Recently there has been a big debate as to the merits of Panetta’s “decision” to admit women into combat roles. Mostly this has simply been another instance of publicity-seeking (of the liberal feel-good type) on the part of the administration, and not at all anything to be taken seriously.
The fact is women see combat each day, though their role in combat has never been (primarily) combatant. Rather, they see combat in various support roles, as explosives technicians, engineers, medics, etc… But not as infantry soldiers. This role, above all others, still belongs solely to men.
And now for a few words on combat.
There are many people in the combat arms specialties of our military, who have been in 10 years or more and are considered senior-ranking officers and enlisted, who themselves have not actually “seen” combat.
Surprised? Don’t be.
I have personally met numerous individuals with all kinds of valor decorations (i.e. Bronze Stars, Commendations) who have never actually seen the enemy at all, in that they have never experienced so-called “effective fire,” which is to say, on paper they might have seen combat, but they have severely limited experience fighting at close range. In the Army this is understood as roughly 35 meters or less.
Personnel who serve at highly fortified operating bases also receive “combat pay,” which is often misleading to civilians who interpret this as meaning they were “outside the wire” and under enemy fire. Afghans will sometimes fire (almost always ineffectively) rockets or mortars into these positions, and when this happens nearly everyone present on the base receives a “combat” medal of some sort.
Similarly, armored convoys will sometimes take ineffective RPG or small-arms fire, and again, when this happens, every person on the convoy receives this same distinction, as being “combat” certified.
The current standards for this distinction are absurd, and any honest person in the military will admit this. So absurd, in fact, that in some infantry units, combat awards are not awarded unless bullet impact is observed close to the formation, which is to say, unless fire is deemed to be “effective,” or even “highly effective” in that it requires maneuver. If not, no awards are presented.
But even in some infantry units, and especially now as the military shifts from a mission-orientation back to a petty careerism, awards are given for essentially the same thing people in parts of Chicago or Detroit experience each week in their neighborhood, i.e. gun violence.
I draw the distinction only because, having seen combat, this is a distinction that I make each day, between the truly combat-tested and any others.
I have no delusions about my combat experiences. I did not storm Normandy, assault Bastogne, participate in the siege of Stalingrad, fight the Red Army in Korea, or slug it out in the jungles against the Viet Cong. However, I did experience close combat against the Taliban on their home turf, in a fanatically defended area. I’ve had a machine-gun open up on me from maybe 25 meters away. I’ve had rifle grenades explode around me at close range. I’ve been knocked to the ground by an IED. And I’ve watched snipers and sharpshooters get closer to my position with each shot.
I’ve also returned fire at an enemy who I could see in my sights. This is another rarity in the military. Many soldiers will brag about the experience of fighting or killing, my best guess is that most of them have simply returned fire in a general direction without actually seeing the enemy. I’m not saying this isn’t commendable, this is after all, exactly what infantry soldiers are trained to do, however, seeing an enemy and firing at a perceived but faceless threat are also two entirely different things. Watching an enemy stumble or drop through an optic is another feeling that many, if not most, so-called “combat” veterans have also not had.
All of this is a roundabout way of explaining that there are various meanings today of the word “combat,” and that the military definition is anything but definitive. I suspect the “women in combat” meme will come up again, but more importantly I think the rules regarding combat, so-called and actual, also need to change.