Illustration for article titled 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.

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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.

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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]

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

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DISCUSSION

As a female Soldier, the ridiculously discriminatory problem of women not being authorized to participate in close combat isn't just an ethical, philosophical or theoretical "issue." It's a major insult that has serious impacts in many facets of my (and my fellow female servicemembers) life and career.

For example, some commenters have brought up the fact that the VA will deny treatment for combat-related injuries to females because we're supposedly immune to them, what with our super-safe lady jobs and all. Nevermind the fact that female Marines have been performing infantry tasks through the Lioness Program, manning traffic checkpoints and searching females who potentially have bombs strapped to their bodies, and on Female Engagement Teams, rucking all over Afghanistan in the same manner that infantry patrols do. And Army Civil Affairs females have been getting shot at and blown up on missions alongside Special Forces— which is probably the most "combaty" of all the combat arms. But a dude who had a desk job downrange can get his "combat-related" injuries treated in a snap, no questions asked.

Not having our service in combat officially recognized negatively affects our career advancement, as well. The Army's promotion system gives more weight to medals earned in combat as opposed to neutral medals that can be earned in garrison. Case in point: Bronze Stars and Purple hearts get you 30 points whereas an Army commendation medal will get you 20. It can be hard to get medals you may have earned if your chain of command thinks that "females don't/can't actually do that."

There's also the double standard issue of fitness. It's one of the most common reasons given, in my experience, as to why females can't hack it—they say us girls just aren't strong enough to carry a 100 pound ruck or fire a SAW or whatever. The problem I have with that excuse is not primarily that it is inaccurate— yes, females who can physically outperform men may be rare but we do exist— but instead is that there are plenty of males who can't meet that standard, either. Yet a physically unfit, unmotivated, low-ASVAB-scoring male has an opportunity to serve his military however he wants while the best females this country has to offer just aren't good enough because of their pesky vaginas and all the trouble they bring.

I could go on, because trust me, it goes way deeper, but this comment is already long enough.