Women in Combat

No Man's LandThe U.S. is lifting the ban that keeps military women out of official combat positions — a ban that in recent wars didn’t actually keep them out of combat situations, but did prevent them from being credited with fighting experience. According to a New York Times report, the change in policy is being driven by the military — it was proposed by the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff — which makes it more likely that it will succeed.

Women have appeared in combat roles in military science fiction for a lBest Laid Plansong time. My friend John Hemry has some excellent examples in his Stark’s War series, proving that men can create realistic women soldiers.

I’ve written a lot of military SF stories about women in combat myself, including “Gambit,” which appears in the No Man’s Land anthology (above left), and “The Ballad of Becca Sanjuro,” which is in the just-released anthology Best Laid Plans (right) from the same editor. In fact, my first published story was about a woman in combat, though it was fantasy and not science fiction (“Change of Command” in Sword and Sorceress 6).

But now that real life has caught up with science fiction, what does this mean for our society?

Obviously, this will put more military women at risk, but will also give more of them opportunities for advancement. We won’t just see women firing guns; we’ll see women officers leading troops and women generals directing wars.

But it’s going to have a big impact on the rest of society, too. If we acknowledge that women are capable of fighting to protect others — and of leading soldiers in such fights — then it’s hard to argue that they’re not qualified to do other kinds of dangerous work or to handle major strategic situations.

And I think it sets up an even stronger form of equality: It leads to the assumption that women as well as men have a duty to defend their country. That is, we will no longer treat men and women differently when it comes to matters of civic responsibility. No more classing women with children, as in “women and children first.”

Right now we have an all-volunteer army; even though men still register for the draft, we aren’t using it, so only those people who choose to join the military (whether for idealistic or economic reasons) have any duty to defend the country. But I can foresee situations in which a draft might be reinstituted, not the least of which is to serve as a check on military adventures. If your son or daughter might end up on the front lines, you have a lot more invested in whether a president declares war.

There are lots of discussions we can have on the necessity of war. I, for one, think that violence is declining and that human beings will eventually become civilized enough to find nonviolent ways of resolving their disputes. That process will be gradual — I don’t foresee an end to war anytime soon! There are others, of course, who believe that war is part of human nature. I’ll leave all that discussion for future posts and other essays.

Right now I’m focused on this: If women are not just capable of fighting battles, but perceived as qualified for those roles by their fellow soldiers and citizens, and if women are seen as having the responsibility, not just the opportunity, to serve their country, then we have a much fuller concept of what it means to be a woman.

I’m sure the transition period will be full of conflict. The increase of women in military service and in combat-like roles (they’ve had the risk without the credit) has led to a rise in sexual assaults and harassment. But I suspect as female military presence in all roles becomes more commonplace, that will change.

This can lead to a society in which women are not perceived as other, as vulnerable, as someone who must be protected, as someone who can’t handle the big, bad world. Instead, they become whole persons.

I’m too old for the military at this point, but despite my deep-seated skepticism about the ways my government uses its armed forces, I suspect I’d at least think about joining up if I were younger. I’ve always been drawn to the idea of protecting others, and the 20-year-old that still lives inside me might jump at the chance.

Meanwhile, I’ll use that 20-year-old’s energy in coming up with more stories about fighting women.

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Women in Combat — 15 Comments

    • If women can serve in all roles, so that we don’t need to define certain jobs in the military as “men only,” then I don’t see how we avoid drafting women. I’ve always thought it was unfair to only draft men.

  1. “The increase of women in military service and in combat-like roles (they’ve had the risk without the credit) has led to a rise in sexual assaults and harassment. But I suspect as female military presence in all roles becomes more commonplace, that will change.”

    Oh, you mean, like, maybe pillaging and raping will not be considered a rite of war. No wonder they don’t want women in the military. It’s going to take all the fun out of it.

    • I was actually thinking about the assaults on women soldiers by some of their fellow soldiers. But yeah, it could lead to decrease in rape and pillage. To my mind, taking the fun out of war is a good thing.

  2. War itself is changing; what we think about it, how it is waged. To keep this short, my hope is that the urge to make war will be shifted to play war, though world historian such as Philip Bobbitt (The Shield of Achilles) take a gloomier view.

    • I should probably read Bobbitt. After years of training in Aikido — which was developed from Samurai fighting arts but which holds as its highest goal saving oneself and one’s enemy — and reading Steven Pinker’s book on the decline of violence, I have some hope that the future of war is a gradual decline to nothing. But that’s a topic for a much longer post, or even a book!

      • Bobbitt is absorbing reading–I think I took some twenty pages of notes. (I was on a cross country train ride, and so had the time to be scribbling down tons of stuff to check later.) I did some eyebrow lifting at some of his conclusions about the period before Early Modern Europe, but cut him some slack because he pulled it together for the modern period.

        He, and others, basically foretell a gloomy future in which this world cannot produce enough food. No food means no play–humans will fight down to the last standing man (and if it’s all about strength, it will be a man) holding the last lettuce leaf.

        But others feel that even disaster might force us to evolve past our present veneer of civilization, that we will have to learn to cooperate for real. I like that, personally; while I am aware that we humans are capable of large-scale cruelty, we are also capable of large-scale compassion.

        • I think we have to work on building that compassionate society. It’s interesting because I see cooperative movements at the low-level, grassroots edges while at higher levels it’s all about brute force tooth and claw action, at least in current society. Which is going to win out?

          • Climate change and overpopulation are going to give us some real struggles. However, I’m working on science fiction that assumes humanity survives the 21st Century without losing the good aspects of civilization. It’s a long term project and right now I’m just thinking and reading and using the ideas in short stories, but I know where I’m trying to go.

            Cooperative movements — and they seem to be back on the rise again, hooray — are major, I agree. Humans are naturally cooperative (and competitive — see Steven Popkes’ wonderful post on this from last Sunday) and I have some optimism that we can survive disaster and eventually evolve into a civilized species!

  3. You might also like to read THE BETTER ANGELS OF OUR NATURE, by Stephen Pinker. His argument (bolstered by dozens of charts and graphs) is that the entire human race is gradually getting less violent. He suggests that one of the reasons for this change is the gradual empowerment of women. If that is the case, then letting women go to combat will make combat less violent and nasty.

  4. “But now that real life has caught up with science fiction, what does this mean for our society?”

    Well, it has already meant that a child can have both parents deployed to war zones at the same time. And lose their whole family at once. And it means we will have more broken women returning from combat and trying to adjust to being mothers and wives and building careers carrying their broken pieces. Perhaps that’s fair. Perhaps it’s merely sad.

    Personally, I think that both parents in a two parent family should never be deployed at the same time. I also think that no single mom or single dad should serve in combat unless our nation is under direct attack. I think we need to consider who needs these people more — a military campaign or their children.

    I have a dear friend who counsels military families who have members returning from combat. She is part of over 2000 professionals recruited by the government to help with PTSD, trauma and the soaring suicide rate in the military. I was also raised in a military family and lost my father suddenly while he was away on a tour of duty. I have some idea of what this sort of loss means and though I was 15 when my dad died, I understand a small child’s sense of abandonment.

    Is the battlefield “equality?” Is it an equality that we, as women, should want? I don’t want to be just like men. And while I think women should have equal opportunity in the workplace, in education, and other arenas of life and believe that women bring great strengths to leadership roles in all arenas, I question whether it’s desirable to have equal opportunity to take human life, especially given that our bodies are uniquely suited to giving it.

    Women are uniquely qualified to bear children and be their first educators. Given that the continuance of the species, even in the most basic physical sense, depends on this, there are few jobs (if any) more important. Men are not our equals in that they cannot bear children. No matter what we do or how much we philosophize, that inequity is a reality of life that we seem to accept. I wonder why we fight so hard to be like men in ways that are potentially damaging to the individual woman, to her family, to her society, especially given that we have this amazing ability that they lack.

    I was discussing feminism and equality with a friend at a recent convention and she recalled a story she’d heard from someone working with a tribal group. The woman—an aid worker—asked if the women of the tribe didn’t mind the men getting to do something that was particular to their gender (I don’t recall what it was). The women laughed and one told her, “We do the most important work—we give life. We must leave something for the men.”

    Having said that, I wish to make it clear that I wish war wasn’t something we had to leave anybody, but if women are to fight and die and kill on the battlefield, we ought to at least exempt women with families.

    • Maya, you’ve certainly got a good point about avoiding sending parents to combat zones, particularly single parents. Unfortunately, one of the bad side effects to the all-volunteer army has been that a lot of people — including single parents — have signed up for economic reasons.

      But I don’t agree with you that women are inherently better at raising small children than men, which is what I think you meant about women being better at being children’s first educators. I think that’s a cultural difference that women have promoted because it was one area that gave them an edge on men. And as far as I’m concerned, that’s the same thing those tribal women you refer to are doing.

      And yes, I do think that equality in the defense of the country is an equality that women should want. I don’t see it as becoming “just like men;” I see it as a recognition that women, as well as men, are whole human beings. And I think one of the good byproducts of this change over time will be a reduction in sexual assault and other efforts to keep women “in their place.” The idea that war and defense are the provence of men is one of those constant reminders that women are second class citizens.

      In a perfect world, we wouldn’t have war. In a world a little better than ours but not yet so perfect as to avoid armed conflict, our military would be made up of people — both men and women — who see it as their calling to protect and defend, not draftees and not those driven by economic circumstances to “volunteer.” Right now we don’t have either, but I’ve got hope for both.

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  6. I don’t think that policy should be based upon a sweeping generalization like “women do the nuturing.” That’s the path that leads to “black people are too feckless to lead” and “Asians do math not combat.” Some women nuture fine. So do some men.
    Also, although combat is the point of the spear, don’t forget that the armed forces have to mass huge assets and stupendously varied skills behind that spearpoint. It astonishes me how much stuff my kids in their Army careers have to do, stuff that has nothing to do with actually smiting the foes of the nation. My daughter’s management of an Army company seems to involve marriage counselin, financial planning, and arguing with the parents of her officers.