World Views
11:58 am
Wed April 24, 2013

Women in War: Combat and Coverage When the Front Lines Blur

NPR's Rachel Martin
Credit Katie Burk / NPR

Hear Rebecca Cruise's full interview with NPR's Rachel Martin

In January, former Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta announced the end of the U.S. military’s 19-year-old ban on women officially serving in combat roles.

“Every time I visited the warzone, every time I've met with troops, reviewed military operations, and talked to wounded warriors, I've been impressed with the fact that everyone - men and women alike - everyone is committed to doing the job,” Panetta said. “They're fighting and they're dying together. And the time has come for our policies to recognize that reality.”

Weekend Edition Sunday host Rachel Martin covered national security issues for NPR from 2010-2012. She told KGOU’s World Views the change in policy recognizes the reality on the ground, but also will afford women the opportunity to compete for top-level spots in very elite military units.

“We're talking about Navy SEALS, Army Rangers, and Delta Force,” Martin says. “This is where the tension still exists, because the debate right now is whether or not you lower physical standards in order to make it possible for women to secure positions in those elite units. That's something the military is really still grappling with.”

Martin has worked extensively in Afghanistan, first reporting there in 2003 on a freelance basis, then for NPR. She has reported widely on women’s issues and Afghanistan’s first democratic presidential elections.

“Sometimes my gender forced me out of certain situations and made it more difficult for me to have conversations with Afghan tribal elders,” Martin says. “And then in other situations it was completely the opposite. ‘Eh, there's a woman here. How harmful can she be? Let's just let her in.’ So I could kind of sit along a back wall and observe.”

INTERVIEW HIGHLIGHTS

On the differences between covering religion and national security

You're talking about the issues that people hold most dear, that are most intimate, that are most important to them in many ways. I just felt like sometimes all I had to do is brandish a microphone, and all of a sudden I was involved in a very intimate, personal conversation with someone about their values and beliefs. That is the opposite, in many ways, of covering national security. Especially on the intelligence side when you're often dealing with anonymous sources. You often don't even have a microphone with you because everything has to be done confidentially because oftentimes people don't go on the record.

On the Obama administration’s recent acknowledgement that the U.S. engages in drone warfare

The issue is often about transparency. There are numerous questions about civilian casualties. Those numbers are very hard to get, because oftentimes these strikes are happening in remote parts of Pakistan or Yemen, where there are no Western reporters. There are hardly any reporters at all. Verifying civilian deaths is virtually impossible. So the program has been incredibly controversial. At the same time, administration officials will say it has also been incredibly effective in taking out key leaders of al Qaeda and affiliated terrorist networks.

FULL TRANSCRIPT

REBECCA CRUISE, HOST: Rachel Martin, thank you so much for joining me today on World Views.

RACHEL MARTIN: Very happy to be here, Rebecca.

CRUISE: Well, I thought we'd start with talking a little bit about your past history of reporting. You started off with religious issues, and then moved on to be the National Security Correspondent for NPR. Was there anything about covering religious issues that prepared you for security issues, or is there any area where the two intersected? Or are they completely different?

MARTIN: That is a very interesting question. I don't know if there are natural parallels. They're actually very different in a couple of way. I've often said that covering religion was a fascinating beat because you're talking about the issues that people hold most dear, that are most intimate, that are most important to them in many ways. I just felt like sometimes all I had to do is brandish a microphone, and all of a sudden I was involved in a very intimate, personal conversation with someone about their values and beliefs. That is the opposite, in many ways, of covering national security. Especially on the intelligence side when you're often dealing with anonymous sources. You often don't even have a microphone with you because everything has to be done confidentially because oftentimes people don't go on the record. Of course, most of the time they're not interested in telling their story, or making their views known. So it's a much more arduous process in some ways.

CRUISE: Well one of the issues that you have reported a great deal on is the changing structure of the U.S. military. The elimination of "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" and the recent decision to allow women into combat areas. Does this reflect a changing culture within the military, and can you envision a larger change in the military be it internally, or perhaps even externally, in how the military engages internationally?

MARTIN: Well, I don't think it's going to change the way the U.S. military conducts itself. This is, though, a really significant change - one that has been in the offing now for a few years. Obviously, the repeal of "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" was a huge watershed moment for the U.S. military. U.S. military officials I've spoken with very recently have said that has happened with relatively little blow back. That has been a relatively smooth transition. What is perhaps more difficult is the decision to officially allow women to take part in combat jobs. This has been happening around conflict zones already. In war zones, in Afghanistan, in Iraq women have been serving in positions where they have come into contact, they have come under fire; they have been in combat situations. The problem was they weren't officially allowed to be there. So the change in policy recognizes the reality on the ground. But the change in policy also will afford women the opportunity to compete for top-level spots in very elite military units. We're talking about Navy SEALS, Army Rangers, and Delta Force. This is where the tension still exists, because the debate right now is whether or not you lower physical standards in order to make it possible for women to secure positions in those elite units. That's something the military is really still grappling with. Military commanders insist that they're not going to lower standards. It won't affect how the U.S. military conducts itself in its readiness. But culturally, this is a very big change. It still has yet to be seen how the military is going to roll this out.

CRUISE: So we'll certainly need to continue to keep an eye on that. Another change, or something that's been in the news of late, is the issue of drones. Can you maybe talk a little bit about this issue and the controversy that seems to be brewing?

MARTIN: Well, the Obama administration has only recently admitted that they've been using this kind of drone warfare, or the use of unmanned aerial vehicles to launch attacks against insurgents - members of al Qaeda and affiliated networks. So really, the issue is often about transparency. There are numerous questions about civilian casualties. Those numbers are very hard to get, because oftentimes these strikes are happening in remote parts of Pakistan or Yemen, where there are no Western reporters. There are hardly any reporters at all. Verifying civilian deaths is virtually impossible. So the program has been incredibly controversial. At the same time, administration officials will say it has also been incredibly effective in taking out key leaders of al Qaeda and affiliated terrorist networks. So this is something that we're obviously going to see moving forward. The Obama administration has been far more forward-leaning with the use of this technology than even the Bush administration before it. So in his second term, it will be interesting to see how the war and al Qaeda moves forward, and what is the future of this particular technology? As we think about how our allies, but also countries that are not-so-friendly with the United States appropriate this technology for their own uses.

CRUISE: Well, the other thing you mentioned was the situations with Iraq and Afghanistan. We're drawing out of Afghanistan in the next year and a half. That's the pledge, at least. You actually had the opportunity to do some reporting from both of those areas. I wondered, as a female and a Westerner, were there any challenges that you faced as a reporter there?

MARTIN: Well, I've talked a lot about this. I think there are benefits and there are drawbacks. My reporting experience in Afghanistan is a lot deeper than my experience in Iraq. I was in Baghdad and Ramadi in Anbar Province in Iraq in 2007, but I was mostly traveling as an embedded reporter with the U.S. military. In Afghanistan when I first started reporting from there in 2003 I was operating on my own as a freelancer and then as a reporter for NPR. I was not embedded with U.S. military. I was just operating on my own, and sometimes my gender forced me out of certain situations and made it more difficult for me to have conversations with Afghan tribal elders. And then in other situations it was completely the opposite. It was actually to my benefit. Sometimes it was because I just wasn't seen as a threat. In some ways it was, "Eh, there's a woman here. How harmful can she be? Let's just let her in." So I could kind of sit along a back wall and observe, so my gender was both a challenge and it provided some opportunities I think at the same time.

CRUISE: That's interesting. What were some of the lessons from a national security point of view that we have hopefully learned from our involvement in Iraq and in Afghanistan as we end our involvement there?

MARTIN: Well, that's a very complicated question.

CRUISE: Sure.

MARTIN: I think on the whole, administration officials I speak with and national security officials agree that there is very little appetite now for a new ground war. We've just endured more than a decade fighting two very complicated, complex, intense ground wars.

CRUISE: Perhaps the reason why we're now supporting drone warfare.

MARTIN: In a way, that is definitely a benefit of the technology, but it becomes a much more complicated conversation when you're talking about the targets...

CRUISE: Sure.

MARTIN: ...involved in drone warfare, and the rules of war. It's probably something we shouldn't delve too far into in this conversation. But I think that the U.S. military officials right now are obviously facing severe budget cuts, and they are trying to think about how to reduce the force. What to do with the tens of thousands of soldiers, Marines, Airmen, and troops that are coming home from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan? At the same time, stay prepared for whatever might happen. Forced to reduce their troops, but at the same time the U.S. military has to be prepared to meet the threat that's out there. So that's the challenge right now.

CRUISE: So much interesting information, and unfortunately we are getting close on time, so I just want to thank you once again for your input, and thank you for agreeing to join us today.

MARTIN: Sure Rebecca, it's my pleasure.

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