Friday, November 6, 2009

On the front lines?

With the celebration of Veteran’s Day approaching, I thought it would be interesting to discuss the role of women in the United States military. Several excellent posts on this blog have delved into the topic, and the issues they raise are quite fascinating. After doing some research on my own, I was most intrigued by the various justifications for the still existing Department of Defense policy (Section A) that women are not permitted to participate in direct ground combat.

The history of American women in combat is quite rich, stretching all the way back to the Revolutionary War, in which Deborah Sampson impersonated a man in order to enlist in the Continental Army. As time passed, the role of women in warfare gradually expanded. According to the Alliance for National Defense, the Vietnam War saw the first women trained as naval aviators, and since the early 1990s women have been eligible for combat duty and to serve as combatants in the Air Force, Navy, Coast Guard and in the Navy, Marine and Army aviation specialties.

In spite of the expanded role of women in combat, Department of Defense policy still excludes women from participating in “direct ground combat,” defined asengaging an enemy with individual or crew-served weapons while being exposed to direct enemy fire, a high probability of direct physical contact with the enemy by fire, maneuver, or shock effect in order to destroy or capture, or while repelling assault by fire, close combat, or counterattack.”

But why? Numerous justifications for the exclusion policy have been proffered, but are they legitimate?

A common justification is that females soldiers do not on average possess as much physical strength as male soldiers, making it impossible for women to perform certain combat duties, such as performing damage control to save naval vessels hit by enemy fire. Even if we assume it is empirically true that most female servicewomen do not possess physical strength equal to males, it is still the case that some females do measure up to men. In the example of naval damage control discussed in the above link, none of the tasks had female failure rates of 100%. Some women could do everything that satisfactory males could do. Is it fair to deny even those women the right to serve their country in combat?

It is also important to mention the inherent arbitrariness in using male performance as the standard by which women should be judged. It may be difficult to define exactly what level of strength is “good enough” when it comes to combat, irrespective of sex comparisons. But it isn’t a logical necessity that more strength = better soldier. If a female infantry soldier can handle her pack, fire her weapon, and maneuver effectively, does it really matter that she can’t bench press as much weight as her male comrades?

Maybe it is na├»ve of a civilian law student who has never even held a rifle to make these assertions, but at the very least, I don’t see how physical strength alone can be a justification for excluding even those individual women who are as strong as their squad-mates.

So if even women who meet the male standards of physical strength aren’t fit for the front lines, there must be another reason. Kingsley Browne, law professor at Wayne State in Michigan, puts forth several. For instance, he mentions studies showing that women suffer from psychological symptoms such as post-traumatic disorder (PTSD) at higher rates than men. Again, this would seem to unfairly generalize. For example, many women serving as police officers are exposed to trauma, but we don’t preclude them from being cops simply because they are more likely to suffer from PTSD. It is arguable that warfare is not analogous to police duty. However, it seems fair to infer from the fact that women can and do participate in life-threatening work as police officers that the utility gained from their service outweighs the potential problems created by a greater vulnerability to PTSD.

In addition, as other posts have noted, the need for female soldiers on the front lines is quite great, especially in Iraq, where male soldiers are not permitted to physically search female civilians. In fact, the need is so great that the military violates Department of Defense policy and does allow women to engage in direct ground combat when they are attacked while performing their support roles. If the need for female combat troops is large enough that the military is willing to break its own rules, shouldn’t that trump any psychological concerns about women who want to fight? Again, even if a larger percentage of female combat troops then male become combat ineffective for psychological reasons, the women who can cope are sorely needed. Why keep them out?

If a woman has the physical and mental strength to be just as good as a male soldier, are there other reasons not to let her? For Kingsley Browne, evolution is that other reason. “The reason men don’t like women comrades in dangerous situations is they don’t trust them when the shooting starts, and that is probably because women don’t possess whatever cues evoke trust in men,” says Browne. Along similar lines, it has been argued that female combat troops would lower unit morale by introducing distractions such as sexual misconduct and pregnancies.

I am tempted to dismiss sexual misconduct and pregnancies as reasons to exclude women from direct ground combat out of hand, but if we suppose for the sake of argument that this is a problem, they still don’t seem to be valid justifications. Sexual relations themselves require the participation of two people. If sex were to ruin group cohesion, men would be just as culpable as women for doing so. To hold otherwise would be akin to saying either that men are uncontrollable beasts who must be kept away from women for their own good, or women are just temptresses who can’t put their desires aside in order to do their jobs.

These notions seem really antique. The same response applies to pregnancies. Pregnancies require two participants, and if both mother and father are soldiers, why blame it only on the woman?

What about Browne's idea that evolution itself dictates that combat unit morale would be harmed by the mere presence of women? Again, even if there were a grain of truth to this, it seems to unfairly take men as the unchangeable standard. Because the dominance of men in combat is a given, and most male soldiers don’t want females fighting by their side, women are out. Intuitively, it is true that more men than women will seek direct ground combat duty. But is majority a sufficient reason to exclude qualified and desperately needed female soldiers from doing what they want to do, or at the very least getting the training they need if they are going to be subjected to enemy fire while performing support duties?

I don’t think so. Human behavior is quite malleable. Men have learned to accept and respect the participation of women in many walks of life. It is true that combat may be a very unique case. But if the military gave female soldiers the same level of training and respect, maybe male soldiers could learn to respect them as well. Maintaining a strong fighting force is important to the safety of a nation, but that doesn’t necessitate the exclusion of women. In fact, on today's battlefields, it seems to necessitate their inclusion.

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