Curb Your Enthusiasm/Skepticism Over Women In SOF
T. Negeen Pegahi
As decision points fast approach, the question of whether women should be allowed to serve as special operators is receiving renewed attention. The combat exclusion policy is set to expire on January 1, 2016, at which point women will be allowed to compete for spots in the remaining military occupational specialties currently closed to them: namely, armor, artillery, infantry, as well as special operations forces (SOF). The services have until October 1, 2015 to request exemptions to the repeal of the ban, however. While a combination of rumor intelligence and outright statements suggests that the ban will be fully repealed, officially, we are not yet there and debate correspondingly continues.
Most commentators believe that evidence, not ideology, should drive whether any of the services request exemptions and whether the Department of Defense favorably entertains any such requests. Precisely because of the ban, however, there are no truly unproblematic data from which to draw. Much of the debate over whether to allow women into ground combat specialties has thus revolved around what information we should actually use and what that information actually tells us.
The experience of the Cultural Support Teams (CSTs) in Afghanistan is the most relevant case we have for the SOF portion of the debate. While women have long worked with SOF in combat zones in a wide variety of enabling roles, the CSTs represent the first time women have truly been in combat with SOF. Commentators on both sides have thus seized on the CSTs in trying to make their respective cases. They use the experience of the same program, in short, to reach opposite conclusions. The publication of a recent book on the subject and the subsequent media coverage of it have only exacerbated the situation.
Creating the Cultural Support Teams (CSTs)
The CSTs were the brainchild of Admiral Eric Olson, among others, while he was the commander of SOCOM. Since retired and speaking at this summer’s Aspen Security Forum, Olson nonetheless urged caution in citing the program as implying the integration of women into combat roles. He reminded the audience that the CST members’ “role on target was to be women, not to be combat soldiers, and the first thing they did when they fast roped out of the first helicopter on the target was to take their helmet off, let their hair down and corral the women and children[.]” When combined with his other comments at the forum, Olson seemed to be suggesting that women should be limited to serving with special operators as opposed to serving in such positions themselves.
Megan MacKenzie, author of Beyond the Band of Brothers: The US Military and the Myth that Women Can’t Fight, roundly mocked Olson’s characterization of the CSTs’ work. MacKenzie has argued that the traditional myths used to prevent women from holding combat positions – that they are physically incapable of sustaining the demands of war, that the public cannot accept female casualties, and that the presence of women undermines unit cohesion – have been disproved by both the work of scholars and the actual experience of servicewomen in combat zones. She holds that leaders who are against allowing women into the remaining specialties have therefore put forward a new myth – namely, that CST members were (only) “lady soldiers” doing “lady missions.” MacKenzie disparages this interpretation and claims instead that the CST experiment proves that women can serve as special operators themselves.
Accurately Characterizing the CSTs’ Roles
So who’s right? On the narrow questions of what CSTs were sent to do and what they did do, the record clearly supports Olson. SOCOM developed the CST program in 2010 in response to perceived battlefield needs in Afghanistan. Afghan sensitivities meant that efforts by groups of (all-male) special operators to speak with and even search Afghan women, particularly inside family compounds, often did more harm than good in terms of achieving US objectives. Afghan women were thus largely ignored for most of the first decade of the campaign, meaning operators could not avail themselves of any of the information and influence Afghan women might have held. US commanders eventually realized that the military’s own women were a natural solution to this particular problem.
Once selected and trained, CST members were divided into two groups for their deployments. The majority were attached to teams of Army Special Forces, Navy SEALs, and Marine Special Operators focusing on the village stability operations portion of the US and broader coalition counterinsurgency effort. A smaller number were attached to groups of Army Rangers and Navy SEALs conducting the direct action portion of the US counterterrorism effort. Regardless of whether the CSTs were working in villages during the day or on objectives at night, the logic of their employment was the same: their status as women enabled access to and interaction with Afghan women, which in turn was expected to help (male) operators accomplish their missions.
The program adhered to plan. Gayle Tzemach Lemmon’s recent book Ashley’s War: The Untold Story of a Team of Women Soldiers on the Special Ops Battlefield provides an inside look at the CSTs’ journey stateside and their experience while forward. Lemmon quotes the CSTs’ lead trainer at Fort Bragg, a Ranger veteran of over a dozen deployments to Iraq and Afghanistan, spelling out their roles to the women assigned the direct action mission: “Your job is not to be a Ranger and you are not a part of the Ranger assault team.” Instead, “you have a very particular job to do on the battlefield … engage with the women and children. … I need you to find out where the bad guys are, as quick as you can.”
Once deployed, the CSTs accompanied Rangers to objectives and waited at a distance while Rangers cleared compounds. Lemmon recounts the experience of one CST member trying to calm and extract information from a group of Afghan women and children caught in one such night raid: “Slowly [the CST member] put on her blue nitrile gloves, and softened her tone. … Then she removed her helmet to make herself look less scary, and make it clear she was a woman, too. One of the children immediately stopped crying, and Amber draped a teal-colored cotton scarf over what she now called her ‘combat braids’ … The higher-ups had told the CSTs they should be able to prove quickly and uncontrovertibly that they were female while out on the objective; this would put the Afghan women at ease, which in turn might encourage them to speak more freely and share valuable information.
Lemmon’s reporting reveals not just the gap between what the CST members and the special operators they accompanied did on objectives but also the gaps between how each group was selected, trained, and treated. CST members had a separate and substantially shorter assessment and selection process than the operators with whom they would work, a separate and sharply abbreviated training course, and separate and inferior workspaces on their forward operating bases. (Indeed, members of one CST lobbied successfully to move into a broom closet, viewing that space as a step up from the office with which they had initially been provided.) CST members were not issued the same SOF-specific Crye Precision uniforms as the operators they accompanied, having to wear the regular Army “MultiCams” instead. (Again, though, they pressed successfully to have this changed.) Official guidance even limited when CSTs could actually accompany operators on raids, requiring them to stay on base if the operation was expected to involve particularly difficult terrain or an imminent threat of contact.
All this makes clear that these women – however brave, fit, talented, and committed – were decidedly stuck on the “Pink Team,” as one woman’s former colleagues derided the all-female enablers. The CST members themselves seemed to understand this. Lemmon quotes one drawing an explicit comparison between her and her teammates’ training, experience, and responsibilities on the one hand and those of the special operators with whom they worked on the other: “No way in hell we are even close to what they do.”
Reports of women working with still more elite special operations units bear out the same general pattern. In another recently published book on SOF, Sean Naylor briefly discusses the role of women in a troop specializing in deep reconnaissance and undercover work for one of the national mission units. Naylor reports that the troop paired men and women in “guy-girl teams” to reconnoiter targets on the assumption that mixed-sex pairs presenting as couples would draw less unwanted attention than men operating alone or in pairs. While Naylor writes admiringly of these women and the job they are doing, an experienced Tier 1 operator quoted in the book refers to them as “props,” there simply to facilitate the men’s efforts.
Understanding the Implications for the Integration Debate
So what? Why does it matter which specific roles women have been filling with SOF and how commentators characterize those roles? Proponents of removing barriers to women don’t seem to realize – and critics of ending the ban may quietly hope – that programs like the CSTs and other “Pink Team” equivalents across SOF can just as easily serve as off-ramps in the drive towards equal opportunity as they can stepping stones. By mischaracterizing and overhyping what servicewomen have done to date with SOF – specifically, the narrow, female-specific tasks they have been allowed to do – these advocates may inadvertently be making it easier for the services to stop “integration” where we currently are.
Indeed, recent statements by SOF leaders themselves seem to support such an argument. Current SOCOM Commander General Joseph Votel also discussed the CST program at the Aspen Security Forum, noting that, “In many ways, SOCOM has been at the leading edge of integrating women into critical positions.” At the funeral of Lieutenant White, the young soldier and CST member for whom the book Ashley’s War is named, the then head of United States Army Special Operations Command Lieutenant General John Mulholland told the crowd of mourners: “Make no mistake about it, these women are warriors; these are great women who have also provided enormous operational success to us on the battlefield by virtue of their being able to contact half of the population that we normally do not interact with. They absolutely have become part of our special operations family.” Comments like these could be used to support suggestions for a new “separate but equal.”
The point of allowing women to compete for positions in SOF and other military specialties currently closed to them is to broaden the talent pool from which all positions can draw, thereby making for a stronger overall military. That is a very different motivation than recognizing that there are certain roles in certain theaters that only female servicemembers can fill and a very different end-state than allowing women to serve in those – and only those – roles. In the waning days of the debate over whether to truly end the combat exclusion policy, we should be very careful not to confuse working with other societies’ restrictions on women with overcoming those of our own.