Women of honor
Opportunities and opposition for females on the front lines
In a historic decision, the Pentagon dropped its ban on women in the U.S. Armed Forces serving in combat roles, a move which has been met with much excitement and apprehension.
The order was signed Jan. 24 by Defense Secretary Leon Panetta and Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. Though it will continue to be under review and its effects will likely not be seen until as late as 2016, it has become a hot-button issue that has brought up questions on both sides of gender equality, physical aptitude and the nature of war itself.
Nathan J. Hoepner, an assistant professor of military science at Fresno State and a retired lieutenant colonel, said that the decision simply reflects the reality of the nature of modern war.
When dealing with counter-insurgency operations, as is the case with the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, there are not clearly defined front lines or rear areas, he said, and many women were already serving in combat roles.
“A lot of people were involved in combat situations or under the threat of combat situations, no matter what your job was, if you were inside Iraq or inside Afghanistan,” Hoepner said. “So I think we’re merely reflecting reality at this point.”
Though women in the military have been faced with these types of combat situations for the past 11 years in the Middle East, the official policy was that women were not allowed to serve on the front lines. Policy reviews began a few years ago, Hoepner said, but the combat exclusion policy goes back to 1994.
“But as the realities of war become more obvious,” he said, “the Department of Defense began reviewing this policy. It’s still an ongoing process.”
Blain Roberts, an assistant professor of U.S. women’s history at Fresno State, said that the exclusion of women in front-line combat is a result of a long history of “deep-seated, cultural constructs that say that women should not be placed in certain situations.
“But, I think within the last couple decades, these ideas have kind of lost their currency,” Roberts said, “and more and more Americans, I think, are starting to see women are capable of doing these same jobs that men are doing in the military.”
Sgt. Krista Brown, a member of the Fresno State veterans fraternity Omega Delta Sigma, said that females have already been filling combat roles, but have not been able to be listed in that particular combat MOS, or military occupational specialty.
After being a part of the military for four years and serving in Iraq for 12 months, she feels that it means a lot to women to be treated as equals for performing the same duties as men.
“I think we’ve finally found our place. I think we’ve been in combat,” Brown said. “We’ve been in multiple deployments, and finally people are realizing that we’re just as capable as any of the men out there, and it’s time for us to step up and fill those roles.”
Megan Maloy, cadet battalion executive officer in the Fresno State Reserve Officers’ Training Corps (ROTC), said that this change comes as a result of shifting perspectives of military leaders.
“They’re accepting newer ways and seeing that females are able to participate at the same level as males,” Maloy said. “And women are fighting for equality rights, so I think it was time for the Army to start implementing this because they have come so far as an organization.”
Bruce Thornton, a professor of classics and humanities at Fresno State, said that due to the special nature of the military, from its structure to its purpose, that social equality should not be a factor in determining who serves on the front lines.
“The military shouldn’t be about equality. It’s a different sort of part of our society – always has been. It’s a unique profession,” Thornton said. “And there’s no democracy. It is not the kind of world in which our civilian ideas of democracy, and maybe tolerance or equality, are there—because it has one function, and its function is to seek out and destroy the enemy.”
Thornton, who holds his degree in comparative literature, is a research fellow at Stanford University’s Hoover Institution as part of a working group for military history and contemporary conflict.
“It’s the more general issue of understanding, ‘What is the military for? What does it do? What are the virtues that are necessary? What are the principles, the ethics, the codes of fighting?’ They are very different from this world, for example, or a corporate world,” Thornton said. “And when you start mixing those up, I think you compromise that effectiveness.”
One of the concerns that has arisen from this change in policy is that it will result in a change of standards.
“The fear is that we’ll lower standards in order to increase opportunities,” Hoepner said. “But we’ve been through that argument many, many times. Opening airborne school to women; it really hasn’t changed anything. I’m not really convinced that that’s going to be a big problem.”
Hoepner said that part of the review that will take place between now and 2016 is determining if there are any combat jobs that should be an exception to the policy by establishing the requirements needed for each individual combat role. This comes as a complete reversal to how role exceptions were previously made, if at all, he said. Instead of having a blanket policy banning women from all active combat roles and having to make an exception to get around it, the policy will now be that all positions are open to everyone and it will have to be demonstrated that there is some requirement that makes a particular job an exception, Hoepner said.
“I think that it’s going to be more that, ‘Can you demonstrate that there’s something women simply can’t do?’ If you can’t demonstrate that, then you’re more in the line of, ‘OK, if there are people that can do it, you let them do it,’ ” he said.
Others believe that mere biology makes men better-suited than women for some combat roles, and that this may affect the ultimate goal of the military.
“It’s the physical nature of women. They just don’t have that kind of upper-body strength,” Thornton said. “Does that mean they’re going to just fool around with the requirements in order to make sure that women can pass? I don’t know. I just think it’s a change that’s probably more political than based on what’s good for the effectiveness of the military, and that’s a bad idea.”
The Fresno State ROTC does not plan to change the physical fitness standards for its recruits, Hoepner said, which are already the same for everybody.
Maloy said, “The Army sets a standard and we never put men above women, and we never put women above men. We try to look at each other as all equals, and we are all equals.”
Brown feels that gender-neutral standards are an important factor in keeping the women as ready to perform in any circumstance as the men.
“I think that if they’re going to make it so that females can be in combat roles, they need to equalize the standards,” Brown said. “If you want to do it, you should be able to meet it at the same standards as any of the men. I really hope they don’t lower it. The Army’s not about lowering standards. If anything, we should be raising standards.”
Another effect of the ban being lifted is the 237,000 new positions that could now be open to women in the armed forces, which means more opportunity for career advancement as well.
“It’s going to make a big deal, because promotion, when it comes to combat MOS’s, is way easier. Their promotion points are significantly lower,” Brown said. “So it’s going to give these females a chance to advance in their career. As opposed to being stuck as a junior enlisted for years and years, they’re going to be able to be promoted.”
Maloy said that the decision reinforces the direction that the country should be moving in, both within the military and in civilian life, to allow women to succeed on a platform that is not limited based on gender.
“It opens up a whole door of possibilities that is all just dependent on who is willing to push themselves that much harder to achieve what they want,” she said.
Roberts believes that the potential for career advancement could have influence beyond the scope of individual women, but “has the possibility to change the culture of the military itself,” she said. “Once you get more women into higher-ranking positions, their experiences and their perspective can have a big impact on how the military is run.”
However, with the opportunity for service comes the possibility of danger. Over the course of the last 11 years, 152 women have been killed and nearly 1,000 wounded in combat, according to a Jan. 24 Reuters article.
“I think a lot of feminists, for example, would argue that equality of opportunity also entails equality of risk,” Roberts said. “And that for women to be fully equal in American society, they also have to bear the same responsibility and risks as men do.”
Thornton, however, argues that there is a certain common bond formed between men during combat, and that introducing women to the equation could disrupt that connection.
“In an environment of intense fear, excitement, violence, we know that the effectiveness of a fighting group, of a platoon, or at whatever level, depends on that bond,” he said. “I think that putting women into that—it adds a complicating factor that may have repercussions down the road.”
Brown said that she has heard both sides of the story from friends on active duty. Some, she said, don’t think that females can fill the same roles.
“But most of them that have been deployed and have had females deployed with them are all for it,” she said. “I’ve seen females mess up just as much as I’ve seen men cry like little babies.”
Brown also said that the bond that is shared between men is often extended to the women they are serving with as well, and that they are protective of them. While news and rumors of sexual harassment abound, placing women on the front lines may increase the frequency of such incidents, some believe. Brown disagrees.
“I don’t think that that’s going to be any more of an issue than it already is,” she said. “Females are already deployed with men, so what’s the difference if they’re rolling outside the wire with them?”
Hoepner does not think it will create an additional problem either.
“There are problems in that area and obviously it’s public knowledge, and we’re working on fixing that. But it’s a problem that’s not just unique to the military, either,” he said. “We are a reflection of our society, and our society has issues with this, so we have to tangle with the same things.”
Roberts said, “One of the arguments for putting women in combat, again gets back to this idea of getting women higher up in the officer corps, because then these women might be more inclined to redress those problems. That problem may go away more quickly, more effectively, if you have women who are in power.”
Regardless of what implications this new policy may have for the future of the military, Brown believes that women are just as willing and capable as men to perform the core duties that are asked of them.
“I don’t see any difference, honestly,” she said. “A lot of people think girls are more passive and everything, but everybody I’ve been with – girls are just as ready to pull the trigger as any guy.”
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