“You go to war with the army you have, not the army you might want or wish to have,” former Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld famously told troops during a 2004 town hall appearance. He was correct in theory, but wrong in practice.
The U.S. did not go to war in Afghanistan or Iraq with the military it had. The country went to war with the men that it had, while female service members were severely restricted from operating in combat zones.
That is now changing. The next time the U.S. goes to war, the country will go to war with the entire army — and entire military — that it has. At least, that’s the plan.
In January 2016, Defense Secretary Ashton B. Carter will decide whether to open all occupational specialties to women. But there is still a loophole: services have the ability to request that certain combat specialties be excluded from the full integration of female service members. The Defense Department set in motion a major, long-overdue change when it began the process of ending the combat ban in 2013. There should be no exceptions in 2016.
The arguments against allowing women to compete for every position in the military are far from new. When President Truman approved the integration of black service members in 1948 and when President Obama signed off in 2010 on ending the ban on gay service members serving openly, naysayers abounded. Yet their predictions of mission disruption and interpersonal discord never came true; members of both groups now anchor a more open and diverse military.
Two primary arguments are deployed today to create breathing room for the approval of exceptions. Both were torn apart by a field of qualified academics, veterans and politicians at the April 27 forum “Women in Combat: Where they Stand.” It was hosted by groups including Women In International Security and the No Exceptions campaign, both of which call for all jobs in the military to be opened to women in the future.
First, a common trope is that the addition of women in tight-knit combat units will inevitably damage unit cohesion. That is misleading. According to panelist Megan MacKenzie, the author of the upcoming book “Beyond the Band of Brothers,” there is no body of data or studies that justifies the continued exclusion of women from frontline roles. The most common arguments against women in combat units relate to the challenge they allegedly pose to the social cohesion of male-only units. But far more important to a unit’s ability to complete its mission is task cohesion, the ability of unit members to work together in accomplishing a common goal, MacKenzie said.
MacKenzie’s review of existing U.S. and international research on military task cohesion found minimal correlation between female integration and mission achievement. Simply put, there is no proof that adding women to units affects the ability of the unit to do the job it exists to complete. What she did find is that the presence of strong leadership within a unit has the ability to create acceptance for and cohesion with new female unit members rapidly.
Second, there are concerns that women will not be held to the same standards as men once they are allowed to compete for combat roles. Yet as panelist Gayle Lemmon, author of the new book Ashley’s War, told the audience after her recent trip to observe Ranger School at Fort Benning, Ga., the testing underway has held women to the same high requirements.
As of April 23, eight women continue to persevere at the current Ranger course. They may all fail to complete the entire course. Yet their mere presence in the program, conducted under intense public scrutiny, is already a victory for integration. Women are being held to the same standards as men. They are operating under some of the most adverse conditions that combat troops could ever face, and they are doing it without any special treatment or shortcuts.
Lemmon’s book tells the story of a group of brave women who volunteered to work alongside U.S. Special Forces teams on night raids in Afghanistan, where the male service members required help dealing with Afghan women and children during raids. It wasn’t the first time that women service members have been tested by adversity. As U.S. Rep. Tammy Duckworth (D-Ill.), who lost her legs in Iraq in 2004 when a rocket-propelled grenade hit the helicopter she was piloting, tweeted:
When Members of Congress debate women in combat, I look down at the stumps of my legs & wonder, where do they think I was – in a bar fight?
— Tammy Duckworth (@TammyforIL) April 29, 2015
Even though the general ban is on its way into the dustbin of history, the potential for exceptions is a serious matter. Veterans and national security professionals at the Truman National Security Project and the Center for National Policy launched the No Exceptions campaign in 2015 to press the Defense Department to remove all policy-driven hurdles to full female integration in combat roles and units. The underlying intent of the campaign is not gender equality, but to empower the military to utilize its best and brightest service members to their full potential, regardless of their gender.
The complete abolition of the combat ban, with no exceptions granted to the services in 2016, will not mean that women must always be on the front lines. They must earn that right on an individual basis. But so long as they have the right to compete for every job, like they do in the civilian workforce, they will be living proof that the U.S. has recognized that segregating elements of the military by gender no longer makes sense.
If the No Exceptions campaign succeeds, the U.S. will finally be ready after 2016 to go to war with the entire military it has. That’s not a gender issue. That’s a matter of putting the mission first.
Brian Wagner is a 2015 political partner with the Truman National Security Project, a vice president at ScoutComms and a military reservist. All opinions are his own.