Last week’s entrance of 22 pioneering female soldiers into the officer ranks of the Botswana Defence Force has opened a new frontier for the age-old debate on the role of women in the military. Over the years, Botswana has been spared the debate because until last year, BDF was an exclusive men’s club.
Historical literature leaves no doubt that women’s service in the military extends over 4000 years, playing many roles ÔÇô from ancient warrior women to those currently serving in the world’s many conflict zones. But even in spite of their long association with the profession, the role of women in the military, particularly in combat, is one of the most controversial subjects in military debates ÔÇô and it was not too long ago that women began to be given a more prominent role in the armed forces. For instance, in the United States, Lieutenant General Claudia Kennedy became the first woman to reach the rank of three-star general in 1997 ÔÇô and she has since retired.
On June 23, this year, United States President George W. Bush nominated Lt. Gen. Ann E. Dunwoody to be the first woman in the country’s military to hold the rank of four-star general. She is the highest ranking woman in the history of the US military. There are 57 active-duty female general officers in the US armed forces, five of whom are three-star generals. About five percent of the Army’s general officers are women.
Earlier, in January, Norway appointed its first female naval officer to the rank of Vice Admiral ÔÇô the highest military rank a woman has held in the Scandinavian country.
“I hope I can help show women that the military is a good place to work, and that it is entirely possibly to rise through the ranks,” Louise Bastviken, 43, said about her achievement.
The highest rank previously held by other women, including Bastviken, was that of brigadier in the army or flag commander, also called Rear Admiral, in the navy. Vice Admiral is two ranks higher, and equal to lieutenant general in the other forces.
The military, like Norwegian society as a whole, seeks to reach gender equality. For example, as of January all private companies were required by law to have at least 40 percent women on their boards of directors.
But even in the face of such breakthroughs matched by the increasing numbers of countries that are beginning to expand the role of women in their militaries, the debate continues. The current exclusion of women from many combat roles is seen by some as a form of sexual discrimination. Many on each side of the issue cite the alleged physical and mental differences of the two sexes, the effect of the presence of the opposite sex on the battlefield, and the traditional view of males as soldiers as arguments both for and against women being employed as soldiers under combat situations.
Several points of argument have been put forward by those in favour of women serving in combat conditions as well as those against the idea. Many of these arguments are focused on the physical differences between men and women, but also on differing mentalities, and the effects upon one sex by the presence of the other on the battlefield.
One of the most obvious concerns regarding women in combat situations is the fact that, on average, female soldiers do not possess as much physical strength as men and this may put them at a disadvantage when fighting males. The female skeletal system is also less dense, and more prone to breakages. There is also concern that, in aviation, the female body is not as adept at handling the increased g-forces experienced by combat pilots.
There is a secondary concern that romantic relationships between men and women on the front lines could disrupt a unit’s fighting capability and a fear that a high number of women would deliberately become pregnant in order to escape combat duties. In the British Army, which continues to bar women from serving in infantry-roled units, all recruits joining to fill infantry vacancies partake in a separate training program called the Combat Infantryman’s Course.
In the American armed forces, the 1994 rules forbidding female involvement in combat units of battalion size or smaller are being bent. Colonel Cheri Provancha, stationed in Iraq, argues that: “This war has proven that we need to revisit the policy, because they are out there doing it.” The fact that women already engage in combat in today’s armed forces counters the idea that women do not possess a sufficiently aggressive mentality to kill enemy soldiers.
A third argument against the inclusion of women in combat units is that placing women in combat where they are at risk of being captured and tortured and possibly sexually assaulted is unacceptable. In a Presidential Commission report it was found that male POWs, while being subject to physical abuse, were never subject to sexual abuse, and women were almost always subject to sexual abuse.
This point is countered, however, by the fact that women who are currently in non-combat roles are still exposed to the risk of capture and sexual abuse, yet are not given the weapons or training to adequately defend themselves through combat. Furthermore, it is argued that women who joined the military in combat roles would almost certainly be aware of the risks and accept them.
The role of women soldiers in combat has increasingly come under scrutiny with the Iraqi war, which military scholars agree that for women, it is quite different than any other American war in history. Some estimates suggest that more than 160, 500 American female soldiers have served in Iraq, Afghanistan and the Middle East since the war began in 2003, which means one in seven soldiers is a woman. Women now make up 15 percent of active duty forces, four times more than in the 1991 Gulf War. At least 450 women have been wounded in Iraq, and 71 have died ÔÇô which represents more female casualties and deaths than in the Korean, Vietnam and first Gulf Wars combined. And women are fighting in combat ÔÇô though officially, the Pentagon prohibits women from serving in ground combat units such as the infantry, citing their lack of upper-body strength and a reluctance to put girls and mothers in harm’s way.
Some in Congress and private advocacy groups have accused the US Army of stretching, and even breaking, the rules by putting women in, for example, military police units that go out on patrol and are fairly likely to encounter enemy ambushes, and combat support units that live and work with the combat soldiers.
The Chairman of the House of Representatives Armed Services Committee, Duncan Hunter, has previously tried to get the Congress to restate the rules, a move that was seen as potentially forcing the Army to scale back the types of jobs US military women had been doing.
That particular congressional effort failed. But activists continue to pursue the issue.
Elaine Donnelly ÔÇô the president of the Centre for Military Readiness, a private advocacy group ÔÇô says the issue of American military women in combat has to do with their physical abilities, but also with the law and morality.
“We are a civilized nation, it’s that simple,” she says. “Civilized nations do not subject women to combat violence. We sometimes don’t have a choice about sending young men into war, but we do have a choice about young women. And we decided as a commission, in the majority, to say that, ‘No, violence against women, we do not endorse that. We support women in the military, but we don’t have to submit them to direct violence in combat.’”
But she draws the line, and she says the law does too, when it comes to putting women in units that actively seek out hostile contact with the enemy.
Any change in the rules governing what US military women can do could have a profound impact on the future policy direction of other militaries the world over. For now, the controversy lives ÔÇô and so does the debate. It is a debate that the 22 and their families will follow with interest.