Private Monica Brown became the second woman awarded the Silver Star since WWII for helping rescue several fellow soldiers from a burning vehicle with bullets racing by and mortars exploding all around her. Tonight 60 Minutes ran a story about her and women “on the front lines” in Afghanistan and elsewhere.

Apparently the Army gets around the so-called prohibition against women in combat by “temporarily attaching” instead of “permanently assigning” them to combat units. (One suspects lawyers with a genius for parsing were involved, e.g., but never mind.) Here’s my ad hoc transcript of various portions:

Lara Logan: Women are not supposed to be, according to the strict guidelines, are not supposed to be on the front lines of combat.


XO: We do not assign our female soldiers to the infantry and the armor. We do attach female soldiers to a specific unit for a specific mission for a specific period of time. Absolutely in accordance with Army policy.


Sounds like a policy with a few exploitable holes in it. Then when the reporter goes on to pose essentially the same question of the private and her superiors, there’s a good example of getting two seemingly opposite answers that are actually one and the same. First to the officers:


LL: Basically anywhere you are in Iraq or Afghanistan is the front line…


XO: That’s a great question. Anywhere you go outside of a forward operating base you can run into the threat. 


Same question to now Specialist Brown:


LL: The Army has very strict rules about women not being on the front line, and I mean, there’s no question that you were on the front line…


Brown: …there is no front line In Afghanistan or Iraq. You go out on missions whether it be humanitarian aid or, you know, help building schools or pulling support for another unit while they are building roads or searching for Taliban. You go out there and do your job.


‘Everywhere is the Front Line’ and ‘There is no Front Line’. Both answers put the lie to the Army’s ‘policy’ of not having women on the omnipresent/non-existent front line.


Isn’t it about time we stopped pretending that women are somehow either (a) too precious a commodity to risk in a ‘real war situation’ or (b) inferior to men in certain situations precisely because they are female and thus less able to do the job? Or is it a combination of the two? Must we cling to old prejudices and logical fallacies to justify the current policy?


Check out former marine J. Kaplan’s comment on a similar story from over a year ago:


Women in combat is a tricky issue. Some women in the military are well-qualified for it while some aren’t. How to designate which women should and which should not be placed in combat roles in an official by-the book process would be impossible.


But all men assigned to combat are well-qualified for it? The comments section on the 60 Minutes story is alive with outrage that the two most critically wounded soldiers Brown helped save declined to be interviewed because, as one of them said, “Women have no business being on the front line.” This despite the superior officer’s affirmations that they were most likely alive because of her actions.


Still, I was left watching the entire piece struck by Brown’s words at the very beginning. Undeterred by the spirit of this administration’s insistence that coffins not be shown on the evening news, the MacNeil/Lehrer Report has ended each broadcast with pictures, names and ages of fallen veterans in Afghanistan and Iraq as the information becomes public. And every night I stare at the baby faces and sometimes exclaim out loud “Nineteen!”, “Twenty-Four!”, “They’re just children!”.

Brown was 18 at the time of the incident:


LL: This is a big deal, winning the Silver Star is a big deal for anybody and winning it at your age is an even bigger deal.


Brown: It’s overwhelming.


LL: You’re being treated like a superstar really, and you’re just a kid…


Brown: Yeah. I am just a child.

  • I suspect the Army’s careful parsing is mostly about trying to keep the women-in-combat decision in the Personnel department and out of the field. Thus, women can’t be assigned to units that typically take an aggressive posture (infantry and armor), but field commanders aren’t required to check whether a unit has women in it before giving it a hazardous assignment.

    It sounds to me like the best compromise the Army could find in a confusing situation, but it has the perverse affect of allowing women in roles where they can be shot it, but not where they can shoot back (generally).

  • Windy:

    Why is it so confusing? At the very least give them the choice to go to combat, no?

  • Edintally

    Choice for women to go into combat or not? Either do or do not.