The Army chief of staff has raised the stakes in the debate over women in combat with an assertion that women are only barred from serving in support units assigned to infantry when such units are actually in combat.
This appears to contradict Army and Defense Department policy that specifies that women are not to be assigned to any support unit that is “embedded” with infantry likely to engage the enemy.
Gen. Peter J. Schoomaker spoke last week at a military forum at the American Enterprise Institute for Public Policy Research in a speech on the future of the U.S. Army.
An Army spokesman said the Army is following all policies.
Opponents of assigning women to combat argue that moving support companies, which the Army calls Forward Support Companies, into units when they are fighting and withdrawing them when they are not fighting, is inefficient and dangerous for women, some of whom have been wounded and maimed in Iraq.
The debate is renewed as the Army is revamping its combat brigades into what it calls modular “units of actions.” To make this system work, skeptics and critics inside and outside the Army say the Army is “collocating,” or embedding, mixed-sex Forward Support Companies with infantry units contrary to policy. President Bush himself has said on several occasions, most recently in a January interview with reporters and editors of The Washington Times, that he opposes assigning women to combat.
If the Army acknowledges changing the policy — in fact if not in name — the Army would be required to seek congressional approval. The 3rd Infantry Division, which went to Iraq in January, is the first to deploy with such “units of action.”
Replying to a question at the forum, Gen. Schoomaker said the Army had “added” to the settled policy regarding women in combat. “First of all,” he said, “we have a policy, and an [Office of Secretary of Defense] policy, that says that we will not assign females to the infantry armor and Special Forces organizations that are trained, organized and equipped to routinely close with and destroy the enemy. And we have an Army policy that adds to that, not an [Office of Secretary of Defense] policy, but an Army [policy], that adds to that [that] says we will not collocate these women at the time that those units are undergoing those operations.”
The Army’s 1992 policy, to which Army Secretary Francis Harvey recently pledged his adherence, does not make such a distinction.
The policy sets out that the Army “allows women to serve in any officer or enlisted specialty or position except those in battalion-size or smaller units which are assigned a primary mission to engage in direct ground combat or which collocate routinely with units assigned a direct ground combat mission.”
The regulation does not say women can’t collocate with units that are “undergoing” combat operations, as Gen. Schoomaker put it. The regulation says they cannot serve with units that are “assigned a direct combat role.”
The general’s definition appears to reflect an internal Army “point paper” drafted on Jan. 23 to be submitted to Mr. Harvey. The point paper says that “Army policy (1992) further prohibits the assignment of women to positions or units which routinely collocate with those units conducting an assigned direct ground combat mission.”
The actual policy uses the word “assigned,” not “conducting.”
An Army spokesman, after examining a transcript of Gen. Schoomaker’s remarks and a reference to the 1992 law, said: “Simply put, the policy has not changed, nor are there any plans to change it. The deployed Army forces are in compliance.”
Elaine Donnelly, who heads the Center for Military Readiness, which opposes women in combat, disagrees.
“The question is, in compliance with what?” Mrs. Donnelly asked. “Certainly not with current Defense Department regulations, which clearly and simply exempt women from collocation with units ‘assigned a direct ground combat mission.’ The Army has presumed to add the words ‘undergoing’ or ‘conducting’ a direct ground combat mission to the Defense Department collocation rule, without authorization by the secretary of defense, and without advance notice to Congress, as required by law. Gen. Schoomaker’s statement confirms this.”
Mr. Harvey sent letters to congressional leaders in January saying he had reviewed the women-in-combat policies and that “no change to the extant policy is required.”
Rep. Duncan Hunter, California Republican, chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, is reviewing the Army’s new “units of action” and has not yet decided whether they meet the women’s combat exclusion, his spokesman said.
Gen. Schoomaker’s answer on women in combat was part of a lengthy response to a question from the audience. The questioner asked whether, in light of the casualties women have suffered in Iraq, “men have a moral responsibility to be protective of women … rather than employing them in hostile and dangerous circumstances to be killed and to kill.”
The general replied, in part: “I think we have a moral responsibility to protect the weak regardless of gender, and I do not see this as a gender issue. The fact is that I think we have a moral responsibility to prepare those women that are serving in our armed forces to, No. 1, have the very best chance of surviving by providing them with the warrior skills and tasks that are required, and No. 2, make sure that as we operate that we operate in such a way that reduces the probability that any soldier will be placed in a position to be injured or killed.”
The questioner persisted, and asked whether men who hold the traditional moral commitment to protect women, “as some of us have been trained to understand as youngsters,” would disqualify them from serving under his policy. Gen. Schoomaker replied that it was “an interesting question” that he would never have thought about.
“There are some people that would say, you know, men and women can’t even share the same tornado shelter in Oklahoma. I mean, there’s quite a wide spectrum here on what all this means. I think that maybe since we’re killing 40,000 people a year on the highway, they shouldn’t drive. OK. That’s very dangerous, too.”