In the movie G.I. Jane (1997), Demi Moore plays Lieutenant O’Neil, who fights for a fair shot at joining the Navy SEALs. Many years later in real life, American women have proven themselves as athletic as their male colleagues, and demonstrated the advantage of their gender during the war in Afghanistan; by accessing unique intelligence from half the population, and providing for women and children’s security. War cannot be fought and peace cannot be built without women; in decision-making, on the battlefield and in the communities.
Gayle Tzemach Lemmon interesting biography ‘Ashley’s War’ tell the story of first Lieutenant Ashley White and her colleagues, who were among the trailblazers deployed to an American military special operations. Lieutenant White died on the field, age 24 years old.
American military operations in Afghanistan has taken place in remote and rural areas were many girls and women cannot study nor work. In such areas it is considered culturally disrespectful for foreign men to engage with Afghan women, an obstacle that poses a military security gap: Firstly, male soldiers lack the ability to access the important information the women possess about their sons, husbands, brothers and in-laws, and secondly, it jeopardised one of their key functions to protect civilians, including children and women. As foreign women are perceived as a non-threatening third gender by Afghan men, female soldiers can interact in a respectful way with the women and children.
Many internal battles had to be fought within the American military before women soldiers were permitted to join the male-only ‘Rangers’ on mission. In 2010 the special operations ‘Cultural Support Teams’ were born to build crucial relationships with women on the scene that would reveal information needed to help capture insurgents. The women would join the Rangers during night raids inside homes and compounds, to capture weapons makers, organisers, funders, and insurgency leaders. With the female soldiers it could take mere minutes to access information that previously took days to gain. The Cultural Support Team played a crucial role in a long, costly and unpopular war, and were the raids by the Rangers grew particularly unpopular by the Afghan government and civilians.
‘They (…) needed women who were aggressive enough to go on night raids, but likeable enough to connect with Afghan women and children during some of the most difficult moments of their lives. (—) Their job was to be the softer side of the hardest side of war.’
Besides hardcore physical training, the female soldiers learned about the Afghan culture and history, including how to talk to the women and handle situations such as when the husbands may become violent towards their wives, or hide in a burqa among them. The special operation was joined by brave interpreters, finding the right one was not easy: preferably a female who spoke most Pashto dialects and could relate to the Afghan women; hear the nuances in the languages, read their body language and facial expressions for further clues. To add, the interpreter also had to embrace the mission and be athletic enough to keep up with the Ranger.
In 2013 the ban on women in ground combat units officially ended. By 2016 special operations command and all services has to be fully open to women, or a valid explaination has to be provided for why they will stay male-only.
View also Gayle Tzemach Lemmon’s TED talk about ‘Ashley’s War’, and read my post ‘Freedom, Disguised as a Boy’ about another great book on Afghanistan.
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