Friday, April 22, 2011

Feminism on the Front-Line?

I recently had a piece in the Canberra Times, 'Don't write off female front-line warriors just yet'.   I was arguing for the equality of women in the military.

Specifically, I was demonstrating why they're just as capable - physically and psychologically - of soldiering on the front-line.

Ultimately, this is an empirical question: we need good evidence that sex doesn't diminish capacity.  At present, I believe the evidence favours military equality.

Here's the text:
Women in front-line combat: it’s literally the stuff of science-fiction. In the film Starship Troopers and television series Battlestar Galactica (see Starbuck, top left), women pilot fighters, shoot in firefights, brawl in fist-fights. They eat, sleep and shower with men.

Can fiction become reality in Australia? The government recently flagged the introduction of women into front-line roles. ‘Men and women,’ said Prime Minister Julia Gillard, ‘are equal’. Opposition Leader Tony Abbott concurred. ‘If a woman has the capability,’ he said, ‘there's no reason why she shouldn't do the job.’ Former Chief of the Defence Force, General Peter Cosgrove, is also a reported backer.

Coming after recent scandals, these announcements might be seen as political game-playing: whitewashing the dirty khaki.

Nonetheless, they are bona fide questions, which Australian politicians and military personnel must ask. And they should be asked rationally and practically, rather than deferring to utopian abstractions or bigoted custom. 
Those in our armed forces may doubt whether civilians can discuss the issue authoritatively – we have no experience of combat’s demands. This is a legitimate doubt. But the armed forces themselves are divided on this, so military experience alone is clearly not enough for consensus. The debate is partly one of values, not simply military prowess.

As the military fights on our behalf, it certainly behooves civilians to take the issue seriously. This is not about giving armed forces orders. It’s about being clear about our soldiers’ rights. They are still Australian citizens, and we rightfully expect standards of gender equality to apply to them. Do they? 
The most obvious problem is physiological. Women are, on average, weaker and less physically robust than men. A 2003 study by the Israeli Defence Forces concluded that women were less able to lift heavy equipment, and continue sustained, strenuous movement.

However, many physical limitations are relative, not absolute – look at female boxers, weightlifters, wrestlers. Limitations can be decreased with training. Mrs. Average might not be as strong as Mr. Average. But self-selecting, motivated, well-trained recruits are not average. Retired US Navy Captain Lory Manning cites female military recruits in the UK, running almost 10km with over 20kg on their backs. They needed extra training, but they succeeded. Some front-line equipment is heavier, but Manning’s point is clear: physical fitness can be increased for women, as with men. 
Can every woman carry injured comrades, lift heavy munitions? Probably not. Neither can most men. But as in the workplace and sports, the curve for women’s physical strength and stamina can certainly be pushed to the right of the graph. 
Another argument against women on the front-line is psychological: they increase stress, decrease morale and cohesion. Women will snap in combat. Men will be demoralised by female casualties and fatalities, and their male-only bonds will break.

There’s no evidence that female soldiers are more prone to psychological instability, or that traditional ‘feminine’ traits are hard-wired into female brains. And anecdotal evidence is promising. Many women in support positions in Iraq have seen prolonged combat. In 2007 Captain Manning reported on PBS that they’ve done ‘brilliantly well,’ with no discernible difference in combat performance or psychological well-being.

The ‘morale’ argument is more serious. It doesn’t matter how physically fit, well-trained and skilled female soldiers are. What matters is male soldiers’ responses to them: unease, alienation or horror. Civilians might roll their eyes at these double-standards, but in combat morale and cohesion are vital. Whatever compromises them is suspect, no matter how egalitarian. 
Men’s reactions to injured women are undoubtedly raw. Women are routinely killed and maimed in war – most are unarmed civilians. This rightly elicits a visceral response, though perhaps to innocents brutalised, rather than simply to gender. In 1948, Israel’s military took women off the front line after a captured female soldier was raped, mutilated and murdered. Even veterans can be horrified by women soldiers’ suffering. 
However, attitudes can slowly change. Since the Arab-Israeli War, Israel has continued to draft both sexes. Today Israeli women are fighter pilots and snipers, and the Caracal Battalion has male and female infantrymen. According to the Washington Times, one Sergeant Pini joined Caracal hoping for a girlfriend, but discovered that ‘everyone becomes one of the guys’ on patrol. The point: military service can unite soldiers by common experience, not simply by gender. Male bonding is not the only kind of unity. 
Of course these arguments are not the final word. More evidence for or against is required. But the debate should continue, for Australia’s standards – in the military, and in gender equity – demand it.


Frances said...

"The most obvious problem is physiological"
yes indeed. Women menstruate, and men don't. Providing stuff - even if leaves and grass to mop up the flow - to handle this, and then disposing of same stuff, seems to add an issue to armed conflict that is not accounted for in summaries such as yours. Perhaps you know of military ways of handling the female so that the issue disappears. If so, why not say so? It keeps on being the elephant in the room.
A group of men urinating provides a target. As does a group of menstruating women.

Perhaps small chemical interference could stop menstruation, in which case your blog could be concerned about not whether females should be in combat, but whether females should have chemical interference that makes them suitable for combat.
Or indeed, whether people should have chemical interference to make them suitable for a variety of other roles in our society.

I see on Unleashed today, an item saying that the greatest casualties of present wars are non=combatants. Women and children. Isn't your argument here, Damon, making a great case for women and children being given weapons?

Frances said...

I regret that you didnt address my post, ill-informed as it maybe, Damon.

Damon Young said...

I regret not listening more to my late grandparents. I don't regret blog posts left unaddressed for three working days.

But for the record: I don't think menstruation is a significant problem. Unless you can point to evidence suggesting otherwise, I assume it's manageable - as it is for the police, fire officers, elite athletes, and so on.

As for arming/training women and children, I don't see any necessary relationship between my arguments and this conclusion. Some may've benefitted from this - e.g. nurses in WWII - but not all. It's not a question that can be answered universally, and in abstract.