Women in Combat: Rules and Reality

According to U.S. rules, women are not supposed to be in combat positions. A bill in Congress would further limit the roles women can play in the armed forces. We look at female soldiers and the front lines.

Copyright © 2005 NPR. For personal, noncommercial use only. See Terms of Use. For other uses, prior permission required.

FRANK STASIO, host:

This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Frank Stasio in Washington sitting in for Neal Conan.

How far from the front lines should female soldiers stay? The military still prohibits women from taking direct part in battle, but in the Iraq War, the front lines change with every roadside bombing and suicide attack. Already more than 30 American servicewomen have been killed in the conflict. The military has its own rules on how women can serve, and now some members of Congress want to expand those prohibitions and write them into federal law. Last night, the House Armed Services Committee approved legislation that would keep women from all four branches from serving in direct ground combat. The measure's future on the floor and in the Senate is uncertain and Pentagon officials themselves have condemned the measure. They say it's going to hurt already troubled recruitment efforts, but debate continues over what is the place of servicewomen once the shooting starts?

Now if you're a female soldier or a friend, a family member of one, what do you think about women in combat? Should they be there? Join the conversation. Our number here in Washington, (800) 989-8255; (800) 989-TALK. E-mail address totn@npr.org.

Later in the program, trading snowmobiles for stegoceras bones--a look into the international fossil market. And one of the few Western journalists in Uzbekistan gives us a first-person report of the violence on the border.

But first, women in combat. To tell us more about the controversial amendment to the 2006 defense authorization bill is Congressman John Kline, a Republican from Minnesota, member of the House Armed Services Committee. He joins us from his office in the Capitol.

Welcome.

Representative JOHN KLINE (Republican, Minnesota): Well, thank you, Frank. It's good to be with you.

STASIO: One of the sponsors of yesterday's amendment, Congressman John McHugh, said that many Americans feel women in combat or in combat-support positions is not the bridge we want to cross at this point. Now with more than 30 deaths, haven't we crossed that bridge?

Rep. KLINE: Well, there's no one that doubts that the women that are serving now in Iraq and Afghanistan and who have served for the last decade and more in combat theaters are exposed to hostile fire and to great danger and they're serving well and bravely. What we did last night was simply to take current defense policy put into place by memo by former Secretary of Defense Les Aspin and put it into law so that we had a perfect statute on an 11-year-old memo determining what the American policy would be regarding women in combat and then tell the secretary to come back to us and report how many women are in which units, and if, by the way, you're going to change a field and make it available for females, let us know within 30 days so that if the elected representatives of the people want to say something about it, they have the chance to do it.

STASIO: Well, you...

Rep. KLINE: But it doesn't change anything that's happened right now.

STASIO: Well, but you say that, but the Army says it's opposed to this. If it's already on their books, why would they be opposed to what you've written?

Rep. KLINE: Well, the Army--I've had no direct contact with the Army since we took up this legislation yesterday evening. It is true last week in an earlier version, there were some confusion and the Army was afraid that we were going to change their current operating policy. And what we did last night we did not change that policy one bit. Every field that was opened yesterday and is open today will be open tomorrow for women in all of the services. We simply put in statute what was already policy and what the Army already admitted was policy.

STASIO: All right. Is there a chance, though, that your tying the hands of commanders in war time by putting this into federal law?

Rep. KLINE: No. There is no change today from what was yesterday or last week or last month or what will be next week or next month. The policies are the same. The same units that women could be assigned in yesterday they'll be able to do it when this thing passes into law and the president signs it. We simply felt it was important for us in Congress who have a constitutional obligation to make the rules that govern the armed forces and provide oversight--we needed to be more directly involved in filling our constitutional function of oversight.

STASIO: Well, Congressman Kline, thank you very much.

Rep. KLINE: You bet.

STASIO: John Kline is a Republican congressman from Minnesota and a member of the House Armed Services Committee and joined us from his office on Capitol Hill.

The votes in the Armed Services Committee split on party lines for the legislation. On the other side from Republican Kline is Democratic Congresswoman Susan Davis from California, and she joins us from her office at the Capitol.

Welcome.

Representative SUSAN DAVIS (Democrat, California): Hi. Nice to be with you.

STASIO: The Pentagon says these rules are supposed to keep women out of combat. Thirty have been killed in Iraq. Shouldn't Congress make sure that women are better protected if that's what the military has said it wants to do?

Rep. DAVIS: Well, the military is certainly working with women on all different commands, and I think that what we are concerned about here is, number one, that we're at war and that this discussion right now--and it's only at the level of discussion--we haven't really had the kind of hearings and the kind of sustained debate that would bring a number of these issues forward from the military's point of view and also from the women that are serving in the military. I think what it's doing is just really confusing the situation. And, in fact, the action that was taken last night actually can affect all the services, not just the Army, which it initially was intended to do.

STASIO: Well, tell us how things are different, 'cause Congressman Kline just said he hasn't changed anything that isn't already in the form of military policy in this legislation. Do you feel that there is a change in military policy, and what is it, if so?

Rep. DAVIS: I think there's some uncertainty right now but basically that what we did was we codified a memo and making it apply to all the services and putting it into law, and that memo actually left out some very important pieces from--the codification left out some very important pieces from the memo itself, and basically what it did is it said--it left out the fact that any position that's previously opened to women would remain so. So that could mean that some positions are closed. And it also says--it left out the part that this particular memo, which gives guidance to the military, would be used to expand opportunities for women. That's what we want. We think that we should expand those opportunities for women. I had an opportunity today to speak with Major Duckworth, who is a National Guard pilot who lost both of her legs flying over Fallujah and her interest is in making certain that women can meet the standards. If they can meet the standards, then they ought to be able to serve in those positions.

STASIO: Let's take some phone calls now. Henry's on the line in Cleveland. Hello, Henry.

HENRY (Caller): Hi. I do want to (technical difficulties) comment as a former military police commander, and as I read it, you know, I couldn't have female soldiers any longer, you know, if the legislation as written went into effect, because we--I've been in combat situations deployed overseas with women, and obviously if because of the opinions of--How should I put it?--fatherly figures in Congress, you know, looking at it outside the modality for women in combat, it seems kind of 1950-ish to me, at least as someone who commanded women and--who were very good soldiers in combat.

STASIO: All right. Well, thank you, Henry. Maybe I can get a response to that, Congresswoman, and then ask you one quick follow-up.

Rep. DAVIS: Well, I think it feels like that to the women, also, that the lines today are not clear. You know, the entire country, certainly, of Iraq and even Afghanistan is basically on the battlefield. And so women have taken on great responsibilities and they feel that they want to continue to do that.

STASIO: Well, apart from the fact that they make good soldiers, as Henry suggested, the fact is at the moment they were recruited under the supposition that they would be protected from combat situations. Would it be unfair not to protect them as best possible from that situation if that's what they signed on for?

Rep. DAVIS: Well, I think that we can't protect them any more than we can protect the men over there, truly, but women are not serving in those front positions, but they are in support positions, and that's what this is about. And if we were to change the policies and to codify this without the proper discussion, without the proper understanding of what this means, then, in fact, we could be diminishing many of the positions in which they've been held. And we also heard that they were supposed to take greater care with the women. Well, you know, there are a number of examples that we could point to when decisions would have to be made. Do you put the women only in the helicopter and let the men go in the convoy? Those are important decisions.

STASIO: All right. Congresswoman...

Rep. DAVIS: They don't have to be made.

STASIO: ...thank you very much for talking with us.

Rep. DAVIS: Thank you.

STASIO: Susan Davis is a Democratic congresswoman from California and a member of the House Armed Services Committee.

Historically American women have assumed many different roles during times of war. Joining us now to talk about the evolution of women's roles in the military is Captain Rosemary Mariner. She's a retired Navy captain and a fellow at the Center for the Study of War and Society at the University of Tennessee-Knoxville, joins us by phone from her home in Knoxville.

Welcome.

Captain ROSEMARY MARINER (Center for the Study of War and Society): You're welcome. Thank you.

STASIO: Can you explain the 1994 Pentagon policy that could possibly now become federal law? What does it say?

Capt. MARINER: Well, that policy was in response to the legislation that was repealed following the Gulf War that removed the statutory restrictions on women flying aircraft engaged in combat missions and also serving aboard combatant ships. It was also in response to a former policy that applied to women in the Army called direct risk rule, and that was proved to be problematic during the Gulf War. So it opened up a number of what are called combat service support positions to women, particularly in the Army and the Marine Corps, and acknowledged that women would be flying aircraft engaged in combat missions.

STASIO: So what--is the impetus behind this a fear of what the impact of seeing women come home--you know, women killed in combat?

Capt. MARINER: Well, you have to keep perspective. Women, both in US military history and ancient history, have always been in combat, whether they were in an offensive position as combatants or innocent bystanders being killed. So combat is not simply being in harm's way. Now the idea of protecting military women who are volunteers--that idea was questioned at the end of the Gulf War because the policies did not prevent that from happening and they proved to be unworkable under the heat of battle. Now the evolution of the debate has gone to whether or not women serve in offensive combat positions. Who does the killing? And so the Army policy, which is more restrictive than the actual memorandum that the secretary of Defense had signed out in '94, keeps women from serving with those units in this battalion or smaller unit level that are actually in this offensive combat role.

STASIO: All right. We are talking about whether and how much the military should protect service women from combat. If you're a woman who has served in the armed forces or is currently serving, we'd like to hear your views, your family. Give us a call, (800) 989-TALK. Send us an e-mail at totn@npr.org to talk about women in the military.

I'm Frank Stasio. It's TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

(Soundbite of music)

STASIO: This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Frank Stasio in Washington, sitting in for Neal Conan.

The military bans women from direct ground combat, but already in the course of the Iraq War, more than 30 female service members have lost their lives. Now Congress wants to move to further restrict the roles women can fill in an attempt to keep them out of harm's way and out of the direct combat.

This hour, we're looking at women in combat, and we want to hear your views. We especially want to hear from women in our audience. If you've served in the armed forces in this country or any other, can--give us a call and tell us about your experience. Our number: (800) 989-TALK. The e-mail address: totn@npr.org.

Our guest right now is retired Navy captain and former Navy aviator Captain Rosemary Mariner.

Captain Mariner, were there wars that the US sent female soldiers into combat?

Capt. MARINER: Well, there have been wars in which military women have been killed, notably World War II, in which some 400,000 women served in uniform and a number of those were killed in action, but not in a offensive role where they were actually performing a mission that involved killing people. That seems to be where the real delineation is now.

STASIO: (800) 989-8255. Jim is on the line from Iowa. Hello, Jim.

JIM (Caller): Hello. How are you?

STASIO: Good. Did...

JIM: My concerns are, if we deal with this situation, I don't see anybody requesting that women register for the draft at age 18 as all men are required to do. And having said that and having spent some time in the military in a combat arm, the reason that many women are not allowed to serve in combat areas up front, call it offensive and maybe even defensive, has more to do with strength, as an example fixing a track on a tank or manning a .50-caliber machine gun and those kind of things. And certainly, there are some kind of men who will be barred from that kind of duty because they would not have the same kind of, you know, physical strength.

STASIO: All right. Let's get a response. Thanks very much, Jim.

Have we disposed of that issue or are we still grappling with the actual--you know, how much women can do and the limit to what women can do in combat?

Capt. MARINER: Well, this goes back to the individual. All of the services have their own ways of determining qualifications and skill and what is the difference between physical strength and ability, but the gentleman raised a very important issue, and that is the draft, because one of the unintended consequences of this kind of legislation could be to take a problem in recruiting women into support positions and then precipitate a crisis. Right now the Army is not interested in returning to the draft for many different reasons, but if the situation became problematic enough, particularly if they pulled many women out of roles that they had previously been in, then you could start to see a bandwagon develop to push a return to the draft. And then the fairness issue, throughout the history of conscription in this country, finds situations in which groups like women might well be included. In World War II, there was actually an effort to draft nurses had we invaded Japan. So if we were to see women register for selective service, you certainly would see a possibility not only of women being drafted but possibly even being drafted into the infantry in an attempt to be fair.

STASIO: Let me ask you a little bit more about this business about women in combat roles and positions where they can do the killing. What is the concern there?

Capt. MARINER: Well, there are social concerns that it's women--the social conservatives have taken the position that it's women's role to be supportive, so forth--domestic roles--and men should protect women. And if women are in offensive roles in which they kill people, that that upsets the social balance. But I think, practically speaking, that the Army and Marine Corps and the Navy SEALs, which would also be engaged in this kind of combat, did not see at the time a significant support amongst American people for putting women into those kinds of positions, whereas flying aircraft and serving aboard combatant ships there was strong support for.

What's a little unusual in this current situation is that there hasn't been any problem in Iraq with women. There hasn't been any hue and cry to change something. This is an out-of-the-blue kind of pre-emptive legislation dealing with a problem that doesn't even seem to exist.

STASIO: Do you think anything out of Abu Ghraib and the fact that a woman has been convicted in her role in abusing prisoners in some of those photographs had anything to do with this?

Capt. MARINER: Well, indirectly, but I think the larger issue there, particularly with the professional Army, was their status as Reservists.

STASIO: Let's go to the phones now. Liz is on the line from Utica. Hello, Liz.

LIZ (Caller): Yeah. Hi. My daughter is in the Navy right now so, you know, I want to give a salute to your guest there. But my take on this whole thing--I mean, you know, since there's so much terrorism around the world all the time, I mean, how can they not be on the front lines? Like, my daughter's in Guam right now, you know, and that's supposed to be relatively safe, but, you know, I just think that if women are qualified for the job and they want to go, they should have the option of going, but yet at the same time, if they don't want to be there, they should have that option, too.

Capt. MARINER: Well, I think that goes back to the importance of preserving the all-volunteer force. Anyone who voluntarily joins the military right now knows that there is always a chance that they can be in harm's way. There's no guarantee and there's nothing in the contract that says, `Because I'm a female, I'm going to be protected from all dangerous situations.' And 9/11, I think, was a real wake-up call for the American public that the front lines could well be the Pentagon or Capitol Hill or New York City. So the idea that you're going to protect women from danger has even less credibility.

STASIO: All right. Liz, thank you very much for your call.

The number to call if you want to join our conversation is (800) 989-8255. That's what Lebon(ph) has done from Portland. Hello, Lebon.

LEBON (Caller): Oh, good morning, or good afternoon, I guess. My question is regarding the armies of the world, and I don't know much about the other armies around the world, but it seems like Western European armies might be a little bit more inclusive. And as your previous guest mentioned, if a person is qualified, it shouldn't matter if they're of an ethnic background or what sex they are; they should be able to do the job.

STASIO: All right. Thank you, Lebon.

LEBON: Sure.

Capt. MARINER: Most NATO countries, including Canada, do not have the same restrictions that we do on US women. The exception is Germany. So--but what the gentleman was referring to, I think, goes back to this sense of, `Are we individual citizens first and we make our way based on our individual qualifications, or are we treated as members of a class?'

STASIO: I want to--you know, you brought up also the subject of recruitment and the draft, and military leaders yesterday admitted the situation in Iraq is not progressing as planned, that it may take more American soldiers and more time, possibly years, to stabilize the country. Recruitment is becoming a problem. The Army's facing a difficulty recruiting soldiers. So where does the legislation to restrict the role of female soldiers fit in? And I want to bring in Major General Kathy Frost at this point, a retired two-star general, who joins us by phone from a conference on women in the military here in Washington, DC.

General Frost, welcome.

Major General KATHY FROST: Thank you so much and thank you for using your time to discuss this topic.

STASIO: Well, we're happy to do it. What effect do you think these restrictions might have on recruitment?

Maj. Gen. FROST: You know, it's really hard to tell, but we could not have a worse time to have raised an issue like this that might, in fact, impact recruiting. I mean, to send the message that somehow we don't value, that the nation hasn't valued the contribution, the courage, the confidence of women in the war in Iraq or in the war on terrorism in Afghanistan sends a chilling message, I think, to women everywhere who've always looked to the Army as setting the standard for equal opportunity. And it appears now that we are rolling back that opportunity at a time when this nation has been telling its women they could do anything they wanted to do. I'm concerned that that message will have a chilling effect on women that might have been thinking of joining the Army because of the opportunity that the Army offered for equal responsibility.

STASIO: Well, that's also another important point. I'll raise it with you and then maybe Captain Mariner. The way to advance in the Army is through combat when that's available. I mean, isn't that an important tool for advancement?

Maj. Gen. FROST: Well, it's very frightening. In fact, I just spoke with the command sergeant major--that's the senior enlisted person in Afghanistan--the first time a woman has been the command sergeant major in a combat theater and that was her point completely is that it's more than a recruiting issue. It's a retention issue. Women might join the Army, but when they realize that because they have not been in positions in combat support, then they are not competitive for promotion and awards and recognition, women won't stay in the Army. Women are looking for career development as well as making a contribution to the nation. So it's going to affect recruiting most likely and retention most definitely if women aren't allowed to use the training that they've been given, the same training the men have been given, to do everything that that speciality requires them to do.

STASIO: Let's go to Rocky Mount, North Carolina. Jonathan is on the line.

Hi, Jonathan. Do you have a question or a comment?

JONATHAN (Caller): Yes, sir. I used to be in the Army and my uncle was in the Navy, and I think that women should be in the military. I think it's an absolutely positive thing, but I don't think they should be in combat due to they are an emotional distraction and I don't believe that they're quite strong enough to pull a wounded man off the battlefield. Now if they could meet the standards, then I completely agree that they should be in combat, but if they can't, I don't think they should be there.

STASIO: All right. Well, I guess we've got two people here who might want to comment on that. Captain Mariner, can I start with you?

Capt. MARINER: Well, the issue of strength vs. skill is an old one. Again, we go back to the individual. The individual soldier, sailor, Marine, airman prove their own ability, and we've have women, particularly in the medical field, that have done these various things. So I think women have proven their ability to do the job over and over and over again. What the bigger problem here with this legislation is that you're--you know, for the first time in US history, you're taking this pre-emptive action to pass a law to prohibit Army women from doing jobs that they've done previously and that has very serious readiness implications, particularly in the current recruiting environment, and it's a drastic step for no good reason and we're not talking about putting women in these offensive combat roles.

STASIO: General Frost, let me turn it just a little bit and talk about from the perspective of the commander. Does this tie their hands at all? It strikes me that trying to define where the front lines are might become a very difficult problem in wartime.

Gen. FROST: Well, our enemy, given the current conflict, knows no front lines. There is no front line. So, yes, it does place an awesome responsibility on the commander, and worse than that, it keeps the commander--if this becomes law, it prevents the commander from selecting the best person for the job, because it would take out of the manpower pool a number of very quality soldiers, women soldiers that have proven in Iraq and in Afghanistan that some of the myths about women in a combat environment are just that, myths; that they can do anything the nation asks them to do. And those commanders in whom we've placed the trust to make life-and-death decisions and to defend our freedom should be given that same level of trust in determining what people they use and what jobs to perform the mission, and women have done this, and they're not using women today in Iraq as a social experiment. They are using them because they can do the job and they are filling positions that, quite frankly, we don't have sufficient forces to fill. So I'm concerned about the readiness of those forces that our leaders command today if, in fact, we deny women the right to be in those units.

STASIO: We are talking about the role of women in the military. Should they be pushed back farther from the front lines? You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

I'm Frank Stasio in Washington sitting in for Neal Conan. My guests are Captain Rosemary Mariner, retired Navy captain and former Navy aviator, and General Kathy Frost is a retired two-star major general.

And you can join us as well at (800) 989-8255. That's what Susan has done from Virginia. Hi, Susan.

SUSAN (Caller): Hi.

STASIO: You have a question for us?

SUSAN: Well, I have a comment. I think what I find frustrating is that when--I had been an Arabic linguist in the Army, and we trained in an infantry division, and our role was to be actually in front of the front lines to intercept the communications in a tactical situation. In addition, when we were not in front of the front line intercepting the communications, we were either at the battalion headquarters or the division tactical headquarters, which are major targets for any enemy artillery fire. And therefore, we'd been in combat for years and years, and I'm always amazed--and we did and do a good job at it. I'm always amazed at this discussion as though women are just beginning to do this kind of thing.

STASIO: Cathy--just to clarify, you were on the front lines intercepting--in other words, you were receiving telecommunications, that kind of information and then translating?

SUSAN: The job of a linguist is to be in front of the front lines, so in front of the first area of tanks and everything, trying to figure out what's going on with the enemy and getting the information back to the battalion or division headquarters.

STASIO: All right. Thank you very much. Maybe we can get a response to that. I think you talked about that a little bit earlier, Captain Mariner, in the sense that this changes the equation somewhat from a position--sort of a defensive position behind the lines or in front of the lines, a dangerous position to a combat role.

Capt. MARINER: Well, that's still very much combat support, so there's no issue there of offensive, but another problem that is implicit in that is that it's very unfair to men, and one of the things we saw prior to the Gulf War was that these kinds of restrictive policies on women meant that men had to take up the load, and they resented that, and that resentment would be directed to the women. And it makes the position of the operational commander even more difficult, because if they have pink soldiers and blue soldiers and they can't use their pink soldiers the way they need to, then they will move to take them out of these units, so we could see large numbers of women being removed from units, and where they're performing these critical duties, such as Arab linguists...

STASIO: Well...

Capt. MARINER: ...so it's a real readiness problem.

STASIO: What about that, Captain Fro--General Frost, the idea that this could have an effect on the morale of the troops, watching some, you know, who are more or less exempt?

Gen. FROST: That is the point that I really wanted to make. Giving men a disproportionate responsibility for assignment in these units by denying women the opportunity and the responsibility of serving in these units is really going to cause resentment, as the captain was just saying. And that's going to really affect unit cohesion, force cohesion, and will cause long-term readiness problems and tremendous resentment among the men, and it's unfair. Women enjoy the same level of democracy and freedom that their male counterparts do, and as a consequence, they have the same responsibility. And I want to make sure that everybody listening understands that these women have been trained to do these jobs. They have been trained with their male counterparts. They've received the same degree of training, and they've met the same standards of performance. And...

STASIO: General Frost, I'm afraid we're going to have to go. I do appreciate you taking the time. Thank you very much.

Gen. FROST: Thank you.

STASIO: General Cathy Frost, retired two-star major general. Captain Rosemary Mariner, thank you very much. Retired Navy captain and former naval aviator.

When we come back, it's global trade involving midnight flights; a look at how to get fossils around the world.

I'm Frank Stasio. It's TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

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