|Lioness hunters conclude unnecessary slaughter with bro-tastic high-fives and glamour shots|
Persistent attacks on female combat veterans is nothing new. However, I was greeted this morning with yet another microaggression by a former IAVA darling who uses the pseudonym “Gary Owen” on social media and apparently progressive platforms.
In an exchange of words via Twitter in both tweets and direct messages, Gary Owen recommended reading the following articles to “think critically” about female-based programs used on the ground in Iraq and Afghanistan such as Team Lioness, Female Engagement Teams (FET), and Cultural Support Teams (CST):
1. Evaluating Female Engagement Team Effectiveness in Afghanistan - Anna C. Coll (Master's Thesis)
2. Seeking out their Afghan sisters Female Engagement Teams in Afghanistan - Sippi Azarbaijani-Moghaddam (Chr. Michelsen Institute - CMI)
3. Woman to Woman in Afghanistan - Ann Jones (The Nation)
Before diving into the articles, and to have a bit of fun with those who thrive on discrediting women's capabilities, we're going to play a game of Your Logical Fallacy. Parts of the articles or thesis statements will be used to piece together contradictions or largely unaddressed issues that somehow end up being the fault of military women. All of the above articles are written by women. We'll get to internalized oppression at a later time, but now let's take a look at the articles and their logical fallacies.
Anna C. Coll dives into her Master's thesis for Wellesley with a spear-gun aimed at Female Engagement Teams in Afghanistan. Coll attempts to discredit the efficacy of FET through the lack of assessment of what really is highly subjective qualitative data. Coll's assessment/logic model is, simply:
- Influence among women and through women
- Decrease in the strength of the insurgency
First, engagement can be measured in numbers of contact, but the "essential" measure of quality and influence is highly subjective and an obvious flaw in this particular attempt at acquiring and analyzing qualitative data. Such data limitations include:
- Research quality is heavily dependent on the individual skills of the researcher and more easily influenced by the researcher's personal biases and idiosyncrasies.
- Rigor is more difficult to maintain, assess, and demonstrate.
- The volume of data makes analysis and interpretation time consuming.
- It is sometimes not as well understood and accepted as quantitative research within the scientific community.
- The researcher's presence during data gathering, which is often unavoidable in qualitative research, can affect the subjects' responses.
- Issues of anonymity and confidentiality can present problems when presenting findings.
- Findings can be more difficult and time consuming to characterize in a visual way.
Determining a relationship between the quality of interactions during FET and any decrease of insurgent activity is not only difficult, but Coll's model discounts out a number of dependent variables that could be included (e.g. male contribution to the decrease in insurgent activity). Coll's assessment model, in short, is over-simplified. In spite of receiving data from Marine Corps and Army FET reports, her efforts at minimizing FET success appear to be heavily rooted in her desire for her hypothesis to be true rather than drawing any objective conclusions.
However, it wasn't Coll's flimsy assessment/logic model that caught my attention most, it was her use of Jessica Lynch to downplay women's efficacy in combat:
"“If females are captured it would be a PR disaster,” one noted. Both sources also pointed to the level of resource expenditure that would be needed to respond to such a scenario, alluding to the example of Army Private First Class Jessica Lynch’s rescue by elite Special Operations Forces after her capture by Iraqi forces during the U.S. invasion in 2003."
The Jessica Lynch argument is often used to undermine women in combat, and often those that use this argument conveniently leave out SPC Shoshana Johnson and the other male POWs who were captured around the same time as PFC Lynch. Johnson, who also wrote a memoir covering her capture, believes "the military's ban on women in combat jobs was absurd, because women are already in combat, fighting alongside men—but without the recognition or the promotions to top jobs." Now that the ban has been lifted, who are we still listening to, Coll or Johnson? And don't expect someone like Coll to even bother mentioning Lori Ann Piestewa. The capture of black female soldiers or killing of Native female soldiers who fired their weapons is apparently not worth the mention, but the dramatic rescue of a white female soldier is.
Your Logical Fallacy, Coll: Fallacy-Fallacy and Burden of Proof
Sure, there's limited empirical data available on how the FET program may or may not be decreasing insurgent activity, but concluding it as not "successful" makes for a poor argument. The vague and poorly-constructed logic model was no help either. It simply means that if there is no sufficient research present and if we're discounting anecdotal evidence, nothing can be concluded. If the proper research assessment practices are lacking, the issue is unsuccessful research practices - not women participating in combat operations. The burden of proof does not fall on FET but quite possibly with researchers looking to complete their thesis or dissertation. I'd personally say DOD should be tracking this, but Coll makes an excellent point and should implement her proposed research practices. However, her bias shines through in cherry-picking her sources and discounting pertinent narratives as well.
Sippi Azarbaijani-Moghaddam - or Sepi as spelled in her LinkedIn profile - goes on to make several contradictions in her working paper for CMI. There is some subtle snark embedded throughout the paper and it's quite clear she is not pro-FET, but also points out key factors working against both FET and Afghan women. In the end, we want to see both groups become successful, right? This doesn't appear to be the case.
"Using primary sources this report critically examines the assumptions upon which the concept of FETs was based and the lack of substantive outcomes between 2010 and 2012 as FETs strove to engage women. It also touches on FETs’ struggle to be perceived as useful by male colleagues and their efforts to influence Afghans. It shows how promoters of the programme continued citing FET achievements, without any indicators to evaluate or measure progress or success. Moreover, the report shows that in pursuit of results following the new counter-insurgency orthodoxy, when conceiving and operationalizing the FETs the military largely ignored decades of accumulated knowledge and institutional memory on women and gender programming available in the aid community. Starting from a low baseline, the FETs were easily manipulated by Afghans with experience of three decades of relief and development interventions prior to the arrival of well-intentioned young military personnel in their area."
Aaaaaand here we go. FETs were undermined by men, manipulated by Afghans, and have no clear measure of success. What we can conclude from this paragraph alone is that a) patriarchy exists, even in America, b) she thinks FETs were gullible in general and, c) the burden of proof for FET success somehow falls back on the FETs themselves by further degrading the program throughout the NGO paper.
" Similar considerations had led to the use of female personnel by the US Marine Corps USMC) in Iraq under the so-called Lioness Programme."
Anytime I see "so-called Lioness" inserted into a female combat veteran-specific paper or article, I cringe. I cringe over the fact, especially if this is said by a woman, that such language and comments will only be used as fuel to further torch women veterans. Often authors of articles or working papers like this sidestep and undermine programs like Lioness simply because they are looking to achieve a common and openly-accepted objective, demeaning female combat veterans.
"[Skepticism] was expressed as to how such groups could be fielded, how efficacious they would
actually be and whether danger would be posed to the women involved. To the few familiar with
women’s issues in Afghanistan, the idea appeared as another publicity stunt with Afghan women. It was feared that it would involve badly trained and misguided but well-intentioned young, foreign
military women who would be sent out to bother Afghan families, while their male superiors in the
military would eventually be disappointed by the lack of substantive results."
A well-articulated bias about how she expected these "foreign women" to fail. No sugar-coating here. Points for not bothering to conceal internalized oppression! However, I found her condescension regarding FETs interesting, especially when she expressed malcontent over how the US military manipulated FETs for achieving its objectives.
"Afghan men and women use the sophistication honed over hundreds of years of living in risky environments to avoid doing much of what the FETs want to do and know. FET engagements were, for the most part, skilfully diverted by Afghans into the quagmire of superficial chitchat on day to day life or small-scale projects and never reached the ambitions of COIN proponents. Afghans manipulated the FETs with gracious ease – the influencing roles were reversed. Sometimes their efforts were too blatant, for example, locals bargaining with the US Marines for money, claiming that the insurgents offered greater benefits. In one case a woman took a FET with her to the District Governor (DG) and asked him to build a well next to her home, to which the DG agreed. The FET recorded this as a success. In fact, the woman used the FETs as a lever to ensure that the DG could not deny her request for fear of loss of face, but this was lost on the young FET soldier."
"Simultaneously culture and the people who bear it became instrumentalized for military purposes as ‘influencers’ and conduits for messages. In tandem with efforts to engage them as people, Afghans, particularly women and children, were depicted as dehumanized ‘texts’, with the ability to ‘read’ them potentially critical to survive in a hostile environment (Commander’s Guide 2011). At times, the manipulative intent behind the FETs was explicit, as in this report:
The direction to keep FETs out of direct combat has occasionally resulted in overcautious deployment and loss of valuable engagement opportunity…If FET is desired during a cordon and search, this should be supported and deployment should be early enough to capitalise on ‘shock of capture’ very soon after compounds are entered and searching is going on. During such ops, it may be preferable for a FET from another CF [Coalition Force] to be employed in order that follow-op FET ops in the AOR [Area of Responsibility] are not unduly compromised (on the `good cop, bad cop' principle: where the in-place FET is the good cop); however FET linguists may be able to provide reassurance and therefore a positive perception of the FET on these occasions which may allow further future engagement. (TFH Influence Team Report on FETs).
The quote demonstrates that the military were willing to go to great lengths to achieve their goals, even trying to benefit from the trauma of forced entry into private homes to take advantage of women’s unbalanced states to elicit information."
I hate to break the news to you, but from Team Lioness to FET to CST, these programs were all designed to manipulate the civilian population. Every soft power move or intelligence gathering action is a manipulation of some sort. Why does the author suddenly become naive about the war for these brief moments? But when Afghans manipulate, they're lauded as "masters" as indicated by Azarbaijani-Moghaddam. Biased? I'd certainly say so. But she also raises quite a few highlights over gender roles that could support both arguments in favor of Afghan women in-country as well as female US soldiers.
"As a result, FETs should not be presented as ISAF’s answer to ‘doing gender’, for implementing
UNSC Resolution 1325 in Afghanistan, or as a woman-only contingent handling ‘women’s stuff’.
There is a requirement for a realistic understanding of women’s involvement in peace processes,
currently dominated by men pushing their requirements forward. The requisite is for practical options to support women within realistic timeframes, not rapid military ones based on deployment cycles, demonstrating quick fix success to fast-track promotion."
No, FETs are not the sole answer, neither are quick-fix solutions. But the problems surrounding FETs appear to be a similar issue with Afghan women: they lack support or any clear, empowered role. Yet this is also defined as being the fault of women in FETs, but not the fault of Afghan women. Funny how that patriarchy happens, and the cannibalizing ensues. While Azarbaijani-Moghaddam's bias is quite apparent, I can see why she would be in favor of degrading FETs if she is attempting to protect Afghan women from potentially unqualified personnel mishandling cases, but men are not exactly criticized either for their failures in Afghanistan. Women as a population are just the smaller, more convenient target for displaced rage.
Your Logical Fallacy, Azarbaijani-Moghaddam: Composition Division and Ad Hominem
While I don't doubt that some FETs were not properly vetted or prepared for work with the Afghan population, it doesn't mean that it applies to all FETs. Furthermore, the failures of males are completely discarded from the discussion for any comparison in cultural mishaps. Assuming that all FETs are simply gullible was, no doubt, a simple ad hominem remark.
Ann Jones contends that female soldiers in FET were not trained, but trained by men, then messed up Afghanistan some more. Let's take a look at some of the highlights of her article for The Nation.
"The military officially maintains the fiction that women are excluded from combat, so Army FET organizers have to recruit volunteers among the women in "soft" skill jobs on base—women soldiers the Army hasn’t trained in the "hard" skills of combat soldiering."
You're right on the Army upholding fiction, but the reality is that women are being utilized in combat operations then discarded as though either nothing happened or that they were worthless. Jones is erring on the side of worthless throughout the article. This is the trouble with this brand of fiction. It's sheer convenience and old patriarchal hat, which is a greater slap in the face coming from someone of the same gender. As for Jones' claim that the Army only taught women "soft" skills and not the "hard" skills of combat? Wow, I must've been terribly misled in Basic Training - and every-f*cking-thing else I was trained for in the Army. Basic Training (twice for me thanks to a fractured tibia and starting again at day 0 - WOOT!) in Fort Leonard Wood, 10 months of AIT for both the medic and mental health specialist course (the 91B course used to be a prerequisite for all 91Xs), years of redundant field f*ckery, PLDC, missions to South America with my CSH, and 2 additional months of pre-deployment training to include more fun with weapons, checkpoint ops, urban warfare, etc. were all "soft" skills based on Jones' assumption. Nothing prepared me for combat soldiering because I wasn't on the OSUT 11B track in Benning? Because, er, my ovaries. Got it. Good to know!
"Most of the FET’s prepackaged PowerPoint lessons clearly had been designed by men. A list of recommended readings included all the old macho accounts of mujahedeen "freedom fighters" but not a single one of many excellent books about Afghan women."
Hrrrmm, so you're saying that the training for women, which was designed by men, was ineffective, but FET failures are exclusively FET failures? Roger that!
"Typically, commanders sell short both Afghan and American women. They may use FETs when they feel the need—to search women, for example, as women soldiers were recruited to do in Iraq in the so-called Lioness program. But they see no value in women talking to women; they don’t care about the female half of the Afghan populace, COIN tactics notwithstanding, and they want the women under their command to stick to their assigned jobs. As a result, when a FET does jar loose some valuable intelligence, it’s likely to be lost."
So-called Lioness program? (Again? Not surprised!)
You mean the pre-cursor to FET and CST programs that military leaders in Afghanistan attempted to duplicate, which was a model for a completely different country? Ah, yes. You're in luck - I'm familiar! But here we get a bit more in touch with the central issue I'm concerned about: undermining women. Jones fails to see that throughout her article, she commits the same faux pas - or perhaps that was the goal? While Jones highlights patriarchal tendencies in both American and Afghan culture, she also goes on to paint military women in a helpless light who take the word of leaders and civilians at face value. Maintaining a position that is against women in combat roles has been en vogue and low-hanging fruit for those who want to take a jab at women veterans. But there is still hope for this article.
"Pottinger, Jilani and Russo don’t blame the women for these failures. They blame the good old boys of the US military. You can hear their exasperation in the words they choose to describe "four factors" that stand in the way of "successful female engagement.""
In between jabs at women veterans caught between half-assed objectives and an unclear mission, Jones makes a lot more sense when Russo et al are brought back into the circle. From the blunders described in Jones' article, one has to wonder if any of these women were vetted or come with any cultural understanding outside of WASP American culture. This myopic world view, too, may be - and has been - part of the problem. The issue of the colonial mentality in American culture was not exactly addressed here. At all.
"To most of the military establishment, the FETs are not "an important part" of US strategy at all. Far from it. But American women meeting Afghan women may be the start of something more important than that."
Damn it, I spoke to soon regarding hope for this article. One more jab at women veterans - our own military comrades, reportedly have no faith in FET. Yet somehow, FET soldiers working with Afghan women is the start "of something more important than that"? FFS. Make up your mind, Jones. We're useless, we're valuable. We're meaningless, but what we do is meaningful. This sounds as vague as the FET objectives themselves.
Your Logical Fallacy, Jones: Texas Sharpshooter
Jones found a small pattern of FET mistakes to fit her assumptions, and was even kind at certain points toward FET, much like shooting at a barn and painting targets around them accordingly. Clusters, as indicated in the link, occur naturally, but don't always indicate a causal relationship. Cherry-picking, as seen with the Coll thesis, does not make for a sound argument.
Positionality, Positionality, Positionality
All in all, these articles basically criticize military women who were part of FET in Afghanistan, but also cry that there's no empirical data supporting any military statements of success or dance around making positive comments peppered with the usual patriarchal myths. They also talk about squandered opportunities on women's empowerment in Afghanistan while acknowledging the vague objectives and restrictive FET roles. Give a female soldier a job, then tell her not to do it, but do it kinda, show her minimal support and provide sub-par training, then wing it here when you can - oh, f*ck it. It's all your fault this is not going perfectly, FET! Contradictions galore.
Somehow, reading a few articles on women in combat in Afghanistan was supposed to weaken my position as an actual female combat veteran who participated in Team Lioness in Iraq 2004-2005, when the program was still in its infancy. Because, you know, these articles are going to just change everything that happened my life and specifically throughout my deployment. I love time travel!
In reality, the articles don’t state much outside what we already know about the history of imperialism throughout the world: Not having language proficiency, cultural understanding, or defined objectives will hurt you. From what I had personally perceived in Iraq, the issues that arose from operations during Team Lioness were directly tied into this accepted ignorance of history, language, and culture. This lack of awareness of one's own positionality in the articles was more than a bit troublesome, it further marginalizes people like me.
|The Taliban isn't the only group to fear empowered women.|
Those “Noble Savage” Women
What’s funny and often ignored in this often one-sided debate against women in combat is the fact that many of the women who serve at disproportionately higher rates in the military, Native Americans (AIAN) and Pacific Islanders (NHPI), also have firsthand knowledge of tribal mentality and imperial conquest. Yes, we’re very clear on this. From noble savage to uncivilized alien, we're familiar with being both historical Western enemies and contemporary warriors in its Armed Forces.
In Gayle Tzemmach Lemmon's book Ashley's War, we get to peek inside OEF through a sanitized Anglo lens of women in combat. From my perspective, and having served with a diverse group of women on Team Lioness, Lemmon's depiction of CSTs in Afghanistan was not relatable to me as a Lioness who served in Iraq. Sure, these are different countries, different cultures (Arab vs. Pashtun), and different programs, but everything she described about the female personnel might as well have been an account of women from a foreign military. Often in the the discussion of women in combat, the voices included in the discussion are - you guessed it - overwhelmingly white, military veteran or not.
It didn't come as a surprise that one of the voices I could relate to most in Ashley's War wasn't a white female American soldier, but an Afghan interpreter from California. Both Afghan women and Indigenous American women have often been misunderstood or muted in the ongoing discussion of our own lives. The concept of the noble savage/uncivilized alien - as opposed to a person to be included in the discussion - is present throughout the book as one long-ass microaggression. No analysis of war, occupation, or the aftermath directly tied to the story and why Ashley was there in the first place. Just a long cheerful flag-waving frenzy in a post-mortem account of a CST member. Because that's when a woman veteran's voice can be heard right? It was a sad, saccharine tale that can now be embraced simply because Ashley is dead - and more importantly, is not asking the VA for help or questioning DOD policy.
In the start of my time on Team Lioness and working together with a white female from rural Indiana, our outlooks and approaches toward Iraqi civilians were stark in contrast. Luckily, as her NCOIC, I had influence and was able to help her adjust prior to Team Lioness, and during the initial weeks where she needed it the most. Reminders on not only our training as Army mental health and medical personnel were constant, but also helping her understand that she needed to shake her up own prejudices and assumptions was an ongoing process. Even as Americans, we came from different worlds and considerable amount of my time was spent as an indigenous woman educating other military personnel descended from white European settlers in North America on how not to come across as an imperialist shithead. It's easy. Don't be an asshole.
Prejudices against people of color within the military was also an issue along with perceptions of women of color, their value, and expendability in combat - military or civilian. Are we starting seeing the disparities here yet? The topic of militarized indigenous populations would be best explained in a post all of its own, but for argument’s sake here, much of missed military and foreign policy opportunities can be directly tied into the lengthy history of colonialism.
In the history of European conquest starting from the late 15th century, the influential positions of indigenous women were stripped, and were thus sidelined and subjected to fundamentalist religious (Christianity) and patriarchal (European) standards. The failure to see history repeating itself is not an issue for indigenous peoples, to include some female combat veterans, but those perpetuating current wars. In this failure to connect the dots, military leaders and policy wonks not only undermine and ignore the importance of women in the countries we invade, but they also perform a similar disservice to the military women they put in harm’s way.
This prejudice against women, even after being utilized in intense counterinsurgency battles, extends all the way to the disparities in VA healthcare and respect within one’s own community. It’s been open season on women veterans, and hardly anyone has had the stones to say so. Throughout the self-righteousness of all three positions, some of which mentioned Afghan women's sociocultural conditioning, nothing about sociocultural conditioning in American women (or subcultures) was discussed.
In the end, my fellow Lionesses and I learned much about each other and how to be far more effective in a very short period of time and still managed to handle every task thrown our way – inside or outside the wire and sans days off, unlike much of our male counterparts. We had to, and we did. And when you’re an indigenous woman in the thick of combat, you don’t just have the civilian population to worry about, but also supposed comrades who have several biases against you before a word is said or a shot is fired. That is an American reality none of these articles dare to touch.
Diversity, and the opportunities contained within a savvier multicultural element, are lost on the legionnaires of white privilege and their obsequious enablers. As an indigenous female combat veteran, someone like Gary Owen also descends from a completely different world where this brand of complex intersectionality doesn’t exist.
Before this statement, I've enjoyed some of Gary Owen's previous snarky articles and the works written in his real name. Without directly identifying him, he came a long way into a world where he now has access to everything from progressive mediums to national veteran organizations, including the VA's official blog. Gary Owen's reality is not the reality of a female combat veteran of color. However, it is my reality along with navigating benefits and care amid similar prejudices, among many others outside of veteran status, working against me.
Your Logical Fallacy, "Owen": Appeal to Authority
Just because a few women at NGO's or grad school have something to add, doesn't mean it comes without bias or is entirely true. Discounting a female combat veteran with firsthand experience with 15+ years in mental health in favor of a few non-veterans who could also cite articles is, well, hilarious and sad. Assuming I didn't do my "homework" as you've insinuated was a mistake, but I gave you the benefit of the doubt and read these three papers which are now fit for the recycle bin.
Having the female combat veteran narrative mansplained to me is nothing new, but the frequency hasn’t made it any less repugnant. Yet in the articles shared, I can see one blaring irony from this Twitter interaction: when women are underestimated, discounted, and sidelined – whether they are military or civilian, American or Afghan or Iraqi – vital opportunities for socioeconomic and political change are miserably lost.
While skeptics may insist on “critical thinking” regarding female-based teams working in direct combat operations, it was critical thinking that initially launched these programs in the first place. What is being pushed here is just more “criticism” of women, and not the long-term effects of military occupation. Such programs were not the inventions of women, but male infantry leaders who sought a different solution to an ongoing problem.
Once successful, programs like Team Lioness became politicized and formed a canvas in which patriarchal males whimsically painted their insecurities, vitriol, and misogyny. The same skewed views, fallacies, and contradictions can be seen in dissecting FET and CST, even with the aforementioned female authors.
The onus of empirical data does not solely fall on the individual female veteran, but the Department of Defense. And before we start hurling spears at female military personnel and veterans, one must take the same scrutinizing lens and apply it to the various mistakes and blunders implemented by men as well throughout centuries of warfare. That empirical data may be telling. Just putting it out there.
In the end, when you choose to muzzle the female combat veteran voice or put a tourniquet on her own narrative, you don't have much of a balanced, educated discussion - or critical thinking - when assessing the roles of women in combat. When you practice subjugation, objectification, marginalization, and humiliation - just of a different flavor - with the women of your own country, one might pause before wagging a finger at the patriarchal behavior in Pashtun men in Afghanistan. They, too, enjoy setting women up to fail, silencing them, and maintaining anachronistic ideals regarding gender.
It's not enough to say you believe in any sort of success in Afghanistan when you discount half of the population: women. But when one discounts, degrades, and/or gaslights women in their own country, and in their own military, what does that say about any chances for success in gender equality anywhere else in the world?
If you want to think critically about women-based programs during war, don't just tackle the individuals in the programs, think of:
- a comprehensive assessment backed by research that is free from prejudice
- a vetting process that selects the most qualified women
- a training program that not only targets cultural competency for women, but one that includes further training for men as well
- approaching gender inequalities and disparities in our own military and veteran community
- refraining from enabling legionnaires of the patriarchy and their propaganda that further undermines and objectifies women
Only then we can possibly see any movement regarding gender roles, whether in the US or Afghanistan, but until then, don't expect me to believe that degradation equals "critical thinking". When someone claims to support women in combat 100%, but believes a program I personally participated in deserves criticism without any clear plan for unbiased assessment, then I'm far more inclined to view the solidarity as feigned, and any existing alliances as potentially predatory.