Should Women Serve In Combat? Maybe They Already Do

Both the US and UK militaries are struggling with the question of whether women should be allowed to serve in direct combat roles. But many female soldiers say they already do.

According to Ed Pilkington of the Guardian, women will likely be allowed on US submarines (traditionally all-male) by next year — the Guardian's John Henley reports that the UK Navy will integrate its subs as well. But in both the US and the UK, direct combat units remain all-male. Henley writes that the UK produced a 2002 report justifying its decision to keep things that way, which stated, "This environment poses extraordinary demands on the individuals, and success or failure – and survival – depend upon the cohesion of the team in extreme circumstances for which there are no direct comparisons." That is, the Ministry of Defense wasn't sure how women would affect its direct combat units, and the stakes were too high to experiment. The Ministry doesn't think women are too soft for the mental strain of direct ground combat, but it does worry that they're not physically strong enough, claiming that only 0.1% of female applicants could meet the strength and agility demands of its four-person infantry teams.

The Ministry of Defense also worries about whether men and women would be able to work together effectively in such teams. This is an argument often used in the US to justify the exclusion of the openly gay from the military, and it often seems not to give soldiers enough credit. At the same time, Henley says the Israeli army took women out of its combat teams because men tended to freak out when women were injured. This problem seems like it would solve itself if women's participation were normalized, but female Israeli general Yehudit Ben-Natan has another solution: "Let there be tanks with all-female crews, and all-woman missile batteries, because we can do it and we must stop allocating duties by gender."

However, all these arguments may be moot: Pilkington makes the case that in today's wars, women are already in direct combat. He writes,

When ambushes and suicide bombs strike anywhere, anytime, with no traditional front line, the idea of keeping women away from combat zones fast becomes meaningless. As research for her book When Janey Comes Marching Home, [Laura] Browder spoke to 52 military women and found their tasks included such indisputable combat roles as acting as gunners on convoys and ordering attack. Several had come under mortar fire or suffered roadside bombings.

The idea that the military can separate its forces into combat and non-combat "teams" may be naive in the age of IEDs — says Browder, "Most civilians have no idea, but everyone in the military knows that women are in combat." Army rules have technically barred women from US combat units since 1994, but rather than argue about changing those rules, we may need to recognize that they've already been changed. And women have stepped up — 125 US women have died in Iraq and Afghanistan, and a woman won one of Britain's top military honors for "crawling through sniper fire to rescue her wounded sergeant, a man." The debate about women in combat in some ways mirrors past (and ongoing) arguments about whether women can work, do science, make art, or engage in politics — while people fight about whether women can do something, women themselves are busy doing it.

US Military: 'Women Are Very Much In Combat' [Guardian]
Women On The Frontline: The Right To Fight [Guardian]

Earlier: Will Women On Subs Damage Fetuses, Endanger Man Hugs?