Warfare has for centuries been the sole province of men, providing a rite of passage for male-dominated societies the world over. The notion that women can function as soldiers – and that fighting units can function with women – is a new one, but there is ample evidence to show that women belong in combat and that the team concept that is so important to a fighting unit is not threatened by gender integration.
The Right to Fight: Achieving Gender Equality on the Battlefield
Warfare has always been, with only very limited exceptions, the work of men. No modern society relies, and virtually no premodern society relied, on women as combat soldiers. – Kingsley Browne.
Since Homer’s time, warfare has been the definitive male rite of passage. It is so inextricably linked to the essence of what it means to be a man in Western society that nothing is comparable. Symbols can be powerful cultural markers, and the spear of Ares and the mirror of Aphrodite are still profoundly important tokens of gender identity. That identity means that women behave according to their feminine nature, and men act based on their masculine impulses. In America, sports reinforce the same basic message that many primitive societies imparted to their young men: a male could not claim status as a man until he had distinguished himself in battle (Browne, 2007).
Today, women have achieved equality in many fields of endeavor that once were the sole province of men. The most notable among these is warfare. Women advanced into battle, shoulder-to-shoulder with their male compatriots, risking death and dismemberment in Iraq, Afghanistan and other hot spots. Men and women have not changed significantly, at least not physically. Yet technology has had a profound impact on the nature of combat. High-tech weaponry, and a higher-than-ever degree of specialization in modern armed forces have made it possible, even desirable, for women to contribute on the battlefield and behind the scenes. More importantly, these new opportunities have made it possible for women to show what they can do in the line of fire. The result of all this is that women are integral to America’s armed forces, a situation that would have been inconceivable just a few decades ago.
In Co-ed Combat: The New Evidence that Women Shouldn’t Fight the Nation’s Wars, Kinsgley Browne argues that the secret to esprits de corps, that “x factor” that determines how well soldiers fight as a unit, is good, old-fashioned male bonding. Soldiers who are under fire risk their lives together, which creates a special psychological link that is uniquely male. “A striking feature of men’s wartime memoirs is the deep emotional connection they display toward their comrades, a connection often compared favorably in strength to the male-female bond” (Browne, 2007). This is an ancient tradition, one that characterized the Greek hoplite units that marched in lock-step, one soldier protecting with his shield the exposed flank of the infantryman next to him. Of course, the “male-female bond” had a meaning of its own within the Greek fighting units where homosexuality was considered beneficial in the sense that it strengthened the bond between soldiers.
Other observers take a different view of the bonding factor. One school of thought asserts that the kind of inter-personal relationships implied in male bonding are actually counter-productive from a military standpoint. The “team” concept that military organizations seek to inculcate are businesslike in nature. Instead, it is argued that “task-bonding” is the ideal for which the military strives because it fosters relationships within the context of teamwork (Fenner and DeYoung, 2001). Within this definition, women not only have a place but may be necessary in that the team requires multiple talents and characteristics to reach its full functional potential. “To be successful, the sum of their efforts must be greater than their individual efforts. Team members should not all be the same size and have the same skills if the team is to be successful” (Ibid).
Thus, the old notion that male bonding is essential to the functioning of a fighting unit breaks down according to a more modern definition of “team.” This is also true in team sports, which have for decades been integrated. Women take part in team sports at the high school and college levels at a higher rate than ever before. (Watching the U.S. women’s soccer team compete in the World Cup, it is hard to believe that anyone could harbor skepticism about women forming tight bonds in a competitive environment.) Today, women are professional soccer and basketball players. Not only are females capable of competing at a remarkably high level, they are capable of competing alongside men. In this, we can see that bonding does not necessarily have to break down along gender lines, that there is not necessarily an overwhelming sexual polarity at work in the team dynamic (Fenner and DeYoung, 2001).
Of course, the most important examples are to be found within the military itself. There are numerous examples of men and women bonding as combat colleagues capable of collaborating strictly as soldiers for the greater good of unit and country. In fact, studies have shown that the more stressful the situation, the more successfully men and women come together as soldiers” (Ibid). A study of male and female students at the U.S. Air Force Academy revealed that students form relationships that are well worth maintaining once they enter the service. “These young men and women bond so strongly…that their leaders know it will be problematic if they cannot transfer primary loyalty to the larger institution and the military mission in general to uphold the Constitution” (Ibid).
So much for male – female friendships in school and training – but what happens when men and women come together in the most critical combat situations? Can men function without feeling as though they need to protect women in their command, and doesn’t that dynamic threaten the safety of all concerned? According to many military experts, the presence of women in a combat unit makes no appreciable difference. “The general concept of women in the infantry is that the squad bonds,” said Army Major Mary Finch. “If women train with their units, the members will know she can and will do her job…The guys will accommodate her” (Skaine, 1999). Others say the nature of modern warfare and the weapons used to prosecute it effectively takes gender out of the equation. High-tech artillery and highly accurate surface-to-surface missiles make men and women soldiers equally vulnerable and indiscriminate targets (Ibid).
For others, it’s a simple matter of motivation. Women who are inspired to fight for their country do so for the same reason as men and should be respected for their choice. Young women want to go to college, learn job skills and accrue benefits just as young men do and are willing to do their hitch and assume the same risks. They also pay the same price when things don’t go as planned. When SPC Christine Mayes was killed, her fiancée commented that her situation was no more or less remarkable than any other soldier, and that her gender had nothing to do with it. When it came down to it, she was a soldier killed in action in the Gulf War. “She didn’t really want to be over there any more than the rest of them, but that’s what she got paid for; that’s what she did” (Ibid.) Nevertheless, it’s still difficult for many not to distinguish between men and women soldiers when it comes to battlefield casualties.
Operation Desert Shield/Sword marked a kind of turning point for women in combat. Officially speaking, women did not serve in “combat” positions, though there were women casualties. The media has been, in general, remarkably slow to express widespread support for women in combat, reflecting what may be called the general opinion of the public at large. Part of the struggle, admittedly, has been the media’s reticence when it comes to overlooking the image of women as wives/mothers/caregivers. As recently as the Gulf War the press was guilty of this kind of objectivization, categorizing women who sincerely desired to serve alongside men. Images in the media at the time showed “these battle-dressed ‘mommies’ tearfully hugging their babies good-bye, sensationalized sexual activities between men and women in the field, and exaggerated pregnancy rates among deployed servicewomen” (Simon, 2001). At best, they were labeled “damagers of readiness;” at worst “sexual distractions” (Ibid).
This unfortunate state of affairs has its roots firmly in the 20th century. Women have been present in combat situations for centuries, but World War II brought them into contact with life-threatening situations at an unprecedented level. More than 400 American women died in circumstances termed “non-combat,” and women made contributions on many levels other than nursing or logistical support. Women served as interpreters, interrogators and as intelligence operatives, often in life-threatening situations. Nevertheless, after the war men remained steadfastly against, even hostile toward, the very suggestion that women might be assets in combat situations. Women who served with distinction in the Pacific were denied medals because it angered men. They were called “whores” or “lesbians” (Skaine, 1999).
Events from recent years cannot be said to have helped the situation. The Tailhook incident from 1991 probably set the cause of women in the military back 10 years. Well-publicized attempts to integrate women in venerable all-male military institutions, such as VMI and The Citadel, were horrific examples of gender discrimination, yet reinforced among many the feeling that women don’t belong in traditional male military roles. If females couldn’t handle the hazing or the rigorous male code at The Citadel, the thinking went, how could they be expected to hold up under actual fire? Operation Desert Shield/Storm helped change the paradigm, though even at that the military establishment resisted U.S. Rep. Pat Schroeder’s recommendation that some women be assigned to combat situations. Schroeder’s ideas were turned down, with policy setters insisting that the military was no place to conduct a “social experiment” and certainly not in life-and-death combat scenarios (Skaine, 1999).
Integration has, of course, become a fact of life but it can’t be considered a “slam dunk.” In spite of the advantages to be derived from women serving in the military, it still represents a major change in the military’s modus operandi, and a fundamental change in philosophy. Statistics bear out the fact that it has been anything but a seamless transition. Since gender integration, attrition rates for first-term Army soldiers have reached record highs (Simon, p. 137). Attrition sat at about 20 percent in the early1990s; after integration, that figure reached 37 percent in 1996 and was flirting with 50 percent by the year 2000 (Ibid). “In the Army, overwhelming data on attrition rates refutes the conclusions of soldier surveys that suggest gender integration is a military success. (Ibid). Other symptoms include domestic violence and sexual imposition, though these have not amounted to chronic problems.
In many ways, the military mirrors the customs and prejudices of the society from which it is drawn. As such, it is not surprising that there should be difficulties creating a gender-integrated fighting force that protects a country that harbors gender-sensitive perspectives in so many walks of life. As long as it’s taken to bring gender equality to America’s military, the most constructive view may be that it has happened at all. Civil rights weren’t a reality for African-Americans until more than a century after the Civil War, but it did finally come about. Winston Churchill once said that Americans always do the right thing after exhausting every other possible alternative. One may say that women were given the opportunity to show what they can do in combat only after nearly every excuse for not including them was proposed. If that is the case, then justice was served when women were given the right to serve.
Browne, K. (2007). Co-Ed Combat: The New Evidence that Women Shouldn’t Fight the Nation’s Wars. New York: Penguin Group. 89, 135.
Fenner, L.M. and DeYoung, M. (2001). Women in Combat: Civic Duty or Military Liability? Washington, DC: Georgetown University Press. 17, 19.
Simon, R.J. (2001). Women in the Military. Piscataway, NJ: Transaction Publishers. 17, 137.
Skaine, R. (1999). Women at War: Gender Issues of Americans in Combat. Jefferson, NC: McFarland and Company, Inc. 57, 170.