Friday, October 22, 2004

Women in Combat?

Atrios linked to this piece of news in the 'honorable and unbiased' Washington Times:

The Army is negotiating with civilian leaders about eliminating a women-in-combat ban so it can place mixed-sex support companies within warfighting units, starting with a division going to Iraq in January.
Despite the legal prohibition, Army plans already have included such collocation of women-men units in blueprints for a lighter force of 10 active divisions, according to Defense Department sources.
An Army spokesman yesterday, in response to questions from The Washington Times, said the Army is now in discussions with Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld's staff to see whether the 10-year-old ban in this one area should be lifted. The ban prohibits the Army from putting women in units that "collocate" with ground combatants.
"When that policy was made up, there was a different threat," said Lt. Col. Chris Rodney, an Army spokesman at the Pentagon. "We imagined a more linear combat environment. Now, with the nature of asymmetrical threats, we have to relook at that policy."
Col. Rodney cited the fighting in Iraq as typifying the new threat whereby all soldiers, support or combat, face attack by rockets, mortars, roadside bombs and ambushes.
"Everybody faces a similar threat," he said. "There is no front-line threat right now."
Since the invasion of Iraq in March 2003, the Army has suffered 793 combat deaths, including 24 female soldiers.

The ban is not going to be lifted in direct combat units. What it really means is that women could face the same risk of death but still be denied the greater promotion possibilities that come with being allowed to engage in direct combat.

My opinions on women in the military are both very complicated and very simple: I believe that women should not be barred from fighting and killing and getting killed if men are not barred, but I also believe that nobody should be fighting wars unless there is absolutely no other alternative. There are many women who would not be suited for this task, but there are also many unsuited men. The arguments that crop up about physical power and courage and menstruation and the problem of wild sex among the military have a lot more to do with deeply hidden emotions about sex and misogyny and what it means to be a man than the actual requirements of warfare. Modern warfare does not have much to do with physical power of the explosive sort, for example, and even when it does it's only useful in one-to-one combat which is not that common. Courage is not something only men can show, and the menstruation argument is just plain silly (women have successfully menstruated through all kinds of horrors in history, and if that doesn't reassure the critics, the contraceptive pill can be used to stop menstruation altogether).

What really underlies most of the hesitation about women in combat roles is all these feelings we might have about what it means to be a man, and to a lesser extent, what it means to be a woman. If someone truly believes that boys become men only by going to war, for example, then having women in the military is a bit of a letdown, isn't it? And if someone wants women to carry only nurturing qualities and men to be the protectors of women, a coed military force appears downright blasphemous.

That wars are about killing and getting killed, whatever the sex of the combatants, that wars are horrible and should not be engaged in lightly, that wars are not really over even when peace arrive, these are all more important aspects to consider than whether women should have direct combat roles. And those who quail when thinking about a motherless child of a female soldier killed in combat should think about the fatherless children of all the male soldiers also killed in combat, or perhaps even more to the point, the parentless children of all the civilians, many of them women, who get destroyed as a side-effect of all these splendid wars.