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On Women in Combat (Roles)

January 28, 2013, 4:58 pm

It’s about time. The reality, of course, is that women have been in combat for a long time, and nowhere more than in the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan, where the front lines rarely exist except in the most fluid way. This is exemplified by the awarding of Silver Stars–the nation’s third highest medal for valor–to two women, one in Iraq and one in Afghanistan.

I covered a fair bit of this in 2009:

The integration of woman into the armed forces over the last several decades has been a contentious and slow process, with an enormous amount of resistance to the idea of women serving both from within and without the military. The debate over women in the military presaged and in some ways predicted the debate of gays in the military. Women would destroy combat cohesion; they were physically weaker than men and would be unable to handle the physical requirements of military life; they would distract the male soldiers; they would get pregnant and have to be discharged. The result is the current official policy, which limits women from performing combat roles, but has opened a broad range of other responsibilities.

Like Korea, that distinction is breaking down under the stress of two wars. First, because in a war with fluid front-lines–if any at all–even women supposedly out of reach of combat find themselves in the middle of a firefight. Second, and more importantly, the need for certain capabilities, skills, and warm bodies, has overridden military reluctance to put women in harm’s way…In essence, as often happens in the military, strictures and prejudices that were perceived as absolutely fundamental in peacetime rapidly become luxuries in wartime.

The military continues to have a serious issue with sexual assault and a long way to go before it handles it effectively. What is not a real problem is the question of physical capabilities of women versus men. Militaries use the physical capabilities of the people they have given to them. To quote myself from a 2003 H-War thread (again! Sorry!):

The physical minimums to enlist in the British Army in World War I were much lower than they are today. The height requirement was 5’3″ (and for a period, the British were taking men down to 5’0” and putting them in special “Bantam” battalions). The chest requirement varied by height, but at 5’3”, it was 34 inches expanded. These standards were the same before the start of the war. (Coincidentally, the height of the average American woman is around 5’3.5″ and chest size is 34, exclusive of breasts.) Nor were these men necessarily paragons of physical strength. Many working-class men had to struggle to make the height and chest minimums. (During the early years of the war, the medical exams were so spotty upon enlistment that boys as young as 12 successfully joined up, as did one man who had a withered left arm, and one who seems to have suffered from epilepsy).

Once they were in, they were subjected to a basic training that emphasized strength and endurance, mostly 5-10 mile marches carrying full pack (in the 60-80 pound range).

These men were considered physically capable of being soldiers.

The point is not that having stronger and fitter soldiers is not better, but that there are no definitive standards on what makes a soldier. Children are frequently and without conscience used as soldiers, and they are much smaller and weaker than adults. In fact, I’m going to link to another post in that H-War thread, as it gives a lovely and quite detailed discussion of how the invocation of physical standards is often just coded cultural argumentation:

So my argument is not about biology, but rather how we use biological arguments to make biology appear more determinant than merits the case. Women in all walks of life are demonstrating that they can succeed in endeavors that our culture once thought only men could do, let alone succeed. Yet, the language that is frequently used to discuss that historic development is derived from traditional emotional sentiments. And so there is a gap between what we see and the language with which we use to describe or explain what we see. Much recent history or policy analysis about women in the military or women in combat is an example of that gap.

Keeping women out of combat roles (and out of the military before that) was an indulgence, one whose time had long since passed.

UPDATE: As Vostra Guida notes in the comment section, this means it’s likely that women could be subject to the draft.

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