Should women serve in combat? Right now the military is answering that question with a final verdict scheduled to come down from Defense Secretary Ashton Carter in January 2016. This will inevitably become a political question-and thus particularly useless in producing a satisfactory answer-but until then it’s useful to understand that the military sees this question differently than you and I do.
It’s too easy for me, a politically minded civilian whose military experience is limited to paintball and Boy Scouts, to see the question of women in combat through a fairness lens. When I look at this, I see women following in the footsteps of African-American and LGBT troops as the latest generation to achieve equal opportunity in the military.
But someone with a military mindset doesn’t care what is fair, only what is best for the mission. That finally came clear to me when I asked my friend Kyle Dearing, a Marine who served in the Al Anbar province of Iraq in 2006, for his opinion of women serving in combat.
“Honestly, if they can do the job as well as their male counterparts, I have no problem with it. None at all,” he said. And all that seems fair, but that’s when he peeled back the curtain on his perspective. “If their inclusion involves reducing standards so that they can participate, it’s no longer about what’s good for the Corps, it’s about what’s good for females. The individual doesn’t matter in the service, the mission is the only priority.”
A new book coming out this week indicates that the military is in the process of accepting the obvious: Some women are perfect for combat and in fact add another layer of effectiveness. “Ashley’s War” by Gayle Tzemach Lemmon tells the story the women of the Cultural Support Team. These were women trained for combat and assigned to special ops teams in Afghanistan.
Sending an all-male combat force into a country with sexist attitudes towards women limited our military’s effectiveness. It was considered culturally rude for our male soldiers to talk to local women, but they knew what was going on in their villages. We needed our women to talk to their women to get that intelligence without offending the hearts and minds of the locals.
Before the special ops guys created the CMT program, many military units were figuring this out on their own. A friend of mine who served in the Army infantry told me that they just took nurses on their missions. Female interpreters were particularly prized because male insurgents never considered that they were intelligent and sometimes openly implicated themselves in bombings. Next stop, Gitmo.
But as far as the military admitting what it was doing, Cultural Support Teams were the beginning. Pick up “Ashley’s War.” It’s a great read and a compelling account of what the head of the Army Special Operations Command, Lieutenant General John Mulholland, called “a new chapter in the role of women soldiers in the United States Army.”
It’s hard to finish the book without seeing through the military’s eyes how the women of the CMT made our special ops teams more effective at catching the bad guys and avoiding trouble. Whether or not it was fair seemed irrelevant. This only worked because they served the mission.
Considered from that point of view, it’s even harder to argue that women should not be allowed to try out for combat units.
The results will be necessarily mixed. A two-and-a-half yearlong experiment with the Marine Corps Infantry Officer Course ended without a single female graduate. But preliminary results at the Army’s Ranger School in Georgia were so encouraging that this last weekend women began formal training alongside the men.
Until the Secretary of Defense makes his final decision early next year, any graduates of Ranger School who happen to be women won’t be able to serve in the Rangers with their male graduates, regardless of how they may help the mission. In the end, that and not the arbitrary criteria of gender should be the only answer to a question that we’ve been asking for far too long.
Jason Stanford is a regular contributor to the Austin American-Statesman, a Democratic consultant and a Truman National Security Project partner. You can email him at email@example.com and follow him on Twitter @JasStanford