It is unsurprising that a president who sees war primarily as “whack-a-mole” with drones directed from afar dropping bombs on adversaries, and who believes that removing American troops from war zones ends wars, would believe that women belong in all phases of combat.
War for President Obama consists of Libya, where we “led from behind,” with no “boots on the ground“; Syria, where Secretary of Defense Panetta declares at least weekly that there will be no U.S. “boots on the ground” even if the Syrians cross the president’s red line on CW; and Mali, where “there is no consideration of putting any American boots on the ground at this time,” according to Panetta — just logistical support for the French, who pulled us into Libya and now want us to stand behind them in their latest adventure in the colonies. The president “ended the war” in Iraq “responsibly” by leaving the country to its indigenous warring factions plus whatever outside influences have more sticking power than we do — that is to say, al-Qaeda and Iran. He is “ending the war” in Afghanistan “responsibly” by withdrawing all but a number of troops he won’t divulge (Twenty-five hundred? Zero? Sixty thousand?), leaving the turf to indigenous warring factions and whatever outside influences have more sticking power than we do — Iran, the Pakistani Taliban, and al-Qaeda, among others.
If your standard is removing all the boots from all the ground and ending U.S. participation in all the wars, women in combat infantry units might seem like a fairly safe bet. If combat units won’t be deployed, well, then, who cares if women are in them?
There are two reasons to care. First, non-deployment is not a military strategy. At best, it is a post-conflict standard (much like being a “post-racial” president) that assumes that either a) future battlefields will look like the last one or b) there will be no future battlefields. The first is a mistake; the second is wishful thinking. Post-Gaddafi Libya is strong evidence that eliminating governments with bombs doesn’t provide stability or workable governance. If the U.S. is ever required to provide either, the boots will be required as well.
After Vietnam, military planners assumed that large-scale ground operations including tanks were passé — until we fought in the deserts of the Middle East. Counterterrorism and urban warfare skills won’t help if our next war is in the Pacific — the focus of the president’s announced “pivot.” Nothing suggests that future battlefields won’t require the “boots” that President Obama appears to eschew. Limiting ourselves to the targeting of individuals, along with support to allies who elect to put their limited boots on the ground in countries where they have old colonial interests, would be an abdication of American power where that power may be needed. Outgoing Secretary of State Clinton made precisely that case in her testimony last week as she described the “spreading jihadist threat” and specifically linked those threats to vital American interests.
The second reason to be skeptical of women in combat units is the societal compact.
Many people use Israel, a modern, democratic state, as a positive point of comparison when they want to talk about guns, the universal draft, and women in service. Israel (which has strict gun laws, by the way, and does not ignore homosexuality in the ranks) does not have women in the combat infantry. Today, when missile technology to some extent erases the line between the “battle front” and the “home front,” women serve in units at the front, as do American women — my stepdaughter is a psychologist in the U.S. Army, and during her two tours in Iraq, she visited “forward operating bases” (FOBs); believe me, she was at the front — but they are not combat infantry. (Slate ran a snarky piece about other people’s objections to “women in combat” — and used as its photograph a soldier from the Marines “Female Engagement Team” sitting with a group of Afghan children, missing its own point entirely.)
The IDF’s own website mentions “combat options” for women, but if you read carefully, women are assigned to “command posts over advanced operational and attack systems, management and calculation of artillery fire, operation of communication devices, and conducting meteorologist case studies to improve artillery fire accuracy.” Women are also dog handlers and intelligence officers, and they constitute the bulk of instructors in tanks, artillery, anti-aircraft, combat engineering, and field intelligence. There is no interest in putting Israeli women in direct combat with presumed Arab adversaries.
It is a deliberate decision made long ago. During the 1948/49 War of Independence, Israeli women were in combat because combat was everywhere in the country. Israeli women were captured and killed by Syrian forces. The result, said an IDF officer who was briefing an American military delegation in which I participated, “was that we didn’t want that to happen to any Israeli woman ever again. We made a decision about what kind of country we are.”
If our next adversary is part of the global jihad, don’t look to the Geneva Convention for protection of female soldiers. In case the point isn’t sharp enough, read Lauren Wolf at CNN.
But it isn’t only about the potential for capture; it is about the society the army defends. Read Robert Kaplan’s Surrender or Starve to understand what happened to Eritrean society when everyone was a soldier and the line between the military and civil society, between men and women, was erased. Eritrea is an extreme example, but it is a mistake to think that erasing the distinction between protector and protected, society and its army, its men and its women wouldn’t have repercussions for American society as well as for the American military.
In a weekend interview, President Obama said that if he had a son, he would think “long and hard” about letting him play football. Fair enough, given what we know. The President has two daughters.