The New York Times (“NYT”) recently profiled female Marines serving in Afghanistan. According to the article, the American military sent 40 female Marines to Afghanistan as part of “an unusual experiment” to create full-time “female engagement teams” to accompany all-male patrols in a particular rural region where men are culturally off limits from Afghan women.
According to NYT, the mission for these female Marines is to win over Afghan women by meeting with the women over tea in their homes, assessing their needs for aid, gathering intelligence, and assisting in building schools and clinics. This seven-month deployment is nearing an end, and the mission has been deemed a success. The article notes, however, that these Marines have also been involved in combat situations – such as firefights, ambushes, bombings, and base attacks – thereby sidestepping military rules restricting women in combat.
As stated by NYT, current military policy prohibits women from “combat” branches such as the infantry, armor, and Special Forces. Apparently, Congress has even tried to restrict women’s role in the military even more. However, possibly as a sign of the practical necessities of the military, women have been skirting these rules for nearly a decade in Iraq and in Afghanistan. To comply with the combat prohibition rule, women simply “attach,” rather than assign, to combat branches; female engagement teams simply “accompany” Marine infantry units.
In late summer 2010 the military reviewed and clarified certain rules: (1) female engagement teams could not go on foot patrols with the primary purpose of hunting and killing enemies; and (2) the female engagement teams were only allowed “temporary stays” of 45 days at combat bases. To satisfy the language of the latter rule, every six weeks female Marines travel from their combat stations for an overnight stay at a larger base camp before returning back to the combat outposts.
At least one female Captain has stated that “[t]he current policy on women in combat is outdated and does not apply to the type of war we are fighting.” The author of the NYT article notes that the Marines promote an image as “the most testosterone-fueled service,” and that the Marines are a long way from allowing women in the infantry. The remainder of the article offers a glimpse into the minds and typical days of three female Marines, but the author does not substantially probe the basis for the combat prohibition rule.
The most likely reason that I can think for this dual standard is a preconception that women cannot or should not handle the physical and/or mental requirements for combat situations. If so, this rationale seems rather presumptuous and calls to mind other prejudicial notions of what women are or are not capable of doing. It may be a biological fact that women are, generally speaking, physically smaller than men, but this may not necessarily hold true on an individualized basis for women and men who serve in the armed forces. A woman who wishes to serve in a Marine combat unit may be more physically-capable or more mentally-prepared than a similarly situated male Marine, but the military’s rules do not allow for this variability. Instead, the military applies a hard and fast rule that possibly rests on a questionable foundation.
Moreover, a comparison of the black-letter of the rules versus the real-world operation of the rules highlights the ineffective restriction that the rules impose. One rule prohibits female teams from going on foot patrols to hunt and kill enemies. According to NYT, however, female Marines involuntarily become engaged in combat situations simply as a result of doing their jobs. These types of situations basically boil down to "kill or be killed." From a practical standpoint, it does not make sense to prohibit female Marines from engaging in combat with a purpose when the military is placing them in situations where they will inevitably have to engage in combat anyway. Similarly, the “temporary stay” rule does not seem to serve any actual purpose when female Marines can, and do, circumvent the rule by complying with the black letter, but not the spirit, of the rule.
In conclusion, the military may have valid reasons for prohibiting women from serving in combat branches, but as a categorical rule, such a wholesale restriction along gender and sex lines seems suspect to me because I cannot think of why an individual’s gender or sex should factor in to one’s ability to join a combat unit. Furthermore, in the real world, female Marines sidestep these rules anyway, thus evincing a certain reality which the military's rules do not reflect.