Sunday, October 10, 2010

Women in the military and their restrictions on combat engagement

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At least one female Captain has stated that “[t]he current policy on women in combat is outdated and does not apply to the type of war we are fighting.”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.


Rebecca said...

While woman have gradually been allowed any number of roles within the military behind the front line of combat—including highly demanding jobs such as being a pilot of a refueling aircraft—there remains a cultural taboo in western militaries about a woman serving in a combat role such as infantryman, tank crew member or combat pilot.

The debate about whether women should be in combat roles has been raging for over a decade now. In the past ten years the US and military has considered but has declined to allow it. The recent situation in Iraq has placed female soldiers and marines serving in support units under direct fire. Some women have had to engage with the enemy.

In May 2005 a move was made in the US House of Representatives Armed Services Committee to reduce the roles women can take in the US military, in order to ensure that they do not become involved in combat situations of this type. Even though the US Army opposed this change, the wider debate on women at war remains open.

In discussions I have had with members of Congress on this issue, they privately are concerned about women being too close to combat in Muslim countries because of the issue of capture. It is feared that because of the propensity of public torture of captured military personnel by the Taliban, it would cause an unacceptable level of outrage by the American people. No one wants to see the beheading of a US Marine. But the thought of an American woman being beheaded would be too much for the public to bear.

I am not sure how I feel about this, but it is certainly one explanation for the reluctance of Congress to allow women to serve in combat.

2elle said...

This issue really bugs me and I don't understand why there can't be a gender neutral physical test if someone wants to be involved in combat. I understand that there might be a safety concern if someone doesn't have the physical capabilities, strength or necessary speed for combat... but there are definitely many women that are just as physically fit and as strong as the men in the combat unit.

It's very frustrating that women have to deal with these kinds of biases (in addition to the rampant sexual harassment) while they are serving their country.

Kate said...

The opposition to allowing women into combat actually reminds me of the opposition to allowing women into the workforce in general. It's a highly selective, self-serving “concern” for women that results in equally selective, self-serving definitions of work and combat.

Women shouldn’t work- they should just be on call twenty-four hours a day to cook, clean, and care for kids. Women shouldn’t be in combat- they should just travel in areas where combat is taking place and occasionally fight for their lives. And, of course, since women’s work and combat isn’t real work or combat, they aren’t entitled to the same benefits as the men who officially work and are officially in combat.

All of that’s not even getting into the millions of Afghan and Iraqi women who are also in the middle of combat zones, but somehow don’t merit the same “concern” as American women do. Again, I see parallels to the way the debate on women in the workforce often ignores the working class women and women of color who have usually had no choice but to work outside the home.

As Rebecca mentions, the debate over women in combat has been going on for well over a decade now. I actually remember discussing the issue with one of my eighth grade teachers. Interestingly, his concern was not that women could not handle the physical or mental components of combat, but that women were more at risk for sexual assault. His fear wasn’t that women were worse at handling danger, but rather that women genuinely faced more danger.

I’m reminded of MacKinnon’s observation that the chosen “solution” to the risk of rape is often removing women, rather than changing the conditions that create women's rapability. As 2elle notes, there have been many scandals in the past decade regarding sexual harassment and assault of not just women in the military, but also of men in the military and of detainees. I think it’s clear at this point that we need to tackle the problem of sexual violence in the military head on, for the benefit of everyone, rather than using it as yet another excuse to keep women out of the jobs they choose.