The 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 long 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.