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 In the United States, the discriminatory ‘don’t ask, don’t tell’ policy was finally rescinded, putting the LGBQ in the US military.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).