Civilian leaders need to lead on women in combat

by Ellen Haring

On January 24, 2013, then Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta announced the repeal of the Combat Exclusion Policy. The discriminatory policy prevented servicewomen from filling so-called ground combat positions or being assigned to units below the brigade level whose primary mission was to engage in direct ground combat. The repeal rescinded a 1993 policy but did not immediately open new military occupations for women. The secretary directed the four military services and Special Operations Command (SOCOM) to integrate women into newly opened positions and units no later than January 1, 2016. Any recommendation to keep an occupation or unit closed to women would have to be first approved by the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and then the secretary of Defense.

How does one ensure success of women in combat positions? Like any path to success, opportunity and preparation are required. Women in the military have simply never been provided full opportunity. Until 1967, Public Law 90-130 placed a cap on women in the military to 2 percent of the force and rendered women ineligible for promotion to general and flag officer ranks. As exclusionary laws and policies have been lifted, women have continuously stepped up and joined in ever greater numbers and in every open occupation. For the last 20 years, women have fought in the air and at sea with valor while the ground combat debate has puttered along.

In the past two years, the public has received scant information on the integration of women into previously closed ground combat units and occupations. Instead, scores of headlines and articles have been written about how ‘few’ women want the opportunity to serve in combat units, and how male officers and veterans have trepidation to, or ‘concerns’ about opening opportunities to servicewomen. Many of these skeptics have little experience serving with women in any capacity, much less in combat, and refuse to acknowledge that their assumptions are based on socio-cultural biases.

The idea of stating that women aren’t interested, won’t, or can’t succeed in combat units is both unproven and illogical. Before women’s boxing was an Olympic sport, no one thought that women could compete. Previously, it was assumed that women could not fly high performance jets either, until they did. History is littered with ‘women can’t do it’ proclamations.

In 1976 on the eve of women’s admission to the United States Military Academy (West Point), General William Westmoreland stated, “Maybe you could find one woman in 10,000 who could lead in combat, but she would be a freak, and the Military Academy is not being run for freaks.” In the early 1990s, during the debates leading up to opening combat cockpits to women, senior military men pronounced that not only were women not interested in flying high performance jets but that men wouldn’t fly with them. Air Force Chief of Staff General Merrill McPeak stated that he would choose a less qualified male pilot over a better qualified female pilot to fly with him even if it meant sacrificing national security. The current debate resurrects many of the same themes. Neither prediction bore fruit. Women who have operated and led in combat are not ‘freaks’ and men have not refused to fight beside qualified women.

Why do senior civilians in the Pentagon allow such chatter and scuttlebutt to perpetuate? If the term ‘women’ was replaced with ‘African-Americans’ in these countless statements and articles, the sentiments would be considered racist and not tolerated. Civilian control of the military requires the civilian leaders on the E Ring of the Pentagon to lead from the front and stomp out this behavior.

It has been two years since the repeal of the combat exclusion policy but most of the previously closed occupations and positions (250,000+) remain closed with no sure path to their opening. It’s time the civilian leaders in the Pentagon step up and provide the necessary leadership to open all opportunities to women and stop the anti-woman rhetoric that undermines not only the future success of servicewomen, but of the U.S. military forces and the Department of Defense at large.


An edition of this blog was published on the Congress Blog on February 5, 2015, and can be accessed here.

Ellen Haring is a senior fellow at WIIS and a retired Army colonel.

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