“Women in combat”: myths and realities
When my current police department hired me I had pretty good qualifications: ten years military service, two years college, three years prior law enforcement. I breezed through the academy. Despite competing with cadets who had bachelors’ or masters degrees, I graduated number one academically and number three overall. During field training I passed my evaluations on the first try.
Later, while I was on my probationary period, I was on patrol with another officer. We met a friend of his for lunch. I had never met the guy before. He was a cowboy type, blond and muscular.
I introduced myself. The friend shook my hand and asked me, “What’s your last name again?”
“Oh,” he said, with a disgusted sneer. “I know how you got your job.”
I was taken aback. I stared at him, not quite believing I heard what I knew I heard. I tensely answered, “No, I got my job because I’ve got military service, college and prior law enforcement. It wasn’t because of my last name. And I graduated near the top of my class.”
“Sorry. Just kidding.”
I was pissed. But I had to admit something: I understood the comment. For decades, stories have circulated about officers being recruited for their ethnic background rather than their capabilities. Some of the stories have been true. I had earned my place in the academy and earned my place on the street, but that officer had looked on me as another “affirmative action cop”.
As angry as I was, I knew he had reason to be angry and cynical as well. Because of lowered hiring standards, he didn’t know who to trust. He wasn’t sure who was qualified and who had been hired to keep up appearances. And he knew unqualified officers might fail him someday, when his life depended on them.
Why do I tell this story now? Because a lot of other people are about to experience the same thing. I’m not talking about minority cops. I’m talking about women who volunteer for combat arms in the military and earn their way through training. When they get lumped in with females who shouldn’t have passed but were pushed through anyway, they’re going to feel a lot like I did that night.
Lately the debate over women in combat has been aggravating the crap out of me. I’ve read several articles and comments about women in combat, and bitten my tongue at the myriad stupid claims: male and female physical fitness standards in the Army and Marines are already the same (they’re not), a soldier working on a huge base is in the same danger as a soldier outside the wire (he’s not), or “The military has finally recognized that there are no line drawn battlefields anymore where they could put the ‘girls’ in the rear. If you carry a weapon, you are in the thick of it” (ridiculous horsecrap). I’ve tried responding on sites like the Huffington Post, but gave up. Many of the people driving this debate don’t have a clue what they’re talking about. And they’re not interested in learning.
So let’s make something clear, which is a point some people don’t get: there is no ban on women in combat. There’s a ban on women in combat arms. That’s a big difference.
For more than ten years, women have been regularly going outside the wire, getting into firefights, and suffering casualties. They’ve served as vehicle drivers, vehicle gunners, engineers, medics, civil affairs specialists, communication specialists and pilots, among other jobs. Those are all crucial combat support roles, and those who fill them, male and female, deserve respect. But women aren’t serving in combat arms, in jobs whose sole purpose is to engage the enemy. They’re not infantry, tankers, scouts or artillery soldiers.
Apparently, much of the public decided they wouldn’t stand for this horrible military inequity, and did something about it. Loud screams about military gender equality came mostly from people who I suspect aren’t veterans, don’t know anyone in the military, and generally view the armed forces with disdain.
Their voices were heard. Voices from people like Marine Captain Katie Petronio, who actually was in firefights and concluded women are not suited for sustained combat, were ignored. As Captain Petronio wrote in an essay, “I am not personally hearing female Marines, enlisted or officer, pounding on the doors of Congress claiming that their inability to serve in the infantry violates their right to equality.” During twenty-four years of service in both the Marines and Army, I haven’t heard it either. But that doesn’t matter. Despite the lack of military voices demanding change, we’ve received the warning order and are preparing to accept women into combat arms. The march toward equality has begun. Yay.
Although my tone might suggest otherwise, I’m not against women in combat arms. In addition to knowing some awesome, physically fit women who could do it, I’ve seen a couple of them do it. Most stories about vicious infantrywomen in foreign armies are as mythical as the plucky, just-as-tough-as-the-guys female character in movies like Battle Los Angeles. But some of the stories are true.
In Afghanistan, the French allowed certain women to serve with the infantry. One I met was assigned to a mortar team. She was in fantastic shape, and according to my French friends was competent, brave and never complained. Another was on a search team. She went on infantry missions, carried her ruck without problems, and once helped carry a wounded civilian to safety while under fire. So nobody can convince me it’s impossible for a woman to be a good combat arms soldier.
In this respect I actually disagree with many of my infantry friends, who see nothing good about female infantry. I was a tanker and scout, but never infantry. I seriously consider what experienced infantrymen have to say. Many of them point out problems we already have with gender integration, and the issues with pregnancies, love triangles and sexual harassment that are guaranteed to result when you add females to combat arms. Nobody should be shocked that young, physically fit men and women, brimming with life and facing death, find escape and comfort in each others’ arms (and beds).
Accepting women into combat arms will require a major behavioral adjustment for both male and female soldiers. Plenty of people with valid experience don’t think the benefit females bring is worth the upheaval. But I believe adherence to the American ideal is worth the trouble. This is the land of opportunity and equality of opportunity. I have a hard time telling someone, “You’re qualified, capable and willing to do the most dangerous jobs for your country. No thanks. You don’t have a penis, so take a hike.”
So my issue isn’t with women in combat arms. My issue is with the stupid, utopian, willfully blind belief that men and women are the same across the board and can do the same things, that one gender is no more physically capable of combat than the other. That’s just not true. This isn’t about racism/sexism/any other -ism, no matter how hard some proponents of gender integration try to smear opponents with those terms. This is about two realities: battlefield and physiological.
This point has been made by several other writers, but it’s worth repeating. Males and females are separated in professional sports. The fittest female in the world isn’t a match for the fittest male. People whose entire lives are committed to producing peak human performance realized this long ago. Female basketball players are in fantastic shape, but they’re not on the same plane as male players. Plenty of female boxers could beat me senseless, but they wouldn’t have a chance against Mike Tyson. Even in noncontact sports like sprinting, males and females are separated.
Is this because the sports world is full of sexists? Or is it because experts in human physical capability know men and women aren’t equal? But maybe we should ignore gender segregation in sports, and advocate total gender integration in combat arms. After all, if integration fails in the military, it’s only lives that will be lost. Not something important, like the Super Bowl.
Some say women have proven physical differences don’t matter. Women in Iraq and Afghanistan have already shown they can handle combat. Yes they have been in combat, but that doesn’t tell the whole truth. The roles filled by women in the War on Terror have been, generally speaking, much less physical than combat arms jobs.
In Iraq I was on a convoy escort team, and spent almost all my time outside the wire sitting in a humvee. When I had to get out it was just to check the area around my vehicle. Plenty of female Soldiers and Marines, and even a handful of female sailors and Air Force women, had the same job.
Yes, some of us were in combat. We were shot at, had IED strikes or near misses. But we weren’t running around under fire in 130 degree heat with eighty pounds of gear. We weren’t maneuvering heavy artillery into position, frantically trying to get rounds downrange and keep a friendly unit from being overrun. We weren’t pulling fifty-five pound HEAT rounds from an Abrams tank ammo rack, flipping them and throwing them into a breech every ten seconds.
Our war was slow-paced and physically undemanding. We left one safe spot, drove hours through danger areas, and finished at another safe spot where ice cream and Green Bean coffee waited. We did not face physical stresses and dangers equal to infantrymen patrolling Sadr City, Fallujah, or Diyala. Many of us, male and female, were physically incapable of doing what the infantry did. If anyone looks at a the typical woman’s combat experience and thinks it’s the same as being in combat arms, they’re either unforgivably ignorant or biased to the point of blindness.
And if someone buys the “modern war is so high-tech that physical strength doesn’t matter” myth, I invite them to join an infantry patrol in Kapisa province. Carrying eighty pounds of gear for three hours up a mountain is nothing like operating a drone. There’s nothing high-tech about an exhausted soldier straining to run under crushing weight while people are shooting at him.
So how do we make military gender integration work? My idea, which the military will likely not listen to, is this: allow women into combat arms, but only after they’ve passed a selection process. Let women who prove themselves capable enter those fields. While they’re in the training courses, maintain the exact same training and performance standard for females as for males. Train females with the understanding that their gender won’t make their load lighter, their performance expectations lower, or their chances of survival higher. Combat arms females will face equal risks in combat, so they should face equal challenges in training.
That way only the best-qualified women would even try it, and the graduation rate for those women would likely be close to the male graduation rate. Female graduates would be viewed as “real” infantrywomen, scouts, tankers or artillerywomen. They wouldn’t have an experience similar to mine. Male soldiers wouldn’t automatically doubt their ability.
But what’s the military probably going to do instead? It’s going to listen to hysterical voices speaking from horribly invalid experience as “equality for everyone” protestors. It’s going to go along with the ridiculous untruth about males and females being exactly the same in all aspects. It’s going to open combat arms to females the same way it’s open to males. And when a class of 100 males and 100 females has twenty male and eighty female failures, the military is going to quietly tell the instructors, “Go easy on the females. Their failure rate makes it look like we’re discriminating against women. We can’t have that.” And the next class’s female failure rate will magically be the same as the male failure rate.
If we choose the appearance of equality over actual quality, we know what it will produce. In future battles, good people will die because “soldiers” in their units will fail. And when, not if, that happens, people who ranted and screamed about equality will suffer none of the consequences. They won’t be overrun because artillery soldiers couldn’t set their guns up quickly enough. They won’t burn because a loader couldn’t feed a tank main gun fast enough. They won’t be pinned down, flanked and massacred because soldiers in a quick reaction force couldn’t carry their loads far enough.
Those who protest loudest about equality while having nothing invested in the outcome won’t be bothered. They don’t serve, their children don’t serve, their friends don’t serve. The casualties won’t be theirs to mourn. And some of those casualties will be qualified, capable women, who earned their way into combat arms and into combat.
Those women deserve better than to be failed by soldiers who should never have been at their side. They deserve better than the “equality” of being just as dead as the soldiers around them. They deserve a fair shot at being combat troops, they deserve the right to earn their way into combat units. And they should serve only with other soldiers who have truly earned that same right.
Filed under: Afghanistan, Iraq | 90 Comments
Tags: Afghanistan, discrimination, iraq, women in combat