The feminist bugbear has been summoned! Oh, that we were fated to live through such a time, that the precious flower of womanhood is sent to the front lines.
So naturally I have a few points to make. The first is that I don’t think this is a specifically feminist victory, nor was it the result of a feminist campaign. Of course some military women lobbied for a change in the law, but the military is hardly a feminist organization–which doesn’t mean that individual people don’t consider themselves feminists. But the idea that the military is bowing down to “political correctness” is frankly absurd. The reaction in the feminist blogosphere has been largely measured, thus far mainly pointing out that women have already been in combat and it’s good that they’re being recognized for it, which is what I said in my previous post. There is also a substantial strain of pacificism within some branches of feminism, so for those feminists, equal access for women in the military has never been a goal. Responses have also been tempered by unease over the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
The debate has been framed in terms of whether women can do the same jobs as men, but I think that’s the wrong question to ask. The better question is: What do women, specifically women, contribute to a military operation? There’s a reason that the Marines created “female engagement teams.” War is fought amongst the civilian population–a population that includes women. This isn’t massed armies of men on a battlefield, which is an historically aberrant image of war anyway. The military realized that to win–with “winning” becoming an increasingly amorphous concept that extends far beyond military victory–they needed women. They needed women to create relationships with and gather intelligence from the local community, especially given the patriarchal nature of these societies. In a war without clear front lines, that meant female military personnel found themselves in combat.
There’s also evidence that the inclusion of women in peacekeeping forces increases the success of the mission, and in particular helps combat sexual violence, which is endemic to many conflicts, and rampant in refugee camps. The presence of female Indian police officers in Liberia encouraged women to report rape, and the Liberian police experienced a jump in female recruits. For conflicts fought amongst a brutalized population, and for peacekeeping and post-conflict development, a military/police force that reflects the population is essential to success.
So that’s what I have to say about that. On to the “precious flower” arguments:
Here’s the thing, people. Women have always been casualties of war. Bombs and landmines don’t discriminate based on sex. Regimes executing genocide and ethnic cleansing don’t make allowances for the ladies. Girls are kidnapped to fight in rebel armies. And in many cases, women and girls are specifically targeted in campaigns of sexual violence. As the Women Under Siege project notes, rape isn’t a byproduct of war, it’s a strategy.
So whenever I hear someone talk about women being too delicate for war, I want to bitterly laugh in their face and say, “Awesome. Go tell that to women who were in Auschwitz and Nanking, Dresden and Hiroshima, Leningrad and London.”
Tell it to women in Bosnia, in Kosovo, in Rwanda and Mozambique. In the Democratic Republic of Congo, in Syria, in Somalia and Darfur.
Tell it to women in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Or do you not care, about women over there?
I’ve seen people claim that feminists think women are only victims. And recently, I’ve seen those same people claim that feminists think women are victims, and then say that women shouldn’t be in combat because they’ll inevitably become victims. Who’s supporting the idea that women can only be victims? I don’t think it’s the people recognizing that women can fight. I don’t think it’s the people recognizing that women are already casualties of war, but that they’re also resilient survivors and real agents, not just passive victims that men fight over. (And on that note, I highly recommend reading Carolyn Nordstrom’s A Different Kind of War Story, about the civil war in Mozambique.)
And for those people arguing that women shouldn’t serve because they could be captured and raped by the enemy, I have two suggestions: a) recognize that sexual assault by their fellow comrades is already a huge problem for many female military personnel, but that this isn’t an inevitable result of women being present in the military; and b) recognize that men are also subjected to sexual abuse as prisoners of war. And does anyone remember Abu Ghraib?
Also, General Martin Dempsey had an interesting take on sexual assault in the military:
During a joint press conference today with Defense Secretary Leon Panetta to announce the lifting of a Pentagon ban on women serving in combat, Army General Martin Dempsey argued that the long-standing — and soon defunct, if disputed — policy helped create a tiered military culture in which sexual assault and harassment proliferated. Dempsey currently serves as the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, the highest position a military officer can hold. “When you’ve had one part of the population that is designated as warriors and another part that is designated as something else, Dempsey said at the Pentagon, “I think that disparity begins to establish a psychology that, in some cases, led to that environment.”
In other words, women in the military were considered lesser-than because they were prohibited from combat, and that created an environment in which people harassed those they thought were inferior. Intriguing theory.
Echidne of the Snakes takes on the different strands of anti-feminist opposition to women in the military, the most dominant of which are: a) men are chivalrous and injured women will distract them; b) men can’t prevent themselves from raping, so women should just stay out of the military; and c) men are considered disposable because they’re in the military, but they’re also superior to women because of it. Try to reconcile these ideas at your own risk.