Camp Junction City, men mounted informal guard on the women’s shower. At Ghazni forward operating base, so remote it might as well have been on the moon, a few women lived in safety and dignity amid hundreds of men. When the plastic covering of my windows proved not quite as opaque as I’d been told, the guys asked a sister to tell me that, while they appreciated the show, perhaps I wouldn’t want to provide another. Leaving Ghazni, a young soldier told me to be careful back at Bagram because there was a serial predator there. He told me that the men didn’t take kindly to his activities, and were planning to convince him to mend his ways.

Nor do the women take kindly to female misbehavior. Imagine that you’re Private Susie or Corporal Debbie, carrying on with a guy or two or trying to get yourself a pregnancy MedEvac and not too particular about the sperm donor. Now imagine that a half dozen of your female comrades gather round your bunk and ask, “Why are you making our lives harder?” Then imagine that they go pay a similar visit to Specialist Jack and Sergeant Billy.

Now it’s time for the Defense Department and the services, the Army and Marine Corps especially, to accept this reality, especially given current recruiting and retention problems. Before the military can face the future, however, it must come to terms with the past.

In the early 1970s, a confluence of forces influenced the beginnings of gender integration. Conscription was ending; good men were hard to come by. The Defense Department decided to increase the use of women. Equality, however, measured by everything from stern prosecution of sexual offenses to repealing the combat exclusion rule, was neither desired nor intended.

Then came a 30-year feminist assault: a devastating combination of political pressure, vicious scandal-mongering, and hype. The military was, in the feminist view, the last bastion of machismo, to be toppled for the sake of the toppling. The feminist view was wrong, but so was the military response. The feminists opened or, more aptly, forced open the doors. They did not determine how the new generations of servicewomen would be used or treated by the system, or how the men would be affected.

There is no nice way to say this. Faced with the political pressure to integrate and expand the roles of women, the military reacted in classic bureaucratic manner, doing enough to satisfy the politicos while covering its own posterior. Perhaps it is not too much to wonder whether the military handled the integration in a way designed to alienate as many men as possible. Feminism did not mandate decades of micro-management of individual behavior, unnecessary relaxation of standards, mass polygraphs, moronic sensitivity training, the wrongful destruction of careers and reputations. This the military did to itself, and everyone who experienced those years has stories to tell about the injustices.

But that was then. Thirty years ago, the military could have instituted a rational, orderly, long-term plan for full integration. It didn’t happen that way. It happened grudgingly, but it happened, and now the realities of war and personnel shortfalls are finishing the job. We now have three decades of lessons-learned, and a 30-year database showing that women, properly trained and indoctrinated, can do the job. What remains is to codify the following:

Repeal what’s left of the combat exclusion rule, specifically the barriers against holding ground combat and special operations billets and submarine service.

Institute full and equal training and equal adherence to militarily-meaningful standards, including physical capability, which has far less to do with brute strength than with low-grade endurance. Thanks to modern women’s athletics, we now have a far better understanding of female conditioning, and far more young women playing sports than ever before. As a retired colonel, now a respected defense analyst, told me: “The Army sure ain’t what it used to be. But neither are girls.” Personally, I favor intense pre-entry fitness programs for women and boot camps that are sex-segregated and a couple of weeks longer.

Enforce a zero-tolerance attitude toward all forms of genuine sexual harassment and assault. Stern prosecution of sexual offenses, within the context of unit good order and discipline. Sexual crimes are not a separate category of offense, to be condoned as “Boys will be boys” or “She was asking for it.” If a male service member attacked another man and put him in the hospital, his commander wouldn’t just shrug it off. Nor would he if one of his men raped a civilian woman.

Finally, craft a new provision in the Uniform Code of Military Justice that addresses pregnancies, which, in the military, come in three varieties: Congratulations!, Oops!, and Get Me Out of Here!

This is a professional force, older and often married, no longer a mass of unencumbered conscripts and men with stay-at-home wives. Pregnancy is a normal part of most women’s lives.

Most military women, I’ve found, attempt to schedule their pregnancies with their husbands, often during non-deployable assignments. Not everyone, male or female, can be “good to go” all the time and it’s going to be a long war; they’ll get their chance. Besides, we all know there’s no better place for morning sickness than the Pentagon. Nothing more need be said about such pregnancies than Congratulations!

Oops! pregnancies are just that. Sometimes they affect unit readiness; sometimes they do not. They range from a Military Police sergeant I was told about, who achieved a long-hoped for pregnancy just after being informed of a very short notice deployment to Djibouti (she left their child with her husband to take her troops into Iraq), to the junior enlistee who has been overwhelmed by a certain tonnage of male attention. These women should be treated on a case-by-case basis by special boards of senior officers and non-commissioned officers, with attention given to circumstance, prior service record, and desire to remain in the military. Punishment is very rarely appropriate: for good soldiers, evacuation is punishment enough.

As for Get Me Out of Here! pregnancies—these constitute deliberate malingering and worse, and should be handled by the military justice system. It should be hard, very hard, to get a court-martial conviction: as hard as trying to prove desertion. But in flagrant cases, the servicewoman—and the father, if a serviceman—should receive, at the very least, a discharge under other than honorable conditions. The soldier at al-Asad Air Base who told me she’d gotten pregnant by her fiance because she was tired of being deployed does not deserve the same kind of consideration as the Marine who was so determined to deploy that she gave birth on a warship.

In sum, it’s time for policy to catch up with reality. But any military is more than the sum of its policies, and people deal with each other in myriad ways, not all of which can or should be micro-managed or regulated. Sociologically, the military is far more a “shame” society than a “guilt” society. Loss of reputation and acceptance, fear of shunning and ostracism, often determine behavior far more effectively than fear of punishment. When treating female comrades with anything other than the respect and dignity they’ve earned becomes a matter for shaming and of shame, equality—equality earned and equality lived-will be real. And the national security will be much improved thereby.


2 thoughts on “All the Sisters and All the Brothers”

  1. Although I commend you for your prior service in the U.S. Army Ms. Solaro, I must respectfully disagree with you. And you are hearing this from a four year veteran of the REGULAR ARMY. I was medically discharged from the Army under honorable conditions in August of 1989 after having injured my lower back in the line of duty. I had attained the rank of Sergeant/e5 and was in the process of submitting an Officer Candidate School packet at the time of my injury. I applaud the service of women in the U.S. Army, and other branches of the U.S. Armed Forces, but I am opposed to lifting the remaining restrictions to their service in combat environments. If you think that women will be able to serve in the Infantry as 11 bravos (aka grunts), alongside male soldiers, I suggest you think again. That MOS requires nothing less than an enormous amount of physical strength (especially upper body strength) that women simply do not possess. The same requirement also applies to Cannon Crewman in mos 13bravo, which is what I did in the Army. Believe me lady, that job can take its toll on able-bodied male soldiers, and I speak from experience as the cumulative heavy physical demands of that job was the main reason why I wound up with a bad back. I condcede the fact that women soldiers are needed in combat support units, but I do not like it. And for reasons that I need not point out, it is not always a good idea for male and female soldiers to serve in close quarters. Complications often arise which are the fault of both MEN AND WOMEN SOLDIERS. I side with Elaine Donnelly, even though I sometimes disagree with her. Throughout the history of warfare, male soldiers have died defending our country from 1775 to the present. We have acquired our heritage at a high cost. Isn’t it enough that young American men are dying in Iraq and Afghanistan. Why is it considered okay for young American women to die alongside their male counterparts in uniform? And far too many young American women have died in Iraq. Again, I respect your point of view and commend you for your service to our country, just as I commend fine American women for having served our nation with honor; however I will always remained opposed to putting women in harm’s way. Goodbye and I wish you well.

  2. Richard:

    Thank you for your comment and for your military service. Since your comment was well thought out and polite—as you can imagine, a lot of mail I get isn’t—I’m going to answer in detail.

    First, having been embedded with combat troops in both Iraq and Afghanistan, I can assure you that I understand what’s involved. I also understand that there are issues here that go beyond the military and their implications.

    We now have a database of female performance at war such as has never existed in human history. Over 170,000 (appx) American women have gone to war as volunteer professionals. They have been able to do everything required of them and are increasingly accepted by their male comrades as equals. As far as physical capabilities go, when you add what we’ve learned in women’s athletics to what we’ve learned in the military, we find that although some major changes are needed in women’s training and height/weight charts, there are no show stoppers. Once again, we are learning that a lot of stuff we thought was true, just ain’t so.

    If it grows ever harder to argue against women in combat on the basis of their actual and increasing performance, or on the basis that their presence is intolerably disruptive or that the men won’t accept them (neither of which is true), then opposition must be based upon other grounds. Some of these are:

    1. God is against it.
    2. Women should be spared combat because they are women.
    3. Women must be protected by men as a social and biological obligation.
    4. I just don’t like it!

    I’m sure you can come up with more, but they’ll pretty much boil down to these.

    None of these has any bearing on the obligations of citizenship. Are women to be equal only for the good things and spared the bad things because they are women?

    God—anyone’s god—is not a citizen. Women are citizens.

    It is no one’s right, neither yours nor “society’s”, to restrict women for “their own good.” To put it bluntly, more and more, we don’t want your protection. As I tell my audiences, “No one who tells you that you are weak and vulnerable by nature is your friend. And everyone who tells you to accept and profit by this situation is your enemy.”

    In conclusion, I’ve been there. I believe that we are all in this crisis together. And if there is anything good to come out of this war, women’s full participation is part of that good—moral, political, social.


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