The military has tried a different strategy in Afghanistan, with mixed results:
They expected tea, not firefights. But the three female Marines and their patrol were shot at late on a recent day, when a burst of Kalashnikov rifle fire came from a nearby compound. The group hit the ground, crawled into a ditch and aimed its guns across the fields of cotton and corn.
In their sights they could see the source of the blast: an Afghan man who had shot aimlessly from behind a mud wall, shielded by a half-dozen children. The women held their fire with the rest of the patrol so as not to hit a child, waited for the all-clear, then headed back to the base, survivors of yet another encounter with the enemy.
“You still get that same feeling, like, ‘Oh, my gosh, I’m getting shot at,’ ” said Lance Cpl. Stephanie Robertson, 20, speaking of the firefights that have become part of her life in Marja. “But you know what to do. You’re not, like, comfortable, because you’re just — ” She stopped, searching for how to describe her response to experiences that for many would be terrifying. “It’s like muscle memory.”
So here we have female armed forces pushing the envelope, training for battle, engaging in it and yet pretending that they're non-combatants.
As new faces in an American counterinsurgency campaign, the female Marines, who volunteered for the job, were to meet with Pashtun women over tea in their homes, assess their need for aid, gather intelligence, and help open schools and clinics.
They have done that and more, and as their seven-month deployment in southern Afghanistan nears an end their “tea as a weapon” mission has been judged a success. But the Marines, who have been closer to combat than most other women in the war, have also had to use real weapons in a tougher fight than many expected.
Here in Marja — which, seven months after a major offensive against the Taliban, is improving but remains one of the most dangerous places in Afghanistan — the female Marines have daily skirted the Pentagon rules restricting women in combat. They have shot back in firefights and ambushes, been hit by homemade bombs and lived on bases hit by mortar attacks.
None of the 40 women have been killed or seriously injured, and a number have worked in stable areas where the shooting has stopped, but many have seen good friends die.
And yet that last fact is due to sheer dumb luck. Men in their units have died along side of them on patrol, proving that they've crossed the line on a regular basis. It's a clever strategy that is meant to prove that women can handle combat stress, respond accordingly and push policy makers back home to lift the restrictions. The larger fallout, many worry, is that if the draft is ever imposed in the future, it will include both men and women.
I've written about this numerous time, each time dealing with data that trickles in beneath the radar, painting a conflicting picture about current policies. Kingsley Browne and Stephanie Gutmann have written compellingly about the problem, including the fraternisation and pregnancy rates that are causing grave problems in the field.
Q: You say we're not getting the full picture of women's military performance in Iraq. What information is being withheld?
A: The mainstream press in general seems favourably disposed toward the service of women, so we get stories only of their good performance, we don't hear about their bad performance. But you do hear anecdotal reports, not so much about women's performance under fire as much as about slack discipline in the mixed sex support units, because the members are often devoting too much of their attention to the opposite sex. There's too much monkey business.
Q: I was surprised that a central command officer told you no one is collecting information about the number of soldiers who get pregnant in Iraq.
A: I cannot believe the U.S. military is so unconcerned with the causes of personnel loss that they aren't keeping track, but releasing it is another matter. They don't see any advantage in saying that even a small number of women are leaving because of pregnancy. A statistic that you see frequently is that at any one time, about 10 per cent of the women serving in the military — not just in Iraq, but in every part of the military — are pregnant. So far, 155,000 women have served in Iraq and Afghanistan altogether, so I'd guess that hundreds, and likely more, have become pregnant and returned home, or weren't able to deploy in the first place because they were pregnant.
All well and good, unless you really need troops in top fighting form. And that means more than meeting with local women to see if their wells are in good shape. Furthermore, if we're going to convince those women to shed their burkas for greater opportunities, we may want to show them that the West offers women something other than bikinis and combat boots. Between what they hear of our pop culture and who's knocking at their doors, they might wonder what infidel women are all about. I'd like them to have another image to consider.
UPDATE: The worthy Elaine Donnelly (linked above) weighs in the same article, ending with this sad comment --
At the CMR website, there is an article on the 115 women who have given their lives in service to our country in the current wars in Afghanistan, Kuwait, and Iraq. The most recent female soldier to die was Army Pfc. Barbara Vieyra, 22, of Mesa, Arizona. She was killed by an IED/RPG attack in Afghanistan on September 18, leaving behind a young daughter, Evelyn. We mourn the loss of any soldier, but it is troubling to see so many single mothers being sent to fight our wars.