Women in Danger

It’s hard to be told that what you do doesn’t matter, or that it doesn’t matter enough for you to take risks in order to do it – especially when you believe in your job as thoroughly as I do.

It has been strange and disturbing to watch the word “Benghazi” become a political football, and there is no relief in sight. I don’t expect the thoughtful piece by Robert Worth in this week’s New York Times Magazine to end that, but I hope it will shed some light.

I’m treading carefully, and I am deliberately leaving many topics untouched. I want to hone in on an essential confusion that I think has heightened Americans’ emotional response to the attack: Although they don’t know it, diplomacy is dangerous.

It’s more dangerous, in many ways, than military work – save direct combat. We have an important role to play in keeping our nation safe, free, and prosperous. It involves everything from nurturing alliances with states that advance our interests in foreign policy to developing trade relationships that help our economy to assisting Americans overseas in distress. We can’t do that by sitting inside a fortress. In fact, many of us believe that it’s counterproductive to sit there, blind to what’s really happening, demanding that any visitors go through an extensive and infuriating (read: TSA-like) security check before coming to see us, at which point we hope they will still feel like telling us the truth, so that we can be reasonably sure that the information we send to Washington is accurate. We have to go out, unprotected, and talk to people. It’s hard to make friends when you show up at someone’s front door with a gun in their face.

But the response to Benghazi shows that many Americans don’t accept our explanation. “Where are the Marines,” my relatives demanded, those boys – almost always boys, in their minds – “who are supposed to keep them safe.” Not knowing that Marines are at diplomatic missions to protect classified information, not to start wars. The message is that it’s okay to put our troops in danger – it’s okay when their bodies come home draped in flags and full of holes – but not our diplomats.

What does this have to do with women? I can hear you asking. When I went to Afghanistan, people were especially worried about me “as a woman.” While women in rural Afghanistan have it rough, it was the Americans was afraid of. Cooped up 24/7 on a compound with primarily men, including some who treated me as if I were unqualified for my job, I was worried that stress and frustration would do me in – and they nearly did.

While reading some of the reports on women in the military prior to Veterans Day, I found myself face to face with words in print that echoed words I’d heard: that women don’t belong in combat, because it’s dangerous. Better than the argument I remember most from growing up – that women can’t fight wars because they menstruate and are therefore both dirty and hysterical – but still disturbing. (Although that argument, perhaps not shockingly, is still being made.)

To address it, women in the military have pointed out that their jobs are dangerous, even if they are excluded from the traditional definition of “the front lines.” Activists against the Ground Combat Exclusion Policy point out that by not being allowed to serve in combat, women are held back from promotions, deployments, and the shared experience with male counterparts that would give them the moral authority to lead. A test policy went into place earlier this year that allows women in some units to take on combat-related roles, but it isn’t complete. (An excellent overview of the issue was published by the Christian Science Monitor after the policy was announced in May 2012.)

As a diplomat, a woman, and a fiercely patriotic American who wants to serve, there is almost nothing more frustrating than to be told that I ought to stay behind. I applaud the noble spirit behind men who want to protect their fellow Americans, but not the spirit that lumps women in with children, as if we were defenseless. Perhaps the best field officer I saw in Afghanistan was a woman, fluent in Pashto, who sat down face-to-face with elderly men in village shuras and got the kind of information that kept the troops posted there safe, not the other way around. 

That, then, would be my long and somewhat inarticulate plea: As a diplomat, as a woman, as an American with talents that can only be put to use out there on the front lines, let me serve.

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