Thursday, January 24, 2013

Women in Combat

I've been listening all day on NPR to various people expressing their opinions on the Defense Department's recent decision to allow women to serve in front-line combat positions.  My, has it been interesting. 

I heard a woman, on BBC's World Have Your Say, opine that the fact that Canada has had women in combat positions for years doesn't mean anything, because their military doesn't fight "real wars" like ours does.  (No, really, that's a good paraphrase of what she said.)

I just heard the (male) head of a veterans group, on PBS NewsHour, say that women aren't fit for front-line combat positions because a woman can't do a fireman's carry of a 225 lb. man, and she can't carry an infantryman's gear.  (He should see some of the iron pumpers at the women's gym I used to go to.  I once saw a woman about 5' 3" dead lift 300 pounds.)  He admitted that the wars we're fighting these days are guerrilla wars that don't have that kind of front lines, but he's convinced that sometime in the next 50 years, we'll be back in the trenches, just like we were in Korea and WWII.

The only one who's actually mentioned that elephant in the room, menstruation, is the blogger at Angry Black Lady Chronicles, who said,
Prepare for the incoming jokes about women being issued Hello Kitty uniforms and pink guns, while conservatives wax nostalgic for the days when strapping young men didn’t have to serve in a foxhole with women who bleed every month and refuse to die.
(I have to read that blog more often.)

Now, personally, I have no idea why any rational woman would want to serve in front-line combat.  But I know a lot of women have chosen a military career, and obviously if they can't serve in combat, their promotion options are limited.  For them this is the right decision, and about damn time.  Ask Sen. Tammy Duckworth, among many others, about women serving in combat.

As for the front lines that we'll "probably have" in the next 50 years:  none of us knows what's coming.  But as I look at all the wars in the last 300 years, I see that every new war (including Iraq and Afghanistan) has required things of its soldiers that no one had ever believed soldiers would have to deal with.  Rifled barrels and accurate fire.  Mustard gas, and machine guns.  Panzer tanks and blitzkrieg.  Urban guerrilla warfare and COIN.  And yet the soldiers adapted to the new ways, and coped; and their brains were usually more important than their physical strength.  In fact, with the new armed drones, soldiers don't even have to be physically on a battlefield; in which case there is no gender difference.

So, ladies, have at it, and God bless.


  1. I don't feel at all well about this new development.

    I grew up in the 1950's in America. In the words of Archie Bunker, this was a time when men were men and girls were girls.

    I've just been watching HIllary's testimony before the Congress. I was reminded, once again, about the revelation of women's participation in public life--in politics as in positions of authority across the spectrum of our society.

    You've come a long way, baby.

    But women in the military, women as soldiers, women as warriors in the hell of modern warfare, really bothers me.

    For all of Archie Bunker's ignorance and selfishness and misogyny, I don't think he would have liked the idea of young women shooting each other on any battlefield.

    I was not a fan of the Archie Bunker comedy program. I use him as an example of the sentiment which once prevailed about what women should be expected to do, or which was considered appropriate for them to do.

    I was raised to regard the female of the species as the weaker sex, and was given to understand that it was the male's duty to defend and protect and cherish women. This, however, as you will no doubt not be surprised to learn, was not the the practice in the household I grew up in. Real and ideal don't always intersect. Nevertheless, I did enter manhood with a nearly immaculate idealization of women which was in keeping with what I had learned.

    If women should man the frnt lines, why not children? That's the practice throughout Africa, and during desperate wars (as in Germany in WWII). Boys make excellent soldiers. Then why not young girls? Why not old men?

    Why not, indeed? Why not husbands and wives, and whole families, fighting side by side.

    Do these questions sound rhetorical? Stay tuned.

  2. Curtis,
    I understand your position. I grew up in the same society you did, where men were men and women were girls. (Pardon the feminist slant.) I was fortunate enough to be raised in a household where Dad did consider it his duty to defend and protect and cherish women. But my father's childhood had, let us say, other influences in it; and he was always aware that his daughters might one day have to fend for themselves, as his mother had had to do. That insular little world of the 1950s often held unpleasant surprises for widows who discovered too late either that they didn't know where the money was and how to manage it, or that there was no money.

    I agree with you, Archie Bunker would have been appalled by women on the battlefield, but not because he cherished and protected them. He despised women and considered them inferior beings, incapable of being warriors; and that is the attitude that the DoD has just formally set aside.

    When women were first accepted into the volunteer military, I thought, are you people nuts (the women volunteers, that is)? But they've been there for 36 years now, through three wars, and they are in combat. For that matter, women fought with the underground against the Nazis, all over Europe. The question is not: should women be in combat? The question is, since women are in combat, should they be given the same credit and promotion for performance that a similarly performing man would get? The previous DoD policy said that you can get a limb blown off by an IED, but you can't be promoted to higher ranks because "women can't be in combat"; and that was simply colossally unfair.

    I'm disturbed that we still use war as a means of settling disputes. I'm also disturbed that we still use war as a metaphor for solving problems - the "war on terror," the "war on drugs," neither of which has been especially successful. Terrorism is not "war" - it is crime, and if we had banded together with the other civilized nations and treated it as just another organized criminal activity, I believe the last 10 years would have been very different. But pursuing criminals isn't "glorious." And drug addiction, of course, is a public health issue; the crime arises when we think we can make a behavior go away by making it illegal.

    As for families fighting side by side - we have it now. Take a look at Syria. You are unfortunately right about Africa and child soldiers.

    My hope (pretty dim sometimes) is that we may someday realize that war isn't a solution to anything; war is the problem. As Churchill said, "Jaw jaw is better than war war." If we can quit fighting each other, then nobody will be on the front lines.

    On the larger question of women in positions of authority - women used to be considered inferior beings, incapable of being educated. This, despite the evidence of such brilliant and capable women as Elizabeth I, Eleanor of Aquitaine, or Queen Victoria. In the sixties, the feminist movement stood up and insisted on "equal rights," and over time, got them - but IMHO they lost sight of the fact that men and women are equal partners in the human race, and they overreacted against the former oppressors to the point of discourtesy. The same thing can be seen in Iraq today as the Shia government overreacts against the formerly ruling minority Sunnis. The feminist movement was a huge psychic disruption that neither men nor women have really understood or accepted yet. Someday, we all need to sit down and talk about what men and women really are, and what each of them is good at.