Posts Tagged ‘U.S. military’


February 18, 2016

Earlier this month, Secretary of Defense Ashton B. Carter announced a new Pentagon program that will pay for servicemen and women to freeze their sperm and eggs for future family planning. Carter gave two main reasons for the program. One, it would keep women on the career military path, which typically runs right through the childbearing years. Two, it would give deployed troops peace of mind in that they potentially could still have children even if their reproductive organs become casualties of war. The first goal is in line with what appears to be Carter’s commitment to the needs of servicewomen. He has advocated for improved maternity leave, childcare, and breastfeeding support policies, all of which he hopes will help women personnel balance work and family and remain in the service. The second goal speaks to the problems of trying to maintain an all-volunteer force in an age of continuous war.

This is not the first time the U.S. military has gotten into the baby-making business. The 1948 Women’s Armed Services Integration Act, which allowed women to serve as permanent members of the military, permitted the forces to discharge women if they got pregnant. Personnel needs during the Vietnam War led the Army Nurse Corps to grant waivers to some nurses who got pregnant but wanted to stay in the military. In 1975, the Defense Department ruled that the armed forces could no longer forcibly discharge a servicewoman who became pregnant.[1] Considered in this context, Carter’s proposal looks like the next step toward gender equality in the military by giving women the option of delaying childbearing while they advance their careers. Observers have suggested that this policy could position the military as a model that other major employers wanting to implement progressive, pro-family, pro-woman policies in order to recruit and retain the best personnel could follow.

The argument that the U.S. military is becoming more family friendly loses traction when we remember that it is an all-volunteer force, and that the U.S. has been at war for most of this century. Carter’s policies are meant in part to recruit and retain service personnel in a time when enlisting likely will result in deployment. About 60 percent of current troops have been deployed at least once since Sept. 11, 2001. Less than one percent of the U.S. population presently serves in the military, so without a draft, the military must get creative in its efforts to convince young men and women to sign up for a job that could prevent them from having families later on. Conscription would make more Americans –and their reproductive organs – shoulder the weight of U.S. military commitments. That may be the only way to convince the public at large to scrutinize armed interventions and put pressure on elected officials to ponder more carefully the costs and benefits of war. As critics have already pointed out, freezing sperm and eggs will not guarantee that they will result in pregnancy later, so Carter’s program may create false hope in those men and women who have agreed to bear the burden of conflict. The draft has been a topic of conversation since the Pentagon announced in December the opening of combat positions to women, and it is also relevant to the conversation about the military’s use of reproduction as a recruitment tool. Reinstating the draft would either mobilize Americans to hold politicians more accountable for war-making policies or provide the personnel that the military’s long global reach requires. Then the military could leave the baby-making business to the future parents.

[1] Kara Dixon Vuic, “I’m afraid we’re going to have to just change our ways”: Marriage, Motherhood, and Pregnancy in the Army Nurse Corps during the Vietnam War,” Signs, Vol. 32, No. 4 (Summer 2007), pp. 997-1022.



September 29, 2014

With pledges of assistance from allies around the world, and the approval of Congress, President Obama has launched a military response to the Islamic State (IS), also known as the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) and the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL). The intervention will include targeted airstrikes and increased humanitarian aid. The president has emphasized that the U.S. will not deploy ground troops to fight IS, although some military leaders, including Gen. Martin E. Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, have suggested that defeating IS will eventually require ground forces, be they American or otherwise. U.S. public opinion regarding the president’s plan is mixed. According to poll results published in the New York Times, Americans generally support the use of airstrikes but are wary about another U.S. war in the Middle East. They have good reason to be—in addition to military leaders such as Dempsey, foreign policy analysts and even the president have alluded to this latest war in Iraq being a long one.

What to do after the war does not appear to be part of the conversation. U.S. military strategists and policymakers believe it will be difficult to defeat IS, and they are concerned about the risk of IS remnants morphing into another terrorist group in the aftermath. It seems obvious that the end of IS will not spell the end of Islamic extremism, so what will the U.S. and its global partners, so keen to launch airstrikes, do to neutralize the threat of recurring terrorism after this war ends? What are the political solutions that will prevent the next terrorist group from surfacing?

Since 1945, counterinsurgency has been central to the American way of war as the method for bringing about long-term political change, but it has rarely been successful. In the past decade, the U.S. failed to win enough hearts and minds in Iraq and Afghanistan to bring stability to those places, which is not so much about methods as it is about the foreigners who bring them. As Karl Eikenberry, former U.S. ambassador to Afghanistan, has noted, “Historically, visionary indigenous leaders backed by native populations have been the key to building viable states—not foreigners serving one-year tours of duty, no matter how passionate and skilled they might be.”[1] In the case of building a secure Iraq, Iraqi intellectuals can play a central role. Foreign policy conversations in the U.S. must begin focusing on how local intellectuals can establish a viable state and prevent another extremist group from rising out of the ashes of IS if the U.S. and its allies can destroy it. Looking beyond airstrikes, U.S. policymakers should reach out to groups such as the Initiative of Iraqi Intellectuals for the Unity of Iraq, which for the past few months has been circulating a statement online calling for a UN-supervised conference of reconciliation and a restoration of democratic political institutions by an Iraqi coalition that transcends sectarian lines. The statement blames the U.S. military for creating the current mess in Iraq and calls for international political support rather than force. Neither this group, nor the activism of other Iraqi intellectuals, including a group of university professors who founded a campaign called “Stop the Iraqi Bloodshed,” has received much coverage in the U.S. media, but these may be the groups that can bring lasting political change to Iraq.[2] They appear to be homegrown, not lackeys of the U.S., and they are media- and Internet-savvy. The Initiative of Iraqi Intellectuals for the Unity of Iraq has used blogs to gain attention to its statement, which as of June had 1,300 signatures. Members of Stop the Iraqi Bloodshed have broadcast videos of their demonstrations on YouTube. These are individuals who want political change and an end to civil war, so U.S. diplomats should figure out who they are, what their plans are, and how much support they have from the broader Iraqi population.

Now that the U.S. has widened its war against IS into Syria, Americans must confront the issue of what’s next there, too. In a speech to the United Nations last week, President Obama announced that the U.S. will arm and train moderate forces opposing the Assad government, and he called for a political settlement to end Syria’s civil war. The president said the U.S. is “prepared to engage in that effort,” but how? For now, Assad is allowing American fighter jets into Syrian air space to strike IS, and he has voiced support for U.S.-led air strikes, so is he now an ally? Just one year ago, President Obama was poised to go to war against Syria for Assad’s use of poisonous gas against his citizens. How will President Obama explain the arming of troops fighting Assad while enjoying Assad’s approval of U.S. warplanes over Syria? Who will lead the political settlement President Obama envisions?

As in Iraq, Syrian intellectuals may be the answer. In June, a group of Syrian intellectuals established the Syrian Association for Citizenship and New Culture, which issued a statement calling for an end to extremism and the establishment of democracy and good governance practices.[3] Danny Postel, associate director of the Center for Middle East Studies at the University of Denver, recently interviewed Syrian activists and intellectuals regarding U.S. military intervention against IS, and he encountered a variety of attitudes from opposition to ambivalence to support. The U.S. media should cover these individuals, and American diplomats should be in conversation with them.[4] President Obama, his advisers, and the U.S. Congress have decided that it is in America’s interest to fight a war against IS, but without a vision for long-term political stability and an alliance with Iraqis who can implement it, airstrikes and humanitarian aid will, at best, offer a pause in a never ending war against groups like IS in the Middle East.

[1] Karl W. Eikenberry, “The Limits of Counterinsurgency Doctrine in Afghanistan,” Foreign Affairs, September/October 2013,

[2] Shukur Khilkhal, “Iraqi intellectuals start campaigns to end bloodshed,” Al-Monitor: The Pulse of the Middle East, Sept. 3, 2014,

[3] “Syrian Intellectuals Establish New Culture Association,” The Syrian Observer, June 2, 2014,

[4] “The War on ISIS: Views From Syrian Activists and Intellectuals,” by Danny Postel, Dissent: A Quarterly of Politics and Culture, Sept. 20, 2014,

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