Women at War: The Strain of Iraq Forced the Shock Integration of Women into the Military. the Results Aren't All Pretty

By Vlahos, Kelley Beaucar | The American Conservative, April 7, 2008 | Go to article overview

Women at War: The Strain of Iraq Forced the Shock Integration of Women into the Military. the Results Aren't All Pretty


Vlahos, Kelley Beaucar, The American Conservative


A HIGH POINT of Kayla Williams's service as a noncommissioned Army officer in Iraq was receiving a commendation for her support on missions in Baghdad. Low points included getting molested by one of her own men and being asked to mock a naked Iraqi prisoner in an interrogation cage in Mosul.

Riding a line between woman and warrior, "bitch" and "slut," Williams, 31, was not alone. The Bush administration's "long war" has forced the military to shock integrate more than 180,000 women into Iraq and Afghanistan over the last six years. The consequences have been both impressive and ugly and do little to put to rest decades of debate over women in combat.

Critics say the rush to put women into combat-related roles for which they weren't trained has made them more vulnerable, exacerbated male-female tensions in theater, and advanced a controversial policy while most of the country wasn't looking.

"We have large numbers of women who have been willing to come into the Armed Forces, who are willing to do jobs for which we have a shortage of young men," says one retired Army colonel, now in the private sector, who declined to be identified because of his ties to the defense community. "I think the women under these circumstances do the best they can."

Veterans who have spoken to TAC say most female soldiers have exceeded expectations. But the experience of the largest contingent of female soldiers in modern history is not unclouded. The rate of single motherhood among women on active duty is 14 percent, and nursing mothers are being deployed four months after giving birth. Reports of sexual assault are climbing, as are suicides and the number of women--now over 36,000--who have visited VA hospitals since leaving the service. As of February, 102 female soldiers had died in Iraq.

Meanwhile, the Army, which represents most women in theater, won't release figures on how many are evacuated from the field due to noncombat injuries, illness, or pregnancy.

"Whatever they are able to conceal or cover that's not attractive--whether it's unplanned pregnancy, rapes, whatever--everyone is prepared to pretend what is happening really isn't," says the retired colonel.

The drive to integrate women into every crevice of the military--the "ungendered vision" advocated by Duke law professor Madeleine Morris, a former assistant to Clinton administration Army Secretary Togo West--has created turmoil in Washington since the 1970s. And since then the number of women in the Armed Forces has increased dramatically, from 7,000 in Vietnam (mostly medical personnel) to over 40,000 in the Persian Gulf War to one in seven of our troops in Iraq today.

Thanks to Clinton-era liberals--like former Rep. Pat Schroeder and women-in-combat pioneers like Army Assistant Secretary Sara Lister, who was forced to resign in 1997 after she called the Marines "extremists"--new roles opened to women in the 1990s. Formerly all-male military academies and basic training programs turned co-ed. Today, tens of thousands of women are flying combat aircraft and serving as military police, gunners operating MK19 grenade launchers, interrogators, and prison guards.

Officially, women have not yet ventured into combat, held back by critics who argue that putting them into armored cavalry squadrons or rifle platoons will threaten unit cohesion, weaken standards, and increase injuries, hurting overall force strength. But advocates of full integration insist that women can hold their own on men's terms. Making them "legitimate" will help transform military culture and bolster unit cohesion.

These arguments are academic, for women are in combat today. While the Bush administration initially appeared less interested in integration than its predecessor, the decision to invade Iraq in 2003, the miscalculation of the subsequent insurgency and civil war, and the desire to wage a global terror war have made it impossible for the all-volunteer force to function without women in combat roles. …

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