[Disclaimer: I re-edited this on May 12, 2012 after a lengthy discussion with a friend of mine who is a veteran Infantryman who served in the Middle East. He gave me some incredible insight, and I wanted to be thorough. I apologize for how long this is. -CR]
A friend of mine approached me about a month ago with some questions regarding lifting of the ban on women in the infantry. Victoria, who spend several years in the Army ROTC Program at university, is well-versed in military terminology. However, if you’re a civilian like me, you may not know that the different between infantry and the rest of the armed forces is this: the infantry consists of the soldiers that fight on foot, in face-to-face combat. I imagine you’d be correct in assuming that members of the infantry face some of the most dangerous situations in wartime and face a gruelling amount of physical challenges. And, until recently, women were not allowed in the infantry.
Don’t confuse infantry with active duty – women have been a part of active duty deployment in increasingly large numbers for many years. However, in January of this year, Defense Secretary Leon Panetta rescinded the 1994 Pentagon policy that banned women, who now make up about 14% of active-duty military personnel, from combat.
Let’s take a quick look at how women already impact the US Military. There are currently 214,098 women in the active duty military, 118,781 women in the reserves, and 470,851 women in the National Guard. That translates to only about 14.6%, 19.5%, 15.5% respectively. Up until recently, these women had access to about 92% of the jobs available to them.
The restricted 8% of jobs were direct combat roles. This idea suggests that female service members are thusly protected from harm’s way, which is not always the case. In the roles that women were allotted, many argued that they were exposed to just as much immediate danger as an infantry men, such as IEDs and the like. Army Staff Sgt. Jennifer Hunt, who was injured in 2007 by a roadside bomb in Iraq, was quoted to have said that “right before the IED went off, it didn’t ask me how many push-ups or sit-ups I could do. Right now the women who are serving are being engaged in combat, so their physical restrictions aren’t a barrier.”
Women have been a part of US warfare since the American Revolution. Whether they were in support roles, in the medical tent, or on the front lines, they have always been there. It was only in the last century that women were allowed to officially join the military. They were allowed to have support jobs, secretarial positions, and test equipment that would later be used in war by men.
As the US has evolved in the type of warfare it engages in, so too have the needs of missions and personnel. Women have been attached to combat units, envoys, and served as medics for front-line work. Over 100 women have died fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan, and hundreds more have been injured.
Why is this the case, if women were not previously allowed in the infantry? Servicewomen are increasingly coming face to face with combat as combat is coming to meet them. Rocket launchers, IEDs, and ambushes have put many women on the “front” line, fighting for their lives alongside their male counterparts.
My friend made the point that as a veteran Infantryman, anyone not involved in face-to-face combat who encounters an IED or the like is, sadly, usually at the wrong place at the wrong time. The Infantry accepts the inevitability of bombs and snipers and whatnot on a daily basis. However, you still can’t argue that women have been risking their safety for a while now – and if they are willing to assume that risk in order to serve their country alongside their fellow soldiers, why not let them?
Furthermore, soldiers who serve in combat typically win more medals and awards. This counts towards promotion. While only going into the Infantry in order to get medals and valor seems awful to me, not being eligible for such recognitions because you can’t be in the infantry means you are not eligible for promotion. Therefore, women are being kept from promotion due to their exclusion for face-to-face combat. Does that seem fair?
Infantry requirements are typically based off of a physical fitness evaluation and can be seen here.
There is still a very anti-woman sentiment about mixing the sexes in the infantry, with a laundry list of reasons why.
What were (are) some of those reasons?
1. They can’t cut it physically. Physiologically, they’re just different and would slow teams down.
2. They would be a distraction to the men, and the mission would fail if a woman were hurt because the men would try to ‘save’ her instead of fighting the enemy.
3. It would only increase the amount of sexual assault and harassment.
4. The risk of pregnancy would be a hindrance to deployment.
5. Men and women cannot form the “band of brothers” connection to each other and the mission would be thusly compromised.
Let’s really think about these reasons.
1. I will not argue that a woman’s physiology is different from a man’s. That’s kind of the distinguishing factor in the sexes. But by saying a woman’s physiology is ‘different,’ are you also insinuating that it is inferior to or less than a man’s? Women who have been attached to combat units in Iraq and Afghanistan have already shown they can carry just as much gear for just as much amount of time. And honestly, when you’re carrying upwards of 70lbs of gear, it doesn’t matter what your genitalia is, you’re miserable just like everyone else. There are plenty of men who struggle with that as well. Don’t say that women couldn’t possibly keep up with the physical duress required for combat, Ranger, or Seal jobs when over 90% of men who try for Special Forces, or Navy Seals don’t make it either. Those jobs are just hard for everyone.
Furthermore, people feel that the evaluation of women’s ability to perform physically under modified standard testing is unfair. Therefore, if standards are lowered in order to encourage more women to join infantry, our army would be weakened. However, the physical fitness program is evidently actually intended only to maintain the general fitness and health of military members and fitness testing is not aimed at assessing the ability to perform specific missions or military jobs. Furthermore, some would make the claim that “invisible standards” are in place for higher ranked men and older servicemen exist in order to maintain the status quo.
We do not believe that physical fitness standards should be lowered to accommodate women. We also recognize that two women have recently failed the Marine’s fitness test. Are men physically stronger than women? Well, yes and no. Women on average are more flexible, and men have more muscle mass. Then again, that is the average of the everyday person, not the Infantry. Also, I bet you these girls could meet infantry standards. I bet there are unsung women out there who could pummel an Infantryman without breaking a sweat. As long as the scoring is done fairly, I imagine that if the military would fairly divide the masses in to “fit” and “unfit,” there would be men and women in both groups – any disparity in the numbers may be a cultural thing (men being encouraged to be fit and join the military more so than women) just as much as anything else.
My friend made a good point – rather than concern ourselves with men’s standards and women’s standards, we should enforce Infantry standards. Whoever meets them is eligible, genitals nonwithstanding.
What about menstruation? This has also been brought up as a physiological difference which could adversely affect the mission-readiness and responsiveness of a unit. Well, women deal with it all the time. Terrorists, as they are biologically different from sharks, can’t smell blood to draw them closer. Menstruation does not make a woman weaker, or slower, or forget her training. All it means is that she carries pads, tampons, and some Midol with her. While menstruation is never an enjoyable experience, I can tell you that women have been doing it and carrying on with their lives for thousands of years.
If you’re honestly that concerned about PMS as a hindrance to the mission, well, just remember this quote from Victoria: “Give her gun, and point her in the direction of the bad guys.”
2. It’s awful when people get injured in combat. There are plenty of men who go to rescue their battle buddies in the heat of the fight, and it’s rewarded with medals: applauded as valor and courage. And I fully agree. It is a courageous and heroic thing when a soldier risks his life for his friends. Why is this different if the friend/other wounded soldier is a woman? Why is it ‘compromising the mission’ or ‘forgetting training’ if the injured soldier is a woman? Why does gender take away the courage and valor?
Would a woman soldier be considered just as courageous, and have just as much valor if she risked her life for a male soldier? Or would you devalue it with ‘love interest’ as an excuse?
If you know anything about the training regarding combat, the main rule of thumb is this: subdue the enemy before attending to your injured personnel. If two or more people are taken off the fight to help a friend, you could compromise more of the team and have more injured or killed people on your hands. And soldiers train for this very intensely.
So tell me, what is the difference if the injured soldier is a woman? Are men so vulnerable to the plight of women that they instantly forget everything they’ve ever learned and act stupid thereby screwing everything up? No.
Let’s give these people some credit. A part of the soldier’s creed is “I am an expert, and a professional.” Soldiers act with expertise and professionalism through continual training all the time. Training builds confidence and trust within a team to do their job well. And if someone acts with incredible courage and valor during battle, leave gender out of it.
It’s been difficult for the military to implement a ‘zero-policy’ for anything, but keep trying. If there are men who cannot fight alongside a woman, maybe those men aren’t cut out for combat. It’s up to all members of a team to stop bad attitudes, and stop disputes. Bad attitudes towards women should also be stopped. If someone won’t, get them out because they’ll only harm the team. That bad attitude is indicative of more problems they will cause.
3. Sexual assault is a terrible thing, especially if it’s from your peers. Sadly, this already occurs at increasing and alarming rates. More alarmingly, men are increasingly victims of sexual assault from members of their own team as well.
Therefore, sexual assault has less to do with gender and far more to do with power and control.
Perhaps the most alarming part of this is the military has a zero-tolerance policy for sexual assault and harassment that is somewhat poorly enforced. The frequently mentioned “joking around” and absurdist humor exhibited by soldiers is already potentially scrutinized as sexual harassment between males (especially with the repeal of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell). So before people start saying there will be more assault if women are allowed in combat (which they already are under the ‘attachment’ clause) need to open their eyes and address what is happening already.
Are we saying that women won’t be targeted more heavily? Of course, they probably will be. However, she is a soldier. She is already doing a job that puts her life on the line. I imagine that a soldier, regardless of gender, understands they are assuming a great deal of risk by stepping into a war zone. Furthermore, as much as I hate to say this, women live their entire lives with the threat of rape. One in every four women has been raped or assaulted in their life. Being a soldier doesn’t change that.
I believe that our soldiers are at their core focused people who can see the past gender and to the task at hand, and would like to give them credit as such.
However, for a zero-tolerance policy to work, you need enforcement. Enforcement cannot just come from the top; it needs to be a culture of enforcement that everyone is a part of.
4. Regarding the risk of pregnancy while fighting overseas, I absolutely do not see a problem with a pregnancy test as part of a physical health assessment as a deployment requirement. While I understand this sort of thing in a different context (such as in schools or whatnot), this would be an unacceptable invasion of privacy. However, this, literally, is war – pregnancy is a physical condition and I don’t see the issue with ruling it out.
5.The final thought – the “band of brothers” ideology – is probably the hardest issue to address simply because it forces people to stop being stubborn. My friend had mentioned to me about Infantry school – something I, as a civilian, didn’t know existed. Infantry school is about fourteen weeks of essential training regarding combat, shooting, tanks, and whatever other skills are needed. Women don’t typically attend infantry training, but they do attend similar school such as Airborne and Air Assault School. According to my friend, these schools (while not necessarily at infantry standards) are tailored around Infantry schools. While I certainly never attended such a school, I feel that with the continuity of setup, “integration” of women into the Infantry unit will be a fairly easy process as long as the other soldiers can keep and open mind about it. I think normalizing men and women together in this arena would then normalize men and women being deployed together. I believe that forming bonds here leads to forming bonds overseas. It must have been uncomfortable for the first women to attend co-ed universities or black folks to send their kids to formerly all-white schools (or for black folks to enter the army, for that matter), but the mixing was completed and now people don’t (or at least shouldn’t) blink an eye when they walk into their lecture hall and see a girl or a black person or whomever sitting at a desk.
Women have a sense of humor, too. We can form deep platonic bonds with our peers. And as long as our male soldiers can abide by the golden rule, “don’t be that guy,” I don’t see why there would be a problem. Do women really make you that uncomfortable? If that’s the case, then I think there is something else that needs to be addressed.
In the military, you are first and foremost a soldier. As your creed says, you are an expert and a professional. So act like it.
“There are things we can do to ensure all of members receive equal support, opportunities, and fairness, with respect to a high quality of professional and personal life.”
“The Department of Defense understands that providing equal opportunities for the women and girls associated with the Department of Defense not only promotes excellence, and a stronger force and Nation, but also serves as a role model for the other federal agencies and the Nation at large.”
My great-great-aunt was Lieutenant Colonel in World War II, and would have been ranked even higher if women were allowed to be ranked higher. Lieutenant Colonel Margaret Kimpton – you may have heard of her. She has a certificate of honour, signed by many Congressmen, including Charlie Wilson. She was an incredible woman, and having more like her will not hurt our armed forces in any way.
By opening up combat to women (officially) we will have a stronger military. Women add perspective, access, and strength to teams, so let them. All soldiers must prove themselves, women more so sometimes, so let them. Stop putting artificial barriers up because it’s “too different” or it disrupts your last semblance of a boy’s club.
Women, as everyone knows, are becoming more and more prevalent in the military. Furthermore, openly homosexual servicemen and women may serve in the military after Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell was repealed. The military is becoming more and more integrated – this is the direction things are going.
My friend also said something that I believe sums all of this up beautifully.
“Can you do your job?
Can I count on you to do your job?
If yes, I am proud to have you fight at my side.”
“‘It’s a risk,’ I say. ‘More than that.’ It’s my life on the line; but that’s where it will be sooner or later, one way or another, whether I do or don’t. We both know this.”
-Margaret Atwood, The Handmaid’s Tale