Women in Combat: A Mirror of Society?

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Scott Olson / Getty Images

A female Marine drill instructor at Parris Island, S.C.

While I strongly support the military’s decision to allow women to hold combat and special ops positions, I am concerned that the military thinks this will substantially cut back on sexual assaults by equalizing male and female roles.

Rather, sexual assaults in the military are endemic, mirroring those in the population as a whole. While women’s secondary status has historically made women vulnerable, their growing enfranchisement works to undercut assumptions of male/masculine superiority and the sanctity of previously all-male domains, fueling simmering resentments that can lead to assault.  This isn’t true for all men, of course, many of whom respect women’s achievements and skills.

Two competing discourses dominate pop culture today: on the one hand, that women are fully equal to men and can do anything men can do, and on the other, that “men are from Mars, women are from Venus.”  Packed into this cliché, propagated by, for instance, best-selling author John Gray (Men Are from Mars, Women Are from Venus: The Classic Guide to Understanding the Opposite Sexare notions traditionalists love to perpetuate:

– That men and women are intrinsically, different, and this can never change: it is a “given” of biology;  indeed, men and women are so different, it could be said that they hail from different, even diametrically opposed, planets.
– That men are “naturally” bellicose, powerful and aggressive, while women are “naturally” made for love, sensual, venal (corruptible).
– That it is men’s “job” to fight, women’s job to pleasure men, and so on.

Built into these notions is the grounding of permission to consider women’s equal participation in the military undesirable at the very least, even deplorable, destructive of femininity (and of masculinity).

Pair this pop-culture psychology with the celebration of hypermasculine performance in the media, from rap stars to action heroes, and the concomitant denigration of any whiff of effeminacy or expression of vulnerability or emotion, and with the disenfranchisement of men in a culture that no longer values or needs men’s earning power or protection (see, for instance, Susan Faludi’s Stiffed: The Betrayal of the American Man). That’s a foolproof formula for the scapegoating, harassment and/or abuse of women (and gays).

Military leaders have stated that sexual assault and harassment violate and are inconsistent with core professional values and culture. Yet they refuse to confront the problem head-on, despite allegations by the many young women (and some young men) who have been assaulted that there is a “culture” of harassment and of retaliation in the military.

Linking the decision to allow women to participate in combat roles and elite corps to (a then hoped for) reduction in sexual violence again sidesteps the very real issue of this endemic sexual violence. It underscores the failure of the military’s leadership to effect cultural change in their ranks.

How can the issue of sexual violence against women (and some men) in the military be addressed more effectively?

First and foremost, the military must openly acknowledge and take responsibility for the culture of harassment and violence that pervades the military so that it can be openly addressed. Only then will those who have been harassed feel that they can come forward without adverse consequences to their persons or their careers.

Other countries, including Israel, have successfully integrated women into their militaries for generations despite a culture of machismo. America should look to Israel’s lead here: from the secretary of defense on down, a new attitude and code of conduct must be embraced.

Training women for the military’s toughest missions alongside men, hopefully, will engender greater equality and respect.

But ultimately the effort to inculcate real change in the military culture will require a zero-tolerance attitude toward sexual assault in the civilian world, too. That’s a battle in which all of us civilians should enlist.

Barbara Gottfried is co-director of undergraduate studies for the Boston University Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Studies Program. She teaches a sociology course “American Masculinities.”

5 comments
ThomMcCann
ThomMcCann

Sorry, but anatomy is destiny.


A man has greater upper body strength.


A man and a woman soldier equally trained, in hand-to-hand combat will always find the woman dead.


Woman cannot do pull ups like a man because their elbows flair out so when they walk their arms don't bump into their wider hips. Men's arms hang straight.


The army just changed the requirements for women to make it easier to qualify.


The country will change the idea of putting women on the battlefield when they send them home in body bags.


This is the dumbest idea of "equality" we have ever seen.

MikeKelter
MikeKelter

Women in the military have served our country well.  As we look forward to assigning women to combat roles, traditionally dominated by males, we need to think our way through this in a manner better than the current chain of command has done.

Combat duty in the military is not a social issue.  It is physically and mentally demanding in manners not understood by academics who have never been to war.  It requires an enormous amount of strength and stamina on the part of every member of a unit--a weak link in a unit gets people killed.

In the past, the military has tolerated a dual physical fitness standard for men and women.  Currently a male NCO or officer is required to possess greater body strength and aerobic capacity than a female NCO or officer--same pay but different physical standards.  This has been tolerated because of the greater opportunity that male-dominated combat arms roles affords to males in uniform. 

Now that those opportunities are being afforded to females, the dual physical fitness standards need to be eliminated.  We can go the right way or the wrong way on this issue.  We can lower the standard to accomodate the physiological differences between men and women.  This would be the wrong approach since the rigors of combat roles are not likely to change.  The best solution would be to elevate the women's physical fitness standard to that of their male counterparts.  This is apt to cause wailing and gnashing of teeth from the sociologist-types who look for equality of outcome rather than equality of opportunity.

The Israeli Defense Force has been struggling with this issue for years and I don't know that they've come up with the best solution.  The solutions require a strong and thoughtful chain of command that will look past the politically-correct and strive for an outcome that best serves the military imperatives.

AlphaJuliette
AlphaJuliette

I have mixed feelings about this latest move by the military.

First and foremost sexual assault can not be tolerated.  That it is happening in the numbers being reported is stunningly disturbing.  It is utterly unacceptable and should be addressed in the most aggressive manner possible.  Women in the military are serving our country and should be respected and honored for that as we do for the men.

Next, it is my opinion that men and women are not equal.  Each have roles to play in society.  Each have strengths, for instance, that offset the others weaknesses.  As a family unit you can't beat a male/female relationship.  Together they compliment each other for a strong family unit.  But this doesn't translate onto the battlefield generally speaking.

I think the author, Mz. Gottfried, has misrepresented this issue.  What we are seeing here is another attempt at Political Correctness that says everyone is equal.   Politically speaking and under the law we are.  Physically, mentally and emotionally we are not.  That some women have successfully engaged in combat in history does not mean that all women can or even should.  That many women are signing up for active combat roles does not mean that they will preform on an equal level with men on the battlefield.  We shall see. 

We shall see when elevated numbers of women come home in flag draped boxes and the news reports will start their spin.  I wonder what the national discussion will be like then?  We shall see.

Medic5392
Medic5392

@MikeKelter It's simple, Israel does not actually put women in ground combat. They have one, just one group that has a mixed gender unit that could be considered ground combat and it is the equivalent of a border police unit. They do not, have not and will not use them in front line assault units, no matter how much that "urban myth" is repeated that they have been using them that way.

MikeKelter
MikeKelter

@AlphaJuliette I agree with you 100%.  Sexual assault can never be tolerated by the chain of command.  That rates of sexual assault, suicide, gang activities, and assault in general have been rising at shocking rates is indicative of a chain of command that has lost control of basic discipline and morale. I would begin by replacing the brass and the Commander in Chief as necessary to restore discipline to traditional military standards.

On the modern battlefield both men and women are likely to be involved in combat roles.  Both men and women will sacrifice dearly for that involvement and we need to deal with that issue.  The best solution is to establish similar training and physical standards for both men and women that are as tough as the standards for male service personnel today.

As far as family is concerned, every member of a military unit is a part of the family and everybody in the family has to pull their weight.  There should never be a male-to-female relationship.  There is only soldier-to-soldier; airman-to-airman; sailor-to-sailor; and marine-to-marine relationship.  If we cannot control male-female fraternization (which is contrary to military law and practice) then we'll never control gay-gay fraternization which is more difficult to detect.  This is another chain of command issue that I believe we're failing with this chain of command.


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