The genesis of this piece was to reach out to the Honey Badgers with some of my thoughts on women in “Combat Arms” Military Occupational Specialties (MOS) and the draft. While inspired by the /pol/ cast 01 episode, I wasn’t so much responding to any specific argument but wanted to share my perspective as a former Noncommissioned Officer (NCO) and a veteran of the Afghan war. I figured a few of these points might be worth repeating in the future but Hannah asked me if I was willing to allow them to post this to the blog for everybody to have a chance to read so here we are.
To start, a little about myself: I enlisted in the US Army in 2006 and left service at the end of 2012 after serving as an Explosive Ordnance Disposal (EOD) Technician and achieving the rank of Sergeant. I deployed to Logar and Wardak provinces of Afghanistan from the fall of 2010 to fall 2011. Outside of my deployment and initial entry training, I participated in roughly 60 EOD response missions within the continental US, numerous range clearances, missions in support of the Secret Service, and conducted a lot of training on unexploded ordnance (UXO) and IED awareness (mainly for civilian first responders). I do not claim to be a subject matter expert on the “big picture” issues I’m going to discuss, and I understand that my experiences are anecdotal. However, due to the nature of my job I got to see a lot of different pieces in motion and I think my “EOD Sergeant’s eye-view” might be helpful to those of you who’ve never served or served in peacetime or served in a capacity which kept you removed from the front lines.
First and foremost, the issue of women holding Combat Arms MOSes doesn’t particularly bother me in principle so long as realistic MOS-specific physical standards (separate from general fitness standards which I think can be reasonably argued should stay gender-specific) are developed and maintained. I think if practical it may also be reasonable to develop similar psychological profiles to screen out at least some troops who are unfit for these positions. At the time I served, a First Sergeant I worked for (a former Infantryman, himself) once described the qualifications for the Infantry as “a dick and a pulse;” once in Afghanistan I saw the truth of that statement. While I was never a “PT stud,” I can recall on several dismounted missions I partook in some 19 or 20 year old kid carrying nothing but a rifle, their combat load, and a camelbak who was unable to keep up. If in that situation I, a 30-something year old EOD tech with a failing thyroid who’s been in two motorcycle wrecks and is carrying (at least) an additional 30lbs of tools and explosives is outpacing you, you do not belong in the Infantry. We can only benefit from setting these kinds of standards, they are long overdue, and allowing women into Combat Arms will if nothing else force the issue. Additionally, with only about 4-6% of military women being able to meet those standards (let alone having the desire to hold one of these jobs), I don’t think it’s likely to be a huge issue. Maneuver battalions will figure out the best way to utilize their handful of female combat troops and life will continue.
That being said, I have no confidence at all that the issue will be left at that so long as politicians from the Regressive Left hold office. My concern is that they’re going to see very few women attempting to enter these fields, a very small percentage of them succeeding, and subsequently they’re going to feel compelled to “fix” a “problem” which doesn’t exist and with the inevitable destination of lower standards. I also think that at least some of those maneuver battalions I mentioned will “solve” the issue of having female combat troops by (as an example) doing things like shuffling them into headquarters companies where they might serve as part of the CO or Command Sergeant Major’s personal security detail. The “problem” there may be that it results in hurt feelings and complaints which will inevitably make their way to the ears of politicians who will (of course) feel compelled to meddle with organizations that they do not understand.
As to the draft itself, I fear that it will remain an unwelcome and loathsome necessity. I’ve heard, understand, and sympathize with the ethical and logical arguments against its existence and in my heart of hearts, I agree with them. However, at this point I’ve done too many post-blast investigations and buried too many friends because there wasn’t enough combat troops to establish even basic security to argue that ideal here. My deployment to Afghanistan was at or near the peak of the “surge” (which still left us with I estimate somewhere around one half to one third of the troops we actually needed – I’ll save you the soap box speech on that for now) and having read a fair amount of military history, I think the unfortunate truth is that there are never enough volunteers. Even after Pearl Harbor where droves of men stepped up to enlist, it was still necessary to conscript troops in order to win World War II. In war time it’s far too easy to stand by and say “well, I’ve got a lot going on in my life” or “surely that has to be enough volunteers” or listen to your mom when she says through her tears “I wish you would’ve picked the Navy” – even if you feel a war is necessary or justified. I know this because I’ve gone through that process myself.
In light of that, I think conscription is a burden which should be shared equally by men and women. The fact is that there are a vast multitude of jobs in the military which can be physically performed by almost anybody and bringing women into the force (even if they’re totally unsuited to any Combat Arms MOS) frees up men from other jobs to go to the Infantry. I know that’s little comfort to the mothers amongst you as you think of your children but the reality in war is that everyone’s best chance for survival comes from winning (by as large a margin as possible) and the cold truth is that the ‘rear echelons’ stand little to no chance if the front lines are overrun. There are a couple of other points on the issue of “bringing women into the support roles pushes more men into Combat Arms” I think are frequently overlooked. The first is that the military today is much more technologically advanced than ever before and it’s much more difficult to find a soldier who can, say, fix a radar than it is to find one who can carry a rifle; do not underestimate the need for ‘nerdy’ men to do ‘nerdy’ jobs, even in the Army or Marines. The ASVAB exists for a reason. The next is that due to the drastic downsizing that has happened since the 90s, civilian contractors are already taking up a lot more of those support roles than you probably think which is already pushing many, many more non-combat troops if not into combat professions then certainly into combat roles. This is a process which is already happening and as a former soldier I’d much rather it happen organically within the service than through civilian contractors. For one, “green suiters” are much less expensive, they’re usually much more inclined to do their jobs for you, and if they’re not you (or someone within your chain of command with sufficient rank) can yell at them until they do.
So that all out of the way, I hate to say this much without also stepping up with some possible solutions. The first policy change I’d advocate for, regardless of our draft policies is let the military handle its own business without a lot of interference. As an example, in the past there have been some legitimate issues (such as hazing) which have required remediation but at the time I was in service the pendulum had already swung too far in the opposite direction and every indication I’ve seen lately is that it hasn’t stopped. During the course of the episode Karen and Hannah were sparring over what to do about a hypothetical ‘spoiled princess.’ Both had valid points to make but I would point out that (properly unfettered) NCOs already know exactly what to do about her; it’s just a matter of letting them do their jobs. No organization knows how to handle that sort of personnel issue better than the military. Next, while I argue that while the draft is necessary, I also think there are a number of reforms we can make which might make it more effective and also more fair. Including women is certainly a start, reducing deferments for the wealthy would be great, but I also think a two tiered system might be in order; so for instance Tier 1 would be those who voluntarily register (in exchange for some kind of benefit(s); maybe better student loans, maybe a tax break, preferential hiring for federal jobs, possibly automatic promotion a pay grade in the event of a draft, etc.), Tier 2 would be everybody else of military age. In the event of a crisis requiring conscription this would allow the more willing, usually better troops to be called up first while still allowing for mass conscription as a last resort. I’ve also heard the idea of gender-segregated units; I think this has some merit and may be worth studying although it may turn out to be impractical for much of the US military in practice.
Finally, I’d like to remind everybody that the conflicts of today and yesterday will not be the conflicts of tomorrow. While the past can be a useful tool in anticipating what might happen, it should be remembered that it’s not a crystal ball. In light of that, I’ll share the philosophy which my military profession has lived by since World War II: “assume the worst case scenario until you have positive confirmation otherwise.”