Finally! The Pentagon today announced that the ban on women in combat positions will be lifted.
It's about time. The prohibition on women in combat served no useful role. Instead, it devalued the vital role already played by women in military service, and stood as a barrier to advancement for women seeking leadership positions in the military.
I've written about this before, and don't have much that's new to say, so I'll just give some short excerpts from a 2005 Los Angeles Times column I wrote on women in combat, and a more recent piece published here in Foreign Policy.
In 2005, I looked at some of the reasons usually given by those who opposed letting women play combat roles:
"Women aren't big and strong enough for combat." I'll buy this when someone explains why the Marine Corps will cheerfully accept a 4-foot-10 male recruit who weighs 96 pounds.
Sure, the Marines will make a man out of him, but even if they water the guy with Miracle-Gro, they won't be able to turn him into a 6-footer. The average man may be bigger and stronger than the average woman, but plenty of women are bigger and stronger than many men. Why discriminate based on gender when you could have straightforward, task-specific strength requirements?
In any case, in a war that mixes high-tech weaponry with low-tech hazards, being big and strong isn't all it's cracked up to be. You don't need to be big and strong to fly a modern combat jet, and size won't help when you're up against suicide bombers and improvised explosive devices. Why do we believe that bigger people make better soldiers? In Vietnam, an army of big, strong American men fought an army of small, slender Vietnamese men -- and lost....
"We can't let women into combat because they might get killed." They surely will, but so what? Women die in car accidents and from heart attacks, but though these deaths too are cause for sorrow, we still let women ride in cars and super-size their fries....
In contrast to the bogus arguments against women in combat, there are strong arguments in favor. Locking women out of combat positions makes it harder for women to advance within the military, limiting their opportunities to attain more prestigious jobs and higher salaries. This in turn hurts their families and increases gender inequalities in society as a whole.
Denying women the opportunity to take on combat roles also reduces their future ability to shape national policy. In the post-9/11 world, credibility on military and security issues is increasingly necessary for those who hope to succeed in important public positions -- and if only men can occupy combat roles, that gives them a substantial edge.
With the rise of terrorism and asymmetrical warfare, the distinction between "front" and "rear" has eroded. In Iraq, women in noncombat military jobs, such as escorting cargo convoys or serving as military police, are in harm's way....Women will die alongside men in any terrorist attack on U.S. soil, and women, like men, are affected by our national defense policies. It's time to give them the right to fight for their country.
These aren't the only reasons to cheer the end of rules prohibiting women in combat MOS's. In the age of the all-volunteer military, the services constantly struggle to attract and retain people with the character and skills necessary for military success. Even with planned force reductions, it will still be tough to get the right people. This is all the more true as we look ahead to the challenges of the future. As I wrote in September,
The U.S. military will need people with technical experience and scientific know-how. It will also need people with foreign language and regional expertise and an anthropological cast of mind -- people who can operate comfortably and effectively surrounded by foreigners. And in the 24-7 media environment -- the era of the strategic corporal -- the military will, above all, need people with maturity and good judgment.
These days, women are increasingly outperforming men in many areas: They're more likely to enter and finish college, for instance, and to get better grades while there. If our goal is to recruit the smart, mature, and well-educated people into the military, why would we want to have rules discriminating against half the eligible population -- particularly when it's such a highly-performing half?
So three cheers for Leon Panetta. His tenure as defense secretary has been brief, and for the most part he's been stuck with the thankless task of pushing for sensible budget cuts. With this announcement, though, Panetta has ensured his place in history: He'll be the defense secretary who removed the final bar to equal opportunity in military service. Well done, Mr. Secretary.
Sgt. Sean McGinty/DVIDS
By Doug Wilson
Like Rosa Brooks, who has generously allowed me to post the following comments, I am a former Obama political appointee. I served at the Pentagon as assistant secretary of defense, the department's senior spokesman and communications strategist. I left earlier this year, not because I hated the job but because I loved the work so much I didn't rest enough -- I got fat and I didn't get enough exercise. I loved the people I worked with, including Rosa. She had never served at the Pentagon and initially feared she never would. Prior to her appointment, she had been concerned that she was too left-of-center to be appointed, and later, to be accepted by her Pentagon colleagues. Neither turned out to be the case: The Obama national security team went to bat for her because of her talents and drive, and her Pentagon colleagues came to like and respect her. She listened to and respected them; she understood you could disagree without feeling betrayed and she made significant contributions in reforming information operations and introducing cutting-edge links between military and human rights issues.
So I was blown away to read Rosa's Friday column called "The Case For Intervention... In Obama's Dysfunctional Foreign Policy Team." I understand that serving in government can sometimes make you frustrated and angry. But I grew up in an era where it was thought unseemly to pee publicly on the people who give you a chance to serve your country and make a difference. So blame the following response to the column on old-fashioned values and a starkly different personal perspective.
I was not one of the first people appointed to the administration. I was never in an inner circle, and although I attended countless communications meetings, I never attended a deputies or principals meeting. I met the president no more than a few times during my tenure. People younger than I, with fewer years' experience in foreign affairs, held higher and more powerful positions. From time to time, I got yelled at.
But largely thanks to the people on President Obama's National Security Staff, I left with the greatest satisfaction and pride I have ever felt from any job I have had over the past four decades. Because of them, I was at the table throughout the entire sausage-making process, when military leaders and political appointees worked together until they finally came up with the smartest, most unified, and most coherent approach to defense spending I have seen in 40 years. Because of them, I got to help men and women in uniform whom I knew and who had hidden in plain sight for years become whole human beings with the repeal of Don't Ask, Don't Tell. Because of them, I got to see young men and women in uniform from every state in the U.S., all of whom had served in Iraq, many missing a limb or two, wander in awe with their spouses, families, partners or significant others throughout the White House at the first state dinner ever held to honor the troops.
I also got to work with them on a daily basis, together with colleagues and counterparts from the military services, the State Department, and the CIA. We all participated in what seemed like endless zillions of interagency videoconferences on Iraq, Afghanistan, the Arab Spring, Iran, Libya, Syria, China, Wikileaks -- the full spectrum of hard and messy issues with which this administration has had to deal. I don't regret a single one of them because the National Security staffers who led them were dedicated to getting all of the input they could; to ensuring that all of us who were stakeholders in the outcome would be stakeholders in the process that produced the outcome; and to doing everything possible to getting the policy right.
I didn't know National Security Advisor Tom Donilon well and almost never engaged directly with him -- but that was neither my role nor my goal. A tour de force briefing he gave to the service chiefs and combatant commanders at the Pentagon, engaging in give-and-take that was frank, respectful, and hugely substantive, blew me away. I don't care who likes him one day and is mad at him the next. I'm glad we have an individual with that level of experience and expertise -- and real understanding of and commitment to this nation's interests -- leading the National Security Staff.
I know Denis McDonough and Ben Rhodes better. I have been yelled at by both of them and I would walk off a cliff for either of them. They are two of the smartest, most capable, and most dedicated people with whom I have ever worked. They will not rest until every single stakeholder from every relevant agency or department on a given issue has been heard from -- that was my experience throughout my entire tenure. Their approach is holistic, they respect talent, they listen to dissent, they set high standards.
I'm not sure exactly to whom you refer, Rosa, when you bemoan all the "young and untried campaign aides managing vital substantive portfolios" but I do know that as a result of many years of effort by many Democrats to develop and nurture new foreign policy talent, there are some amazing young people making significant contributions to this administration's foreign policy record. I'm happy to name names, Rosa.
You are right to single out former Undersecretary of Defense for Policy Michèle Flournoy, one of the key investors in the development of new national security talent. The results of her investment efforts can be seen in the work of the remarkable team of female national security specialists she has nurtured: Former Deputy Under Secretary of Defense for Strategy, Plans, and Forces Kath Hicks (now deputy undersecretary of defense for policy), who led the development of the 2012 Defense Strategic Guidance and the 2010 Quadrennial Defense Review. Janine Davidson, who began her career in the United States Air Force as an aircraft commander and senior pilot for the C-130 and the C-17 cargo aircraft and became the Obama administration's deputy assistant secretary of defense for plans, where she oversaw the development of guidance for military campaign and contingency plans. Civil servant Amanda Dory, who became deputy assistant secretary of defense for strategy. Think tank experts Julie Smith and Celeste Wallander, selected by the Obama administration to lead Pentagon policy efforts on Europe and Russia, respectively. And you, yourself, Rosa, with a Pentagon portfolio that included rule of law, human rights issues, global engagement, and strategic communication.
Let's name more names: Jake Sullivan at the State Department, the young lawyer with Clinton campaign credentials -- and abilities to bridge gaps, synthesize issues, break logjams, and establish policy priorities that trump most of those my age with "deep expertise." Our mutual friend Dan Feldman, who learned a valuable lesson on his first trip to India -- be careful what you eat -- that has served him well on the subsequent myriad trips to central and southwest Asia with both the current and late former special representatives for Afghanistan and Pakistan, who've considered him the glue that binds that team together. Derek Chollet, who may look like he should be the son of the assistant secretary of defense for international security affairs rather than the assistant secretary himself (which he is), but who has already worked for three secretaries of state and written six books on foreign policy. And Colin Kahl, now at the Center for a New American Security (CNAS), who as deputy assistant secretary for the Middle East played a pivotal role in designing and overseeing the responsible drawdown and transition strategy in Iraq, shaping the Pentagon's efforts to counter Iran's nuclear weapons ambitions and destabilizing activities and promoting unprecedented defense cooperation with Israel.
Many of them and many more like them fit your description of young former campaign aides managing vital substantive portfolios. Yes, there are some in government who are untested and yet to prove themselves. But given who we got in the Bush administration -- the "experienced" ideologues and neocons we could get again -- I'll take the young men and women like those I've named, and many more, to understand and help guide this nation's foreign policy interests in today's world over the alternative any time. And I know you share my pride in the talent "bench" we've developed (finally, after all these years!) through the network of organizations that proactively nurtured that talent: CNAS, the National Security Network, Third Way, the Truman Project, and the Center for American Progress.
President Obama and his national security team brought that new talent into government. We learned they had a tremendous amount to contribute. They learned that being in government is like being in a centrifuge. You have to accept that when you go in. But look what we've accomplished in the Obama centrifuge so far: Stronger international partnerships. Outstanding military-intelligence cooperation. Feed the Future initiatives. Defense spending defined by a strategy, not by a meat-axe. Choosing to support democratic change in the Middle East, and committing to remain engaged, however messy it may be for awhile. Listening to throngs of even-newer generation Americans cheering outside the White House the night President Obama announced that U.S. military and intelligence had brought justice to Osama bin Laden.
Every organization has its share of assholes and jerks, Rosa. My experience, after serving in and out of government since 1973, is that the Obama administration has had many many fewer than any other in which I've served. So I don't agree with your call on President Obama to find some "decent managers to run the National Security Staff -- honest brokers who are capable of listening, prioritizing, delegating, and holding people accountable for results"? They're already there.
Doug Wilson served as assistant secretary of defense, the Pentagon's senior spokesman and communications strategist, from February 2010 until March of this year. He is a national security adviser to the Obama campaign.
Pete Souza/The White House via Getty Images
Rosa Brooks, who writes FP's "By Other Means" column, blogs about war, politics, and the evolving role of the military.