Women Prominent in Defense Movement
Counterinsurgents: Sarah Sewall of Harvard's Carr Center for Human Rights, Michele Flournoy of the Center for a New American Security and Montgomery McFate, freelance anthropologist
In March, White House Press Secretary Dana Perino demurred on a question about the military. Her reason? Don’t ask her — she’s just a woman.
“Some of the terms I just don’t know,” Perino told Fox News’s Chris Wallace. “I haven’t grown up knowing the type of missiles that are out there: Patriots and Scuds and cruise missiles and Tomahawk missiles. And I think that men, just by osmosis, understand all of these things. And they’re things that I really have to work at — to know the difference between a carrier and a Destroyer, and what it means when one of those is being launched to a certain area.”
To many of the leaders of the U.S.’s ascendant defense movement — counterinsurgency — Perino’s remark was cringe-worthy. “That really was a laughably stupid comment,” said Erin M. Simpson, a professor of counterinsurgency at the Marine Corps University in Quantico, Va. “No one learns this stuff by osmosis.”
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Janine Davidson, who just resigned from the Pentagon’s Special Operations and Low-Intensity Conflict and Special Capabilities directorate, pointed out, “A woman whose job it is to pay attention to carrier battle groups and weapons platforms will — and should be — as knowledgeable as her male counterparts. And the ones I know in that line of work most certainly are.”
Simpson and Davidson are key figures in a loose but expanding circle of defense theorist-practitioners who study, advocate and implement counterinsurgency — a method of warfare that emphasizes economy of force, intimate knowledge of host populations and politico-economic incentives to win that population’s allegiance. At the risk of stating the obvious, they, and many of their colleagues, are women. While women are still underrepresented in the national-security apparatus — and at the Pentagon specifically — counterinsurgency, more than any other previous movement in defense circles, features women not just as equal partners, but leaders.
There’s no one answer for why that is. In a series of interviews, leading woman counterinsurgents, and some of their male colleagues, discussed how the unconventional approach to military operations calls for skills in academic and military fields that have become open to women in recent decades. Others contend that counterinsurgency’s impulse for collaborative leadership speaks to women’s “emotional IQ,” in the words of one prominent woman counterinsurgent. Another explanation has to do with coincidence: the military’s post-Vietnam outreach to women has matured at the same time as counterinsurgency became an unexpected national imperative.
“It is not that women are ‘better’ at this stuff than men,” Davidson said, “it is just that the problems associated with populations involve non-military skill sets and knowledge from fields where women have traditionally been better represented than they have been in the military.”
Much of the counterinsurgency community is largely unknown outside the Beltway — and outside of Kabul and Baghdad. But it is striking not only how many are women, but also how many, if not most, of the most prominent women in defense circles are counterinsurgents — even if most of those women are not themselves combat veterans.
Sarah Sewall of Harvard’s Carr Center for Human Rights was the first woman deputy assistant secretary of defense for peacekeeping, during the Clinton administration. Army Gen. David H. Petraeus, the most visible and prestigious counterinsurgent, specifically asked Sewall to help in writing 2006′s joint Army-Marine Corps counterinsurgency manual, FM 3-24, the most important contemporary text for the movement. (Sewall, who did not respond to an email seeking comment, is now a senior foreign-policy adviser for Sen. Barack Obama, the presumptive Democratic nominee for president.)
Michele Flournoy, also a veteran of the Clinton Defense Dept., last year co-founded the Center for a New American Security, a leading private-sector think tank that focuses on counterinsurgency. CNAS, as it’s known, has put together some of the most influential strategy papers on Iraq, including last year’s “Phased Transition” and June’s “Shaping The Iraq Inheritance.” It also hosts counterinsurgency scholars like Colin Kahl, Roger Carstens and retired Army Lt. Col. John Nagl, another co-author of FM 3-24. (Flournoy’s assistant said she is out of the country and was not available to comment for this piece.)
Montgomery “Mitzi” McFate, 43, is one of the least typical defense theorists. Trained as a cultural anthropologist, she worked for much of her career in obscure corners of the defense establishment, like the Institute for Defense Analysis and the Navy’s Office of Naval Research. McFate’s eagerness to apply her anthropology background to counterinsurgency led her to design one of the most innovative and unconventional programs the U.S. military has ever launched: the Human Terrain Teams, in which cultural anthropologists literally embed with military units in Iraq and Afghanistan to advise them on the structure of tribal and family relations in those countries, to avoid giving needless offense. (McFate did not respond to a request for comment.)
There are many others. Simpson, who recently earned her Ph. D from Harvard’s Government Dept., teaches counterinsurgency to mid-career Marine officers, many of whom are veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan. From January 2008 until her resignation last month, Davidson, an Air Force pilot from 1988 to 1998, ran the Defense Department’s Consortium for Complex Operations, an effort to harmonize civilian and military components of counterinsurgency, the brainchild of her old boss, Dep. Assistant Secretary of Defense Celeste M. Ward, herself a rising counterinsurgency star. (A spokesman for Ward did not respond to a request for comment sent to him.)
Anther prominent theorist is Tammy Schultz, herself a fellow at CNAS. She was previously a research director at the Army War College’s Peacekeeping Institute — an early repository of knowledge for “stability operations,” an umbrella term for irregular-warfare missions that include counterinsurgency. At the Pentagon and the U.S. Agency for International Development, respectively, Kathleen McInnis and Alexa Courtney play key roles examining counterinsurgency in Afghanistan. One of the leading advisers to Gen. Ray Odierno, confirmed by the Senate last month to command U.S. troops in Iraq, is a British defense wonk named Emma Sky.
A variety of factors explain the healthy presence of women in the U.S. counterinsurgency community. First, the military has, over the last 20 years, gradually grown more accustomed to women in both uniformed service and policy roles. “I would not have flown the C-130 in 1990,” Davidson said, “had the rule against women in such tactical flying roles just changed the year I graduated from pilot training. The rise of the counterinsurgents and the overdue rise of women in national security positions have largely coincided.
Second, Simpson observed that both counterinsurgency and certain academic fields, like applied cultural anthropology, shared, for a long time, a similar marginalization by both the military and academia at large. As these disciplines also became more open to women, and the beginnings of many a career track took shape. “If you wanted in, and fast,” Simpson said in an email, “these were areas that presented good opportunities for young, talented women. And remember: most successful women in government have advanced academic degrees of some sort, the academic trends create openings for the government work — e.g., Janine did her dissertation on stability operations, I work on COIN [counterinsurgency], et cetera.
“On the government side,” Simpson continued, “these topics were also considered backwaters and hard-chargers did well to avoid them. In the mid-1990s, women like Sarah Sewall and Michele Flournoy ended up holding the bag, and we’re lucky they were.”
Third, there weren’t that many people interested in counterinsurgency when the U.S. suddenly found itself mired in two such wars at the same time. That led to people in senior government roles seeking to fill jobs to not “have time for the kabuki theater of making sure you were old enough or were an infantryman, or whatever,” Simpson continued. “‘You’re smart? You care? You’re in. Now let’s get to work.’ The acceptance of young people and civilians is as surprising and importance as the leading role of women — though clearly, the two are related.”
Tammy Schultz of CNAS, contends, as well, that counterinsurgency lends itself to strengths often shared by women — a controversial point. “Some of it — and I’m not a psychiatrist, but Montgomery is an anthropologist — is that these type of operations require very perceptive and deep emotional IQs,” Schultz said. “That’s not to say men don’t have those, but the studies I’ve seen suggest women have a more collaborative style. And if you look at what you’re trying to build with COIN, at end of the day, it’s about building host-nation capacity,” meaning increasing the capability of a government to control politics, economics and violence within its borders. “If you do it all yourself, you’re doing it wrong, and you won’t have a successful COIN,” she continued, “and, by and large, I think that’s how women approach leadership roles.”
For Davidson, who next month will become a professor of national-security studies at George Mason University’s Graduate School for Public Policy, the interdisciplinary nature of counterinsurgency creates both the opportunity and the necessity to solicit the perspectives of more than the typical male infantryman. “COIN blends the various fields of security, economic development, conflict resolution, rule of law, human rights and state/nation building — fields in which women were already working through academia, law, [non-governmental organizations] and in the policy community — USAID, State, et cetera,” she said. “So it makes sense to see more women trying to figure out this complex, interdisciplinary puzzle we call COIN. For me, this is the most interesting aspect. I think we have a long way to go in understanding how our theoretical constructs and conventional wisdom in these myriad fields may or may not link together in COIN and state-building, or the limitations on our role as an intervening force. So we need more diverse perspectives on the problem.”
None of which is to say that women don’t still face obstacles in defense circles, nor that gender parity has been achieved. Bob Martinage of the Center on Strategic and Budgetary Assessments, a leading Washington defense think tank, notes that when he puts together war games for the Pentagon, very few women are in attendance. “It is rare we have more than one, two women there,” he said. “Maybe at the extreme three or four, but we’re talking about 50 people or so, and at most three or four women. And that’s a good day, so to speak, for female representation.”
Martinage, though, could not think of any previous trend in defense that produced more women participants, including the so-called high-tech Revolution in Military Affairs of the 1990s and early 2000s, or “RMA,” which the counterinsurgents frequently view as an intellectual sparring partner. Counterinsurgents emphasize the need for on-the-ground knowledge derived by U.S. ground forces, while RMA proponents — former Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld was the most famous of them — attempt to substitute ground forces with sophisticated communications, surveillance and weapons technology. “With the RMA, really no women immediately spring to mind as big contributors to the field, so to speak, in terms of the debate,” said Martinage, who works for one of the intellectual hotbeds of the RMA. “Over all, it’s clearly dominated by men.”
Similarly, careers in the national-security world provide no exception to the pressures “that all professional women in high stress jobs face — i.e., law, medicine, academia — especially with regard to child care and raising a family,” Simpson said. “I’ve been very lucky with the Marines I work with, but that isn’t necessarily par for the course.”
Schultz remembers that when she pursued a graduate degree at the prestigious School of Advanced International Studies at Johns Hopkins University from 1999 to 2001, she considered dropping out of the security studies program because her class contained “all of two women.” The next year, however, she became the research assistant for Eliot A. Cohen, now counselor to Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, which in turn inspired other women to enroll. “The demonstrative effect was just outstanding,” she said. “By the time I left SAIS, fully half the program was women.”
It’s possible that the wrenching national experience in Iraq will cause the military to grow more resistant to counterinsurgency, as it did after Vietnam. But even if it does, Davidson doesn’t see the trend toward increased female participation in defense issues slowing[ in momentum]. “It is certainly the case that there are more men — white men in particular — in the key leadership positions, but on the policy side we have improving representation of women,” she said. “Mary Beth Long is the first woman undersecretary in [the Office of the Secretary of Defense's policy directorate]. Condi Rice is the second [woman] secretary of state. And the Clinton administration in the 1990′s had already put talented women like Sarah Sewall and Michele Flournoy in key [Defense Dept.] roles. I don’t think people in the next administration will be afraid to continue this trend.”
All of which is to the benefit of national security, Simpson contends, refuting Perino. “The reason we need women working national security is the same reason we need women in medicine and engineering: this stuff is really hard,” she said. “And we aren’t going to win by telling half the population they can’t play. It’s always important that we have the sharpest, most creative minds working on defense and security issues as possible. And many in the COIN community have pursued that goal relentlessly without regard to gender — but also without regard for age or military background.”
This is the seventh in a series: The Rise of the Counterinsurgents
Part One: The Colonels and ‘The Matrix’
Part Two: A Famous Enigma
Part Three: Petraeus’ Ascension
Part Four: The Insurgent as Counterinsurgent
Part Five: King David
Part Six: Civilians Missing From Action
*Correction: The original version of this story reported that Janine Davidson retired from the Pentagon’s Special Operations and Low-Intensity Conflict and Special Capabilities directorate. TWI should have reported that Davidson resigned. We regret the error. *