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No Service: Women in Combat and Military Policy

It’s been a big month for military news. In the United States, the discriminatory ‘don’t ask, don’t tell’ policy was finally rescinded, putting the LGBQ in the US military. People no longer need to remain closeted to serve, although many servicemembers are still nervous about being out, for very understandable reasons. And yes, that was a deliberately dropped T; the US military continues a formal policy of discrimination against trans service members. Australia also announced a major policy shift, pledging to lift gender-based restrictions on combat roles in the next five years.

The question of whether women ‘can’ serve in warfighting roles is an ancient one, despite the fact that women have been taking part in combat at various levels, sometimes in drag, for centuries. Numerous reports on women in the Civil War illustrate that women of all races in the US certainly didn’t shrink from combat historically, even as their roles were restricted on purely gendered grounds. In the later part of the 20th century, the gender-based limitations specifically barring women from combat roles came under increasing question, and people continue to challenge this policy, especially with the face of combat radically changing.

During my service in Iraq as a Marine officer, I, like many other military women, found myself fighting on the front lines of America’s wars — yet was unacknowledged for doing so. Women are dying in combat, but Congress still officially bans us from serving in combat units that engage the enemy with deliberate, offensive action. (Jane Blair)

Officially, women cannot serve in ground combat units, barring them from participation in many Military Occupational Specialties (MOSs). They can, however, be involved in support roles, which means that women are on the ground in places like Iraq and Afghanistan as medics, military police, gunners, and so forth. Thanks to the increasingly asymmetric nature of warfare, this means that many women are, de facto, in combat roles on the ground. Support units can and do take fire, need to fight their way out of dangerous situations, and come into direct contact with the enemy (as well as civilians).

They can also fly combat aircraft, though not without prejudice:

But while proving their competence in the air, female aviators say they still face obstacles from the predominantly male military on the ground. “It’s far better than when my mother was in the military, but we still have a long ways to go,” said Strye, whose mother was an Army nurse in Vietnam. “I know I constantly have to prove myself.”

Women like Vernice ‘Flygirl’ Armour, who flies some of the biggest, baddest helicopters around and has distinguished herself as the nation’s first Black woman at the controls of combat helicopters, face an uphill battle in the workplace. Trailblazing combat pilots do not have an easy time of it; many report, for example, incidents where they’re present at recruitment events and people assume they are support staff or there to support their partners, expressing incredulity that they not only fly Apaches and other attack aircraft, but use them in combat, not ‘just’ delivering them.

Recommendations to lift the ban on gender-based restrictions to service haven’t been heeded in the United States, although there has been a policy softening that suggests it will happen eventually, despite claims that women aren’t ‘fit’ for combat. Some people argue that women are too physically or emotionally weak for combat roles, something clearly belied not only by the valour of women currently in the military, but also among civilians. Women fight fires, work on the front lines as police officers, and engage in a variety of other activities that don’t appear to crush them like the delicate flowers they are. I think it’s been pretty clearly established at this point that ladies can, and will, do whatever the hell they want to do, and kick ass at it. For women interested in military service who want to pursue combat roles, there should be no barriers; something recognised by Australia apparently, along with a handful of other nations in the world.

Writing last year, Brandann Hill-Mann (a Navy veteran, incidentally) pointed out that women already effectively serve in combat, but because of the official restrictions on their roles, they don’t receive credit for it. This isn’t about the glory, or the career issues, although that’s part of it as well; participation in combat can be key to climbing the promotional ladder. It’s also about accessing needed services:

This lack of combat recognition not only damages a female soldier’s pride and future military career, it damages her potential to prove service connection should she later be diagnosed with PTSD as a result of the combat action.

Proving service connection can be critically important for accessing VA benefits in the United States. If you can’t demonstrate that a disability was related to your military service, you can’t get care. For women veterans, this is a serious issue that can lead to significant delays in recognition and treatment. A discriminatory policy has lasting effects for women who don’t have officially recognised combat service, because they weren’t supposed to be there in the first place. A blurring of what ‘combat roles’ look like also contributes; a woman who fires missiles from a ship on the Gulf participates in combat, just as a medic who uses her sidearm to defend herself while providing medical care in the field does. Both women would have trouble proving to the VA’s satisfaction that PTSD was a service-connected disability.

The failure to recognise that women already participate in combat contributes to the mistaken belief that this discriminatory policy is somehow protective or necessary. Mixed-gender units are already in the field. Women are already heavily involved in ground operations. Most of the objections about women in combat can be dismissed by pointing to actual ongoing military service that’s already occurring. Much of this debate also elides the very real experiences of women in the military, yet another reminder that their service is considered lesser.

Earlier this year, a panel recommended lifting the ban and provided substantial documentary evidence to support the recommendation. As with the proposal just enacted in Australia, it recommended a gradual integration to open increasing numbers of service roles to women, terminating with a full extension of opportunities to servicewomen. This could have a particularly profound effect on military leadership, where the ‘brass ceiling’ bars many women from achieving top positions. The Department of Defense admits that the demographic makeup of the military, particularly in leadership roles, does not accurately reflect the mixture of society in general. This ban is one of the reasons for that, though far from the only one. It’s high time to take a leaf out of Australia’s book on this one.

Allowing women into combat roles certainly wouldn’t resolve the numerous problems women in the military currently face, like extremely high rates of sexual harassment and assault, and the inability to access abortion services in many cases, but it would make a substantial difference, and it would send a clear message. Just as racially integrated units signaled to racists that military service was open to all races and it would stay that way, full gender integration would be a reminder to misogynists that women seeking military careers have all opportunities open to them, as long as they qualify.

As people in the United States celebrate the undoubted victory of striking down don’t ask, don’t tell, and address ongoing concerns that will continue to be issues, like harassment of gay servicemembers, it’s important to keep fighting for equal rights to serve for all people interested in military service. That includes women, and it includes transgender and intersex servicemembers, who continue to be officially barred from service in all roles (h/t Liz Fong for the link).


  1. Ellie wrote:

    Thank you for posting this. As an ex-military wife, it annoys me to no end that the military is often unwilling to acknowledge what society long has (with, for example striking down Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell) for the fear of creating waves among military members.

    Unfortunately, having met my fair share of soldiers — though it, of course, doesn’t necessarily give me an accurate representation of everyone, or even the majority, in the military — I would say that many of them are very stubborn when it comes to the thought of changing these more traditional policies.

    My ex was 11B (infantry) for a time, and when I would press for an answer as to why women weren’t allowed in direct combat roles, the answer I usually got was along the lines of, “Well, women and men might have sex in the bunkers.” (As if it weren’t happening everywhere else in theatre… And since when, by the way, do most soldiers fight wars these days in bunkers?!) Many other infantry or previously infantry men I spoke with gave me the same answer.

    I’m not sure; maybe most service members have realized that women have the same capacity to serve as men, but aren’t sure about how to integrate such a large change. Either way, your post struck a cord, and thank you for bringing light to a very important issue that isn’t discussed enough.

    Wednesday, September 28, 2011 at 2:07 am | Permalink
  2. Marnie wrote:

    I dated a man in college who had just finished serving on a ship in the US Navy. From this wikipedia page ( ), it appears that the first “mixed male-female crew” was in 1972 meaning few if any of the individuals on the ship had ever known a time before women had been allowed on ships and yet he would tell me how abusive the men were to the women because the men felt indignant that they “now” had to share a ship with women. It had been 25 years of mixed crews but the men were still carrying this torch for a time they didn’t even know.

    The US Military continues to harbor a sort of chauvinism for all people who don’t display a consistent and dogmatic interpretation of classic western masculinity. Even when the laws change, the sort of fraternity mentality of carrying on the traditions (good and bad) of the past, is much harder to change. What’s most irritating about this is it means the people serving today who are women, transexual, gay, lesbian, bi-sexual, or anything else that isn’t “manly-man” have to excel beyond what their peers do just to be treated with basic dignity, if their peers can even muster that.

    Wednesday, September 28, 2011 at 11:55 am | Permalink
  3. Jenn wrote:

    One of my best friends from high school serves one of the only “combat” roles on a Navy ship: she fires their guns and rockets from sea to land-based or air-based targets. Of course, to hear her talk about how some of her male crew members speak about her (and how her male SO and his SOs diminish her role), you’d think she is a wilting flower serving soup in the galley with a smile on her face, waiting to be defended by her virile male crew members.

    Last time she was state-side, she talk to me about how angry she was that a man recently assigned to a similar position was just promoted over her, even though his scores were lower and he had less seniority. She came to find out that she wasn’t even considered for the position, because her chauvinist SO was friendly with almost all of his male subordinates, but had a policy of not inviting his female subordinates to social functions and happy hours — simply because he either didn’t think to be friends with women, or he was wary of being accused of demanding sexual favors for promotions (she couldn’t tell which).

    Military sexism is pervasive — no wonder, considering the overwhelmingly toxic stereotypes of masculinity that pervades the entire organization (as does almost all male-dominated professions and organizations, such as professional sports).

    The segregation and demeaning of the service of women in the military is not good for morale, combat, or efficiency. On the contrary… it’s terrible. It not only reinforces the strict gender essentialism behind toxic masculinity in the military, but it also rewards chauvinism and poisons the entire structure of the organization by passing up worthy servicepeople for promotion in favor of less competent members that meet outdated, bullshit, sexist criteria.

    If, as opponents of integration suggest, women aren’t capable of serving physically/mentally-demanding combat positions, why bar them from doing so? Obviously, if they’re so incapable, they’ll never be promoted or assigned to those positions anyways, since SOs should be capable of selecting the best person for any role. That they are barred from doing so if the person they think is best for the job is transsexual, a woman, or until very recently, LBGQ, is a disservice to the entire country and the efficiency of our military.

    Wednesday, September 28, 2011 at 2:54 pm | Permalink
  4. Val wrote:

    Late in with this…oh well…

    This stuff is cultural and cultures change…all the time…

    Other countries dropped these barriers years ago and…crickets…pretty much.

    Sure, I bet there were problems on an individual level, there ALWAYS are, but if the policy changes and senior officers are tasked with MAKING THE NEW POLICY REALITY in the day to day work of the armed forces…it will become just the way it is faster than naysayers can imagine.

    The Canadian armed forces have had women in “combat” roles for some time. This includes in the infantry, on the front lines, in Afghanistan. Women serve in Canadian submarines, also. I understand the American navy still claims this is “impossible”. USian ultra-tough submariners can’t possibly share their space with women!

    The Canadian forces have had openly gay, lesbian and bi-sexual soldiers since 1992. Same-sex couples can marry on base and receive military benefits and there is policy being written around soldiers trasitioning while serving.

    I’m not going to claim everything is rosy… and, I have never served in Canada’s armed forces, so would never comment on any soldier’s day-to-day experience.

    I am a public servant, though, having worked for the Canadian federal, several provincial and one territorial government. Policies are hugely important for controlling how any part of the public sector operates. They can’t stop people from being bigoted jerks, but they sure provide frameworks to prevent/punish bigots for acting on those attitudes.

    Interestingly, the presence of gay, lesbian and bi-sexual soldiers in the Canadian army has been the subject of at least one large American study looking at effects of their open inclusion. It was done in 2000, so lots of time to see short-term and medium-term effects from the policy change. Study says…no measurable affect upon the effectiveness of the Canadian armed forces.

    It also concluded that assaults against women in service were greatly reduced after the policy change. Interesting…

    An overview can be seen here

    Saturday, October 1, 2011 at 10:14 pm | Permalink
  5. FarmerStina wrote:

    Thank you for this post. I just wrote to my senator, asking her to fix all the problems! But really asking her to look into making it easier for female veterans to get healthcare for PTSD in the short-term, and changing stupid military policies in the long-term.

    Tuesday, October 4, 2011 at 3:11 pm | Permalink