Between watching Homeland and Zero Dark Thirty, you could be forgiven for thinking our nation's defense and counterterrorism operations are run by rail thin, whip-smart blonde women and a cadre of loyal but less brilliant men. And while these specific accounts are largely the stuff of fiction, my own experience working in counterterrorism and defense points to a strong thread of truth in these stories: young, civilian women are excelling in male-dominated areas of national defense, in many cases more quickly and easily than their male counterparts. There is a series of logical reasons for this, from the respect garnered by their perceived sacrifice to an ability to cut through the hierarchy to form ties with people of different ranks and within insular organizations.
From March of 2009 to August of 2010, I lived and worked almost exclusively among men in uniform in various locations in Pakistan. I was young — 27 to 28 — and inexperienced, but ambitious and eager to help. I can't say I was "tough" like the women of Homeland or Zero Dark Thirty, but I held my own and, having come to an operational command from the Office of the Secretary of Defense, I brought a bit of gravitas. This could have made me an outsider, or even a Pentagon spy, but instead I was able to take part in a mission that by all appearances had no role or room for me.
The observations here are based purely on that experience and my subsequent time working with Special Operations Forces; I have not seen and don't believe statistics on this particular topic exist. But in nearly four years working on and in Pakistan and Afghanistan, I often found myself and other young female civilians edging towards the front lines of the fight in ways civilian men rarely did. The women of the military have, of course, been on the front lines for quite some time, with the recent policy change allowing them to serve in combat positions merely solidifying a long-standing fact of war. But on the civilian side, I perceived a growing shift that was quietly underway.
For better or worse, the first reason for the success of young women in counterterrorism and similar fields is the result of outdated but widely held assumptions about women's preferences and capabilities. Because women are broadly perceived as less likely to sign up for dangerous, challenging work, when a young woman shows herself to be willing to take that step — whether to deploy to a war zone or even to choose to work in a "war office" under long hours and high stress — they are often given a baseline level of respect. A conscious decision to put oneself in physical danger for the sake of a larger mission is something that resonates especially strongly with members of the military, who have based their lives around that very choice. Thus, civilian women working with the military in particular tend to be given the benefit of the doubt, and in many cases a warm welcome into the inner fold.
I cannot count the number of times someone asked me what the hell I was doing in a place where Americans were regularly targeted while I worried my parents sick, or why I didn't just want to go home, get married and have kids. One particular colleague who ribbed me daily for missing out on life, grinding out situation reports in a smelly basement, turned out to be one of my closest friends and someone who also turned to me for support in a time of stress and crisis. When a vehicle was hit by an IED in a remote area with three killed and two wounded, the same man who couldn't figure out why I was there asked me to help coordinate the evacuation. While he claimed he did not understand my life choices, it was clear that by making the decision to work in Pakistan rather than stay behind my desk in the Pentagon, I had shown him a level of commitment that meant I could step up when it counted.
Once accepted into these protected realms, I often saw civilian women become a kind of sympathetic ear, and one all the more valued for its understanding of these men's professional life. For the most part the relationships I witnessed were not sexual. What I saw instead was that many among whom these women deployed found them to be both personal confidants and respected work colleagues — people who understood what they do (which is often highly classified), but aren't a unit member or even in uniform. They can therefore offer informed support while being an impartial friend. One junior non-commissioned officer who lived in my house often asked me for dating advice and help writing emails to girlfriends back home.
This is not to say that members of the military don't support each other — of course they do. But many of them miss their families and long for conversations with people who aren't members of their unit — a superior or a subordinate. A young woman outside their chain of command offers exactly that, in turn gaining their trust and respect. There were also less serious aspects to this, but ones that got me out of the house and exposed to local life: trips to the tailor to pick out suits, long tea sessions with jewelry dealers, even serving as a date to an attaché function or party at a local home. In the least predatory way possible, everyone wanted some female company.
This was true of our Pakistani counterparts as well, many of whom were more than happy to meet with a young American woman instead of another soldier. It was rare that my presence was not requested at bilateral meetings, regardless of the topic or my specific role in the proceedings. And while I knew I wasn't brought there for my brilliant thoughts on the F-16 program, it did mean that when we got back and briefed the commander, I was the one who had been taking meticulous notes. By the time I left I was actively engaged in certain day-to-day negotiations with the Pakistan Army.
My connections with these men and occasionally women allowed me to navigate the bureaucracies of the Department of Defense in a unique and often discreet way, which in turn made me much better at my job. This was especially true when I returned to the Pentagon and sought to present my bosses — the Secretary and his Deputies and Assistants — with the best on-the-ground information. While many in the higher echelons of the building waited for incident reports to trickle through dozens of layers of command, I could pick up the phone and call the NCO to whom I had given dating advice and find out exactly what happened before it hit the street in Washington. That kind of access makes your boss look good, and it makes you indispensable.
Eventually the people with whom I bought suits or went jewelry shopping rotated out, and again I was on the outside of a world that does not readily accept outsiders or even civilians. There is also a firm chain of command that these relationships tend to circumvent; the dozen commanders and senior staffers between that NCO and me probably didn't appreciate our bond built over beers and movie night. But there is also something to be said for how personal ties — especially those built outside the confines of the units themselves and by women in particular — can transcend a log-jammed bureaucracy.
Women in these fields are not given a free pass by any means, and those who take advantage of and build on these circumstantial benefits to help defend our country deserve our gratitude and respect. And of course the civilian men who do the same should be applauded as well, especially given the uphill battle they face when surrounded by men in uniform. While I saw many men try to replicate what my female colleagues and I were able to do in these environments, the ones who succeeded were far outnumbered by those who were perfunctorily accepted but never really liked or trusted. This is unfortunate, as many of them had much to offer the units they worked with, but the chemistry simply wasn't the same.
It's also worth noting that there are some major downsides to being a woman, civilian or military, in this arena. The recent documentary Invisible War shines a glaring spotlight on the most egregious of these, namely the widespread incidence of sexual assault and dire lack of recourse for its victims. I was fortunate not to witness this side of the coin but mourn the very many who have. I can also see how the gender dynamic that served me well in specific ways could quickly change into something more sinister and dangerous.
These problems aside, there are many real and unnamed women behind our nation's foreign policy adventures, and their stories make up a remarkable and important element of this most recent period in American warfare. Fortunately, though perhaps unwittingly, recent movies and television shows have highlighted an important trend in the real worlds of defense and counterterrorism.