Increasingly the taboos of sex and sexuality in the military are tumbling
In January the United States opened combat roles to women for the first time in their military history. This came under eighteen months after the controversial "don't ask, don't tell" restrictions on homosexuals policy was dropped. However there is a dramatic difference between the two changes in policy. Don't ask, don't tell was an entirely psychological restriction, so much so that a homosexual soldier could serve their lifetime in the military without any restrictions so long as they did not reveal their sexuality. Opening the field of combat to women is a very different challenge.
Many attacks on the capabilities of both homosexuals and women to serve in armed forces rely on discriminatory, out-dated and plain offensive stereotypes. Complaints that they do not have the emotional fortitude to hold up under pressure, that they are too weak to deal with the rough army lifestyle, that they ought to stick to traditional gender roles at home. Sexist prejudices have no place in serious analysis, but there remain very serious issues which must be confronted on the front-line.
- Physical limitations - This is perhaps the most significant issue with the idea of women in combat roles. There is no way to avoid the issue that women are (on the whole) significantly weaker physically than men, equality being the exception rather than the rule. This is evidenced by segregation in sports and significantly different standards in fitness tests. Men are simply designed better for combat, in fact that is one of the main ways in which they are designed. Evolution has created the capability for men to manage intense physical challenges in the form of hunting and fighting which was not developed as extensively in that of women. However there are many women (though not the majority) who can not only match their male counterparts but also exceed their abilities. The only possible way of managing this issue is gender-blind recruitment. If women are challenged to meet exactly the same standard as men in all physical challenges there can be no issue. This is the only sensible way a women-in-combat doctrine can be adopted, but could result in as few as 1% of combat forces being women.
- Women's issues - Pregnancy and menstruation are both issues in active duty, combat or not, but especially so in prolonged combat deployments. Although these issues can be mitigated, they still present an organisational issue for armed forces. 11% of women in the US military reported unplanned pregnancies in a single year, a logistics issue in itself but also a major recruitment issue, especially when dealing with individuals who may be ideologically opposed to not carrying pregnancies to term. Menstruation is also a major issue for several reasons, and something which requires careful planning not necessary for men.
- Sexual tensions - Much as it sounds juvenile, this is a very real military issue for combat units, one that featured prominently in the decision behind enforcing "don't ask, don't tell" beyond mere prejudice. Managing sexual tensions is a major issue for unit leaders, especially in an active combat environment where high-stress and violence becomes the norm. Already rape is far too frequent an occurrence in the military and many female units are limited in their co-location with male units. Considering the logistical issues with these limitations it is safe to say this is a very real problem, not an example of sexism.
- Sexism in duty - One of the often-mentioned arguments is that men developing feelings for female soldiers may place their safety above that of others or themselves. Even worse, males could compete to show-off to female soldiers. Considering the extremely close ties that soldiers develop in units and existing levels of competition it can hardly be imagined this is a real issue.
- Sexism in command - It is hardly surprising that in the old-boys club that is military officers there is likely to be some deeply entrenched sexism. However it has been shown that women actually receive more respect than their male peers for attaining the same standard, for beating the stereotypes. More concerning is the tendency of female officers to treat their same-sex subordinates far more harshly than they do men, a tendency also present in business. This tendency could very easily shut out promising female recruits who need role-models to look up to.
- Military policy - Will not change. In the slightest. There's an odd double-standard in women's rights movements that claim that women are both just as capable as men in all respects (ie. no real sex differences) and yet they can also bring something new to the table (ie. sex differences). In reality military doctrine is an ungendered practice based exclusively on pragmatism, not the masculinity of those deciding it. It is also one decided at a far higher level than combat operations, a level women have long been penetrating. It was actually the Republican Bush administration which placed emancipating women in Muslim countries centre-stage. An administration which was deeply unpopular with the female vote and included very few women.
I will not be concluding this analysis with an opinion one way or the other, as I am genuinely torn. On the one hand there should be no unsubstantiated prejudice between the sexes, women should be given every opportunity to succeed in all the same ways that men do and in every walk of life. If a woman can match or exceed the standards expected of men there should be no reason she should not succeed in any walk of life. On the other hand women in the military, and in combat roles specifically, present a major logistical, organisational, physical and psychological challenge to military forces. Much as these factors are often waved aside by equality campaigners they simply cannot be treated so flippantly. Women in combat roles is simply not an equality issue, it is a military issue.
Much as liberal equality campaigners may wish to take their fight to the military this area should be ring-fenced. An area where the lives of soldiers fighting are at risk, in conflicts which may very well determine the fate of thousands of others, is not an area which should ever be messed with for ideological purposes. Any decision on whether or not to open the military to women, especially in combat roles, should be based purely on the very real practical concerns involved in doing so. Much as there is no room for discriminatory sexism in the armed forces based on stereotypes and prejudice, there is also no room to wave aside real sex issues for the sake of ideology. The case is still open on women at war, and it is not one which will close until the full implications of the US change in doctrine come to light.