Woman Marines:

Military.com has an article today on women who are Marines, one that raises again the old debate about the proper role of women in combat.

In May, House Armed Services Chairman Duncan Hunter, R-Calif., and House Personnel Subcommittee Chairman John McHugh, R-N.Y., pushed a provision that would have barred all female troops in forward deployed support units from moving to the front lines during combat. Language in the 2006 defense authorization bill would prohibit assigning women to units below the brigade level whose primary mission is to engage in direct ground combat.

McHugh's amendment would have left the door open for other restrictions, particularly if the mission involves long-range reconnaissance or Special Operations Forces. But the issue quickly generated partisan turmoil. Army leaders and two associations representing retired Army and National Guard members fought against its passage. The proposed legislation was shot down.

Had it passed, the amendment would have closed nearly 22,000 positions now available to female service members in heavy and infantry brigade combat, according to an article published on GovExec.com.
The article speaks to several servicewomen and asks about their experiences. It is an enlightening read.

This is one of those issues on which I once had a considered and set opinion, which I find I have now changed in light of experience and new data. Even two years ago, I still believed that women should be restricted to military roles in which combat was not going to be one of their primary functions.

The debate seemed entirely one-sided at the time, I recall thinking, with all the good arguments and hard evidence on the side of restriction. All the tests demonstrated that men were, overall, far superior in the physical attributes on which combat continues to rely: strength, endurance, and the ability (based on differences in the physical structure of the brain) to dissociate emotion from reason. This last is a key ingredient in the stress of a life-or-death moment, one that only becomes more important as the "moment" drags out into hours, as it sometimes can.

On the other side of the balance sheet were largely fairness claims, and as anyone knows, "it's not fair" is the very first rule in the UCMJ. Not that these weren't worthy considerations -- it had a real effect on promotions, pay, and in other ways limited a woman's career options. In spite of that, the military exists to provide for the physical security of the country, not to provide a career for anyone. All such considerations, for men as well as women, have to take a back seat to the simple matter of victory. In the long view, that means putting the best people in all positions that will have an effect on combat; in the short term, it means that the person next to you on the front line needs to be the one most likely to keep you alive.

After some years of the war in Iraq and Afghanistan, however, I think the balance of evidence has shifted. The tests that measure physical capacity remain sound; but we have learned several more things from direct experience that have to be filtered in.

As the article makes clear, women are needed even in front line positions in Islamic cultures, because of the need to search Muslim women and female regions of homes. The realities of fourth generation warfare make it necessary; and so we have had women in those positions, and they've done very well.
"I went on a convoy ... and was walking around with the squadron, carrying my M-16," Griego said. "I did exactly the same things they did. When we encountered females, I searched them to make sure they didn't have anything and kept them moving."

At times, Griego said, she was scared. But she was confident she had the training needed to do the job.

On this particular search, there were two women who looked suspicious to Griego. Searchers cannot hold a weapon while they work because it might go off by accident - or worse, the enemy might get a hold of it.

"One woman had an infant (in one arm) and a bundle of something in another," Griego said. "She had her arms under her burka which was unusual."

Reciting phrases from the Poshtun language, Griego asked the woman to raise her arms.

The woman didn't move.

"So I lifted her arms and saw the muzzle of an AK-47 begin to slip out," she said. "I slapped the gun down."

All the while, the Marine next to her kept his gun aimed at the Afghan woman. But when Griego slapped the gun down, the woman tried to run, she said.

Griego used her martial arts training to tackle her. The team found not only the gun, but several AK-47 magazines.
What was necessary as a practical reality has given us experience to weigh against the tests. What that experience has proven is that the physical qualities are not as important to performance as the science would suggest. Physical standards need to remain strong, but it is now plain that women who meet the standards are frequently up to the task -- even if they don't surpass the physical minimum standards as much as a male might. These women are providing us with a needed capability, and they have proven themselves entirely.

In retrospect I should have known. Of course it is not finally the body, but the spirit, which conquers.

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