Last February, as the sun rose over a parched California desert, tanks from the 4th Infantry Division’s 1st Brigade reached a large enemy minefield. Their orders were to secure a hilltop in the enemy’s rear area. But until combat engineers could clear a path, the tanks would be sitting ducks for nearby tank and artillery fire. And without cover, the engineers would likewise be pinned down.
At the prearranged moment, a column of armored smoke vehicles commanded by Capt. Streigel of the 46th Chemical Company threaded its way cautiously forward, laying down a thick haze to mask the engineer teams. In less than an hour, the engineers had opened a gap and 1st Brigade moved through to its objective, thanks to the precision teamwork under fire of Streigel’s soldiers and the other ground units.
Like most battles at the National Training Center, this one was hard–the closest approximation to combat that the Army can create in peacetime and a rigorous test for the military’s newest tactics and equipment. As war looms with Iraq, these training exercises, along with others taking place in the Louisiana swamps and on the German plains, assess combat skills before the real bullets start to fly. The California exercise in particular was a good indicator of how American soldiers will fight a war against Iraq–and also how much has changed since the Gulf War. Over the last decade, the Army has digitized its equipment, upgraded its tanks, and added capabilities like peacekeeping to its mission, all part of a sustained, high-profile effort to adapt to war in the 21st century.
But one quieter transformation was also on display in the desert: Capt. Streigel–first name: Jennifer –is a woman. Ten years ago, Streigel could never have commanded a front-line chemical company in the U.S. Army. But the next time the United States goes into battle, women will be as close to the front lines as any infantryman. During its minefield operation, Streigel’s company fought shoulder to shoulder with the combat engineers and deployed more armored vehicles than a tank company–and four of its five officers were women. In fact, Streigel is just one of thousands of women who, since the Gulf War, have been steadily migrating to assignments that place them at or near the line of battle.
Since the Gulf victory in 1991, a series of largely unnoticed policy changes have opened new opportunities for women to fight alongside, and even to lead, front-line troops. The Navy and Air Force, with some fanfare, allowed women into the cockpits of fighters and bombers. But less well known is how vastly the Army has expanded the role of women in ground-combat operations. Today, women command combat military police companies, fly Apache helicopters, work as tactical intelligence analysts, and even serve in certain artillery units–jobs that would have been unthinkable for them a decade ago. In any war in Iraq, these changes could put thousands of women in the midst of battle, far more than at any time in American history.
This new role for female U.S. troops is the product of three different forces. One is congressional pressure to integrate the military by gender as it previously had been integrated by race. Another is the ongoing enlistment shortage; the military remains reluctant to admit women yet is unable to recruit enough competent men to staff an all-volunteer Army. But the most important reason has been pressure from women within the Army who need combat experience to advance their careers, nearly all of them in the officer corps. And yet this experiment has been conducted largely below the threshold of public awareness.
The wisdom of this integration is sure to be tested in any sizable ground war with Iraq. If female soldiers perform poorly, they could put their comrades’ lives at risk, strengthen the hand of conservatives who oppose women serving as soldiers, and provoke a backlash from the American public. But if, in the heat of battle, women fight bravely and effectively, it could spark a different sort of debate among the military and the public at large over why regulations and military culture still conspire to keep women from many prime assignments in the nation’s service.
The history of American women’s role in combat is a brief one. Before the Vietnam War, only a small number of women served in uniform, primarily in medical specialties and occasionally as rear-echelon intelligence officers or as pilots of transport aircraft. That began to change in the mid-1970s with the advent of the all-volunteer army. No longer able to rely on a steady stream of draftees, Army recruiting experts expanded the number of specialties open to women.
The first women entered West Point in 1976. Upon graduation, they were allowed to pursue most career fields, but by law precluded from those “combat arms” specialties that would place them on the front lines. This was done for two explicit reasons. The first is the importance the military places on “unit cohesion.” Integrated units, some theorists have argued, would destroy the teamwork crucial to combat performance. Male soldiers would become distracted and compete for women’s attention, and would grow demoralized if women were killed or wounded. “No unit can afford to have two people in love with another,” says Dr. Anna Simons, a professor at the Navy’s Postgraduate School who has written extensively on Special Forces and believes that gender integration would have a disastrous effect. “Forget the sex–this is about the clouding of judgment. No matter how close the friendship is between men, it still doesn’t jeopardize their decisions the way that love does.”
The second, more empirical reason is the physical disparity between male and female soldiers. Put simply, many military jobs require high levels of strength that most women just don’t have. “You can’t just let women into [infantry units],” argues Elaine Donnelly, a former member of the Defense Advisory Committee on Women in the Services who now chairs the Center for Military Readiness, a conservative group that opposes women in combat. “Lowering the standard like that for the infantry would be fatal.”
Thus, in the 1970s, the Army employed a “risk rule” to determine whether a job would be open to women–literally measuring how close to battle any given assignment might require a soldier to be and barring women from those in which the likelihood was high. This kept women from a wide swath of assignments, and restricted opportunities even within fields they could legally enter, like the military police or intelligence, since almost every type of unit in the Army (even support units) could theoretically see combat. As a result, women could only be assigned to headquarters or other rear-echelon units at overwhelmingly low combat risk.
But the American invasion of Panama in 1989 exposed the risk rule as largely ineffective. In several widely reported instances, female soldiers participated in firefights with Panamanian Defense Forces or local militia. Support units that included women took fire and returned it under conditions that any veteran would describe as “combat.” When rear areas become combat zones, every soldier is expected to grab a rifle. Women wound up fighting under conditions that would have earned them the Combat Infantryman’s Badge had they been men and assigned to an infantry unit. Female convoy drivers were ambushed, and returned fire. Female helicopter pilots flew into battle zones, landed American infantry, and picked up casualties under heavy ground fire. Women assigned to military police units conducted infantry-style missions to cordon off and search Panamanian neighborhoods for enemy guerrillas–the same type of street fighting that could take place in Baghdad.
The Gulf War, too, featured an innovation in American military strategy that pushed the risk rule toward obsolescence: “maneuver warfare.” This doctrine dictated that support units should push as far forward as possible to provide greater logistical aid to units in combat. The Army used this strategy with stunning success against the Iraqis. But since many U.S. support units were of mixed gender, women wound up serving farther forward in the Gulf War than ever before.
Some criticized women’s performance in Iraq, pointing to ships and ground units with high pregnancy rates–even organized prostitution rings–as examples of women’s harmful effect on unit cohesion and morale. There have also been charges of standards being lowered to let women into combat positions, such as at least one high-visibility aviation accident with a female pilot in 1994 who, critics charged, had been rushed into the cockpit to ensure that a politically motivated proportion of women earned their wings. But there were too few female pilots at the time for any meaningful studies to be conducted, and more recent reports from the air campaigns in Kosovo and Afghanistan indicate that women pilots performed as well as men, and, in some cases, even better.
Indeed, during the Gulf War, critics’ worst predictions proved unfounded: Women did not flee combat in disproportionate numbers, nor did their units collapse under the stresses generated by their presence. The military consensus is that most women performed well. And various studies of mixed-gender units have shown that cohesion was not a problem–both in exercises at the National Training Center and in actual combat. (The critical variable in unit cohesion proved to be not gender, but such differentials as the unit leader’s time in command and the length of time the troops had spent together.)
The presence of female troops did create something of a bureaucratic nightmare. Before units could leave for the Gulf, hundreds of women had to be transferred out for administrative reasons. Some were pregnant and thus ineligible for combat deployment. But many others were transferred out because their commanders were unsure whether the risk rule permitted them to be taken into combat. Likewise, many women had problems arranging for childcare during their deployments, especially in families where both parents served. In most such situations, commanders ordered the men to war and found ways to transfer or discharge the women. But all these problems revealed more about the ambiguity of the risk rule–and the military’s ability to accommodate soldiers with children–than it did about women’s fitness for combat.
While the Panama and Gulf engagements put female soldiers to the test, other pressures were building. Many female officers who had joined the service in the 1970s were complaining by the 1980s that the long roster of restrictions was limiting the range of command posts they could be assigned to. Because getting ever bigger and better command assignments is the key to military promotion, they rightly felt their careers were being unfairly stymied. “Women can make sergeant major with a lot of hard work and no combat experience; they can’t make general as easily,” observes Charles Moskos, a sociologist at Northwestern University who has studied the military for 30 years. As a result, it’s largely female officers who have pushed the liberalizing of women’s combat roles.
In response to the Gulf War, the Defense Department Advisory Committee on Women in the Services moved to open up a wide range of military occupations to women. When Bill Clinton became president, the committee’s more activist members and their allies in the military found a kindred spirit in the White House. Suddenly, high-level Pentagon officials were more receptive to recommendations for opening combat roles to women. Key members of Congress, who had watched women perform well in the Gulf, were also more supportive. Through their efforts, Congress repealed the combat exclusion laws in 1992. Two years later, Secretary of Defense Les Aspin revised the risk rule in favor of a “Direct Combat Probability Code” (“DCPC” in Pentagon-speak) that measured risk more narrowly–by unit, not by geo-
graphy–and created thousands of new opportunities for wo-men by allowing them into all positions but those most likely to see ground combat: the “trigger-puller” front-line formations such as infantry, armor, artillery, and Special Forces.
As it happened, the trigger-pullers saw most of the action in Afghanistan. But if the United States invades Iraq, women will play a far wider role than ever before in any ground offensive. Female chemical officers will lead the way through contaminated areas; female engineer officers will help direct any efforts to bridge the Euphrates; female helicopter pilots will shuttle the infantry into and out of combat areas during any assault.
Army policy still forbids women from being assigned to combat units at the battalion level and below. (A battalion contains 300-500 soldiers and is likely to be very far forward.) But women can serve in infantry, armor, artillery, and other units at the brigade level and higher–the units directly behind combat battalions on the battlefield–as well as support units like military police and aviation that often work alongside combat units. Recent changes in Army practices and policies include, for example, formally assigning female lieutenants to mixed-gender brigade headquarters while informally attaching them to all-male combat battalions, as the Army does at Ft. Hood, Texas. Why? Because the shortage of male lieutenants is particularly acute in specialties like chemical warfare and intelligence.
Since 1995, the Army has also experimented with a new organizational design for its combat units, transferring many support positions from all-male combat units to mixed-gender support units. Consequently, large numbers of fuelers, medics, and mechanics who now support the fighting arms are women–a change now spreading through the rest of the Army, including the reserves, that will potentially shift thousands of women farther forward on the battlefield than ever before.
So why hasn’t anyone noticed women’s new roles in combat? One reason has been reluctance among uniformed officers to criticize policies related to race or gender for fear of imperiling their careers by appearing politically incorrect. But more positively, the Army has had relative success in making the shift, leaving journalists with little bad news or controversy to report. (And truth be told, many female soldiers would rather the press ignore their gender and treat them like any other soldier.) The Army, moreover, has greatly improved its handling of gender issues, especially since Bosnia and Kosovo. One example is a reduction in the kind of family support problems that plagued the Gulf War deployments. “It used to be that the deployment child-care plans of many men and women were convenient fictions–the Army ensures that they’re much better now,” says Dr. Laura Miller, an expert on military culture and gender issues at the RAND Corporation.
The biggest reason why women in combat haven’t received more scrutiny, though, is that America has not fought a major ground war since the Gulf, or incurred major casualties since Vietnam. But if the United States launches a ground war against Iraq, hundreds or even thousands of female soldiers are likely to see combat a variety of ways.
One is street fighting, which often degenerates, as it did in Panama, into house-to-house struggles without battle lines or safe areas. Any action in, say, Baghdad or Basra could escalate into the kind of mayhem not seen since the Tet Offensive in Vietnam, where U.S. Marines fought for weeks to retake the bitterly held city of Hue. In their roles as truck drivers, MPs, signal specialists, and aviators, women would fight alongside men in the cities of Iraq. If there is one area likely to inflict significant casualties, upon men and women alike, this will be it.
Then there’s the Euphrates. Any effort to cross the river would necessarily include bridging, chemical units, and military police units, all of which include female officers and soldiers. In river-crossing operations, those “support units” actually lead most of the action, with infantry and armored units supporting them. Female engineers would actually drive the boats and build the bridge to get our forces across the river. Similarly, female combat-support soldiers would be critical to any effort to breach Iraqi defenses. Female helicopter pilots may undertake reconnaissance ahead of any American infantry, or deposit troops to scout out strongpoints on the ground. Chemical-warfare specialists like Capt. Striegel would accompany engineer units as they opened paths through Iraqi defensive positions.
And since women now serve in every major battalion-level command post–as intelligence officers, chemical officers, logistics officers, MPs, and signal officers–they will be in the heat of battle. Even rear areas would not be safe. In the first Gulf War, Saddam Hussein’s SCUD missiles struck American bases as far back as Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, and Israel. In a fight to the death, Saddam may unleash his entire arsenal upon soft American targets–possibly with chemical warheads.
No one is quite sure how Americans will respond if significant numbers of women are killed in Iraq. “The real issue is, if greater numbers of women get captured, how will the country react?” asks Donnelly. “We would have to desensitize the entire nation to violence against women. Endorsement of women in combat means an endorsement of violence against women at the hands of the enemy.” Perhaps. But even when women have died in combat, the public hasn’t questioned their reasons for being there. The nature of public grief for soldiers like Marine Corps Sgt. Jeannette L. Winters, a radio operator who was the first female military casualty in the war against Afghanistan, may indicate that Americans will accept female casualties if they believe in the cause they’re fighting for.
In the end, what will really determine public reaction is how well women perform their jobs under fire. On the ground in Afghanistan, women did not participate in the main actions of Operation Anaconda. But since the fighting died down, female MPs have gone out on long infantry patrols with the 82nd Airborne Division, and by most indications perform-ed well. To be fair, they have not seen combat, and haven’t performed the most physically demanding tasks the military has to offer. But women have covered 10 to 20 miles of very hard country per day carrying loads of up to 75 pounds, all while living in close quarters with male infantry.
And so far, as in the Gulf, the worst predictions have not come true–no reports of mass pregnancies or other issues have come to light in Afghanistan. “I’m learning what grunts do, [and] they learn what I do. As MPs, we search people and look for weapons … I never thought we would be walking for hours or be on the front,” MP Sgt. Nicola Hall told a reporter in Afghanistan after the mission. “[The 82nd Airborne soldiers] have been nothing but respectful to us; as long as you walk, carry your own weight and don’t whine, you’re respected.”
Indeed, if mixed-gender units perform as they have in the California desert–and in Somalia, Haiti, Bosnia, Kosovo, and Afghanistan–it would strengthen the integrationist trend in several ways. The least likely possibility would be the elimination of all rules barring women from full combat service, from special forces to light infantry. But even if this were to happen, surveys suggest that only a small number of women would apply. And only a fraction of those who do would have the physical ability and fortitude to make it through, say, the crucible of Army ranger school, from which a majority of qualified men wash out before graduation.
The second, and more likely, possibility is that certain combat jobs currently off-limits to women would be opened. For instance, women can currently serve in Patriot air-defense units, but not in short-range air-defense or offensive artillery units closer to the front–even though the skill levels are virtually the same. Female soldiers frequently win the Army’s highest awards for marksmanship and even participate on the U.S. Olympic marksmanship team–but outside the MPs cannot be snipers. If Saddam’s Baathist regime falls to U.S. forces that include women, these kinds of job limitations may collapse, too.
Finally, a successful showing by female soldiers is sure to increase pressure on the Army to end the subtle day-to-day discrimination that remains a fact of life for so many female soldiers, from anachronistic “wives clubs” in some units to assignment policies that place a premium on female soldiers willing to defer childbearing indefinitely.
Even if more opportunities for women open up, the changes are unlikely to be as radical or disruptive as many imagine, for a simple reason: Not that many women are likely to take advantage of the opportunities. A recent RAND Corporation study indicates that women have not flooded into every new specialty opened to them during the 1990s. Some, such as Army bridge crewmembers, have seen an increase. But the number of, say, female Marine Corps F-18 pilots has not really changed. This is true in part because the services still make it difficult for women to enter these occupations by setting quotas that limit their number. But it is also because of a lack of interest. According to a RAND survey, while more than 75 percent of military women supported the general idea of women in combat, only 10 to 15 percent of those said they would actually pursue such jobs if given the option. “Enlisted women are much less keen on rushing off to combat than female officers,” observes Northwestern’s Moskos.
In other words, even in the event that the Army opens combat jobs to women, those opposed to the idea may not have much to worry about. And besides, the more women like Capt. Streigel who serve bravely and effectively in an upcoming Iraq war, the more female generals we’ll see a few years down in the road–and the more likely the issue of women’s role in the military will work itself out.
Phillip Carter served four years active duty as a military police officer. He now commands an infantry company in the reserves and attends law school at UCLA. The views in this article are his and do not represent the official views of the Department of Defense.