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Can women fight?

By Anthony King


On 24 January 2013, Leon Panetta, the US Secretary of State for Defence, made an historic announcement: from 2016, combat roles would be open to female service personnel. For the first time, women would be allowed to serve in the infantry. Applauded in liberal quarters, the decision was widely seen as unproblematic since it merely ratified a de facto reality; women had been fighting on the front line since 2001 and especially after the Iraq invasion of 2003. A predictable conservative backlash has now begun however.

David Frum, a contributing editor of the Newsweek recently posted a long article on The Daily Beast which rejected Panetta’s ruling reaffirming women’s unsuitability for combat roles. Citing Kingsley Browne 2007, Co-ed Combat: The New Evidence That Women Shouldn’t Fight the Nation’s Wars, Frum identifies four reasons why women cannot and should not fight: the physical and psychological differences between men and women, the inability of the military to enforce gender-neutral standards, heterosexual attraction, and the unique duty of the armed forces (to fight wars). Most women are too physically weak to perform as combat soldiers and they undermine the cohesiveness of all male groups. Even those women who are strong enough to serve in combat present a problem because the armed forces, focused on war-winning (not internal equality), are unable to apply gender-blind standards to women; they cannot treat them equally and tend to be too soft on them.

There is little question that Frum’s claim that most women are too physically weak to fight is true. Despite advances in female athletic performance, about one percent of the female population could serve as infantry soldiers. Yet, all his other claims are highly dubious and indeed self-referential.

It is simply not true that women’s presence inevitably undermines cohesion. In the highly professional armies which the western powers deploy today, cohesion no longer depends primarily on appeals to masculinity or to ethnicity which was typical in the citizen army of the twentieth century. In Iraq and Afghanistan, military units have unified their personnel not by the fact that they are all (typically white) men together as the US Army did in the Second World War but by reference to their professional competences. They are united by their common training and doctrine, which inculcates a set of collective drills which are performed more or less independently of personal relations. Indeed, in the context of Iraq and Afghanistan, due to availability, casualties and the requirements for specialists, patrols have often consisted of individuals who barely know each other. However, they have been able to operate together effectively by reference to common professional procedures learnt in training.

US Army (USA) Major (MAJ) Mary V. Krueger, 321st Civil Affair Battalion, assigned to the Surgeon Cell, for the Combined Joint Civil Military Task Force (CJCMOTF), applies an ointment to a rash on the face of a little boy from a local Kuchi Tribe, located in the city of Gardez, Afghanistan. Source: SFC Larry Johns, USA: US Department of Defence.

In this context, soldiers fighting on the front line have recorded the successful integration of women, often as specialists, into combat units. Something quite surprising happens when a competent women joins one of these male groups. The predicted collapse of cohesion has not happened. On the contrary, the female soldier has been accepted as a professional equal, respected like her peers for the expertise she brings. Moreover, in the close proximity of the patrol base, the question of sexual attraction often becomes irrelevant; female soldiers assume the status of a sister — or indeed honorary brother. In the United Kingdom, members of the Parachute Regiment and the Royal Marines, two elite infantry regiments, who might be expected to be most opposed to women, have in fact recorded their successful integration. Undoubtedly some women have failed on the frontline, just as some men have, but as long as women can do their job, they have been accepted by male soldiers. Moreover, against Frum’s presumptions that men will not be led by women, there are a number of cases in the Canadian Army where women have served as infantry officers or NCOs sometimes more successfully than their male peers.

It is empirically false to claim that women cannot serve on the frontline or that they necessarily undermine cohesion, then. It is also conveniently circular to suggest that the armed forces cannot and should not be asked to enforce gender-blind standards. This simply legitimates unthinking patriarchal presumptions assuming that what men have done and thought in the past is necessarily correct. Crucially, such a masculinist position misunderstands the nature of military effectiveness. It equates combat performance with masculinity. Yet, combat performance is not primarily determined by raw masculine courage, strength and bonding. Rather, on the mechanised battlefield, successful militaries require refined tactics developed through careful training and preparation, and they need to coordinate their units by means of established procedures and clear command relations.

U.S. Marine Cpl. Mary E. Walls (right), an ammunition technician, and linguist Sahar (left), both with a female engagement team, patrol with 1st Battalion, 2nd Marine Regiment in Musa Qa’leh, Afghanistan, 2010. Walls and other female engagement team members patrolled local compounds around the district center to establish relationships with local people and talk with the women of the area in support of the International Security Assistance Force. Source: Cpl. Lindsay L. Sayres, U.S. Marine Corps: US Department of Defense.

Masculinity has its place here certainly at the small group level — and most combat solders will perforce be men — but the organizational and tactical requirements of contemporary warfare far exceed the gender essentialism which Frum proposes. Indeed, as the armed forces reduce in size once again with the current round of defence cuts, their continued effectiveness will rely even more exclusively not on appeals to masculine solidarity, but on the contrary on intensified forms of professionalism. Collective performance will depend on competence and skill. The future success of the armed forces will rely on professionalism. Professionalism is not synonymous with masculinity.

Anthony King is Professor of Sociology at the University of Exeter, and author of The Combat Soldier: Infantry Tactics and Cohesion in the Twentieth and Twenty-First Centuries. He has written extensively on social theory, football, and the armed forces.

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