Women at War

Women in combat are nothing new, though war has historically been a male-dominated venue. Next week the United States Army recognizes the contributions of women in fighting our Nation’s wars in a series of luncheons were distinguished women warriors will share their experiences with audiences at garrisons around the globe. “Women at Arms” is the title of a New York Times series on the topic. (See link “Women at Arms” at right.) The Times series is pretty much full spectrum, with a lot of focus on the “manly stuff of combat.” ABC news ran a story recently on the efforts of our Marines to use female Marines to collect human intelligence from Afghan women and to further encourage these women to keep their men from supporting the Taliban. (See link “Marines Try a Woman’s Touch” at right.) The Marines are demonstrating cultural sensitivity and out of the box thinking in their efforts to support counter-insurgency operations through the use of their “Lioness” unit.

Out NATO allies and their Civil-Military Co-Operation Centre of Excellence (CCOE), at http://www.cimic-coe.org have devoted much time and effort to studying women in combat and have produced some worthwhile studies of not just women, but the at times confusing topics of sexuality and gender and how a clearer understanding of these topics enhances combat effectiveness, especially in stability operations. As one CCOE publication, GENDER MAKES SENSE (link “CCOE GENDER MAKES SENSE” at right), states:

Why should Civil-Military Cooperation (CIMIC), as a force capability
within NATO, incorporate gender awareness (GA) into NATO missions?
Simply because from previous peace operations we have learned that it
contributes greatly to the success of the mission. In addition, it
improves the safety of the military organisation. Thus, gender
awareness is not just an obligation, it is an absolute necessity.

GENDER MAKES SENSE provides useful information on how NATO military should interact with women during the conduct of peacekeeping and stability operations and includes suggestions for facilitating the disarmament, demobilization and reintegration (DDR) of female combatants. This publication is not focused only on the gentler sex, but also takes up the not insignificant issues of the relationship between beards, rifles and manliness in certain cultures. (Hint, they are not all Taliban, just a bit insecure, so don’t immediately shoot them on site.)

To take this a step further, into stability operations and hopefully conflict transformation, I would like to point out the work of certain NGOs such as “Pennies for Peace.” Pennies for Peace receives no funding the United States Government and is by no means a partner of US or NATO military, nor does it serve as a force multiplier, but it is part of the environment in Afghanistan. It does not support anyone fighting in Afghanistan. What it does support is the education of young Afghan girls by building and equipping schools for that purpose. Many believe that educated women are less likely to let their babies grow up to be Taliban. (See link to “Teach a Girl, Change the World” at right for more information about this NGO and its programs.)

A good friend once told me that electrification and female education programs showed the greatest payoff in economic development and stabilization. With that in mind, as we consider “people’s war” and attempt to fight counterinsurgencies that are “80% political and 20% military” and dissuade disgruntled “non-compliant actors” from becoming “irregular adversaries” and insurgents, we should enlist as many women overseas to join us. This can be controversial. When you teach women to read and write and show them there is more to being a woman than having seven to ten children (and preferably boys), you upset certain mullahs and mujahedeen. But there are certain men, even in Afghanistan, who appreciate intelligent women, women who can persuade them not to fight.

3 Responses to “Women at War”

  1. Karen Finkenbinder Says:

    Thanks for recognizing the contribution that women are making. Resistance to women in many positions within the military is very similar to that of women in other non-traditional fields such as policing. Much of the resistance is based upon mis-information and organizational culture and sub-cultures. The essential physical tasks of the career fields must be clearly defined and there need to be job-related physical fitness tests to ensure soldiers can do those tasks. That is a gender-neutral process. I venture to say such a test for “combat line jobs” would have a disparate impact upon women and older men but so be it. If the job requires it – then that is they way it is. What I think we will find is that other than line infantry units and a handfull of other positions, most reasonably fit women and men can be assigned to the majority of positions within the Army. But – following this method – uber-fit women might just find themselves qualified to be in Special Operations and other such units. I doubt that many men would then think women were a liability if the women were truly able to meet the requisite standard. My fear is that based upon a few anectdotes we generalize lessons learned and change military policy. As far as “women only units” – that seems like a throw-back to the early 70′s. Better to have a blended unit of men and women with good communication and tactical skills and send them out in mission-specific teams. To do otherwise isolates women and makes it a “we/they” culture again, something we have tried to change for 30 years by integrating training (to the maximum extent possible).

  2. Chris Browne Says:

    Bryan, this is an excellent tribute to all the women that have served. I would like to pay tribute and share a story about one special women I had the pleasure of serving with in Afghanistan. SFC Merideth Howard was tragically killed on September 8, 2006 in Kabul Afghanistan, traveling in a 5 vehicle convoy around Masoud Circle, by a suicide bomber driving a Toyota Corolla full of ammonium nitrate. Kabul was not a normal trip the PRT Commander would have to make. We quite often traveled to Bagram Airbase for supplies but seldom went to camp Phoenix or the embassy in downtown Kabul on that tragic day they did. She did not suffer. The explosion was so powerful; there were only fragments of the up-armored humvee at the site of the explosion. The M-240 machine gun that she manned was found 150 feet from the site of the explosion. I was the PRT First Sergeant and Senior NCO of Forward Operating base MehtarLam in Lahgman Province. When I received the devastating news I was already at Bagram Airbase for a medical issue I had to take care of. I was notified of the tragedy by the PRT commander by cell phone and later that day by the 10MTN Division Command Sergeant Major to see him so I could make preparations for the RAMP ceremony held at Bagram Airbase and later the Memorial ceremony that would take place on our FOB back in MehtarLam. Meredith’s tag-team partner SSG Robert Paul was also tragically killed. They were inseparable, a truly awesome combination. Howard and Paul were always known to be the one-two punch in our PRT, both reserve civil-affairs soldiers. There was never a PRT mission that they strayed from. They rolled out of the protected forward operating base and into a hostile environment with the PRT commander on every civil-affairs mission. Whether it be to conduct a humanitarian aid drop, inspect an irrigation project, a micro hydro power generator, or the 20 to 30 other various projects that they handled on a daily basis, they were there. I have never been more proud of two individuals in my entire life. All the pictures I have of them they were together in every one. If one was manning the 240, the other was behind the wheel of the humvee. If in downtown Mehtarlam mingling with the villagers they were together.
    I will never forget the first time I met SFC Merideth Howard at FT Bragg, NC. She was recalled to active duty at age 51 and way overweight. Being a typical Infantry First Sergeant that didn’t tolerate fat people especially assigned to my unit, I was not impressed. They selected an Infantry Senior Sergeant to train this PRT and prepare them for combat. It was late one evening in the WWII Barracks at FT Bragg, she and another female senior NCO a Master Sergeant even heavier than SFC Howard appeared in my room for sympathy. I was not a happy camper but I listened to their story. Both had been involuntarily recalled to active reserve duty from the Individual ready reserve, so they have been civilians for quite some time. Still, I would not sympathize with either one of them, because we all had jobs to do and they would be ready to go in six weeks. Instead, I told them I was going to physically work them harder than they had ever been pushed in their lifetime and I did. SFC Howard at that time had a double tennis shoe profile because of all the blisters she had from breaking in her new combat boots. By the time we deployed to Afghanistan she had lost over thirty pounds and further into the rotation she had lost even more. She turned out to be one of the most physically fit females in the PRT of which we had 11.
    I will never forget having to inventory their personal effects to save for their next of kin.
    SFC Meredith Howard lived the Army values and embodied everything they stand for.
    She loved her country, and served her proudly by improving the quality of life for the citizens in Lahgman Province Afghanistan. She was a strong advocate and voice for womens rights in the city of MehtarLam and Lahgman Province that resulted in a womens day for equality event in downtown MehtarLam where several Afghan Women of Influence gave speeches on womens rights.
    It was a devastating loss for the PRT, the Army, her family, and the citizens of Lahgman Province Afghainstan.
    She will forever be missed by anyone that was fortunate enough to have known her.

  3. civilaffairspksoi Says:

    SFC Meredith Howard’s story is truly inspirational for all Soldiers, regardless of gender or age. She was certainly one of those great Americans who asked not what her country could do for her, but what she could do for her country.

    I think the USMC organized the “Lioness Unit” covered by ABC news not as a way to segregate men from women, but to concentrate enough female Marines together so they could be trained and employed to conduct influence engagements with Afghan women, something that a male Marine or Soldier could do in most cases, especially in the rural areas, without putting Afghan women at risk while more likely alienating the Afghan population than winning hearts and minds.

    I think male and female Soldiers and Marines, both active and reserve component, have accomplished much together under fire in Iraq and Afghanistan. I think in some cases female Soldiers were targeted by the enemy because they undermined local customs of a woman’s place in society. Many Arab men do not like to see women in authority. I know in 2004 the Kurdish Iraqis were way ahead of Arab Iraqis in accepting women into their new security forces.

    I hearken back to the CCOE pamphlet “GENDER MAKES SENSE,” with its guidance on disarmament, demobilization and reintegration of female as well as male combatants, and considering the needs of family members during the DDR process. Part of the DDR process for men and women has to include addressing expectations for the post conflict time frame. I think part of DDR has to include promoting change in cultures and societies that have long celebrated violence and valued women for their ability to provide additional warriors/cannon fodder for the state and/or the tribe. I think education is key in this regard, and think that the efforts of the Mortenson’s of the world are important to producing educated men and women who value peace for themselves and their children. I recall Mortenson’s quote in the linked article by Judith Stone – “teach a boy, you educate a man, teach a girl, you educate a village.”

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