- The Washington Times - Friday, May 5, 2006

Retired generals have fired volleys at Donald Rumsfeld, but he will stay as defense secretary. This is only fair, since Mr. Rumsfeld should have to deal with the consequences of problematic personnel policies set in motion on his watch.

Under him, social engineers have accelerated their agenda. Mr. Rumsfeld is known for abrading subordinates but not Army officials who continue to violate policy and law on women in land combat.

All deployed soldiers, men and women, serve “in harm’s way.” But even without a “front line,” the missions of direct ground combat units have not changed. Infantry, armor, and Special Operations Forces attack the enemy with deliberate offensive action under fire. These fighting battalions, and support units that “collocate” with them 100 percent of the time, are required by Defense Department regulations to be all male.

If the Army wants to change the “collocation rule,” the defense secretary must approve and formally report the change to Congress approximately three months (30 legislative days) in advance. The law also requires an analysis of proposed changes on young women’s exemption from Selective Service obligations.

These requirements have not been met, even though the Army has placed female soldiers in formerly all male support units that collocate with infantry/armor battalions in the 3rd and 4th Infantry, 101st Airborne, and 1st Cavalry divisions.

Army Secretary Francis Harvey denies a need to inform Congress of such assignments — but there is a “catch.” Female soldiers are administratively “assigned,” on paper only, to legally open (brigade level) units. In reality, they are placed in “attached” forward support companies that collocate with land combat battalions and are required to be all male.

Mr. Harvey has claimed female soldiers will be removed (somehow) when battalions begin “conducting” or “performing” direct ground combat. Even if the Army had the resources to evacuate women on the eve of battle, the disruption could cause missions to fail and lives to be lost.

Where is Congress on this? In 2005 House Armed Services Committee Chairman Duncan Hunter conducted an investigation, and led the first major debate on women in combat in 15 years. Army officials initially denied illicit assignments, but later used semantics and sophistry to justify them. Dissatisfied members of Mr. Hunter’s committee passed legislation to codify current Defense Department regulations.

Instead of issuing a swift order to bring the Army back into line, Mr. Rumsfeld persuaded Mr. Hunter to withdraw his legislation. A substitute amendment in the 2006 Defense Authorization Act mandated a detailed report on women in land combat, which was due on March 31, 2006.

Mr. Rumsfeld’s office ignored the deadline and diverted the task to Rand Corp., which will not report until Dec. 31. If a Democratic administration displayed such contemptuousness, Republicans would be up in arms.

But congressional oversight on matters affecting women in the military should not be a partisan matter. Some legislators on both sides of the aisle are taking this issue seriously, but most seem unconcerned about the consequences of decisions made by default.

The cost of doing nothing starts with confusion among soldiers who are beginning to doubt their leaders’ judgment. No one has provided data proving shortages of men for the combat arms, but deficiencies could occur if the institutional Army continues to supply CENTCOM with an unsuitable “inventory” of soldiers ineligible for the infantry.

Substituting women for men in combat-collocated support units increases danger for everyone. Female soldiers are brave, but proximity matters. In combat collocated units soldiers need to be strong enough to individually lift and evacuate a wounded infantryman under fire.

When feminists demand “career opportunities” in infantry battalions, how will Mr. Rumsfeld respond? The devil is not in the details, but in the priorities used to determine policy. If career considerations are paramount, incremental changes will increase demands for “consistency” in Army and Marine infantry, armor, and Special Operations Forces. And if the land combat notification law is not enforced, a similar one regarding female sailors on submarines has no meaning either.

Enter the American Civil Liberties Union, which will file another lawsuit challenging male-only Selective Service registration. The Supreme Court has upheld women’s exemption because female soldiers are not ordered into direct ground combat. If the rules change, deliberately or by default, the ACLU will probably win. Voters will notice when their daughters are denied college loans for not registering with Selective Service.

In the combat arms, physical capabilities are critical. Soldiers routinely carry weapons and equipment weighing 100 pounds or more. Servicewomen experience stress fractures and other injuries far more often than men, but Army leaders pretend male and female warriors are virtually interchangeable. Gender-normed training standards, which never would be used in choosing football players for the Army-Navy game, contribute to the illusion of a “gender-free” Army.

Officials also pretend sexual entanglements can be perfectly managed. But sexual misconduct in the forced intimacy of the combat arms, on either end of the “hostile/romantic” behavior spectrum, would more seriously affect discipline and deployability, cohesion and trust. No one should be surprised when demoralizing scandals similar to Abu Ghraib inspire more criticism of the military.

All soldiers — male and female — deserve our pride and support. They are not responsible for military leaders who disregard policy and law, but the defense secretary is. President Bush, the ultimate “decider,” should pay attention and intervene. Events in Iraq are beyond the president’s control, but the Pentagon is not.

Elaine Donnelly is president of the Center for Military Readiness.

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