Thursday, September 29, 2011
In case you have not heard yet, Australia's Defense Minister announced the other day that Australian Defense Forces will phase out barriers that limit women in service to support roles and allow them to join the infantry and even the commandos. Essentially every job is open is every service-member as long as they pass the requirements. This is great for the women, current and future, in the ADF and I congratulate them.
Reading this story break twitter, I was wondering how long before the role of women in the U.S. military would be revisited, especially when you take this story into account with the recent repeal of DADT. Well here we are with CNN's Barbara Starr in a post titled: "U.S. military not ready for women in combat." (h/t @parafile on twitter.) I admire Starr quite a bit, but this article is not helpful for the discussion and the title is even worse.
Firstly, women are already in combat and have been for some time. Starr brings that out in her piece towards the end discussing women military police and pilots and casualty rates. If I recall, at least two women have been awarded the Silver Star in these wars. And let's also not forget truck drivers, medics, and other women who have actually been in combat.
This is one of the problems with this discussion - we're not using the right terms and we're not making the right arguments. It's not that there's an issue with women in combat (since we've already discussed that's happening now) or "combat units", there's an issue with women serving in combat arms branches. Currently women serve in what the Army (at least) calls Combat Support and Combat Service Support branches - these are your MPs, intel types, cooks, truck drivers, medics, veterinarians, supply, etc jobs - the jobs that support the people who find, fix, and destroy the enemy. Combat Arms branches are those that do the find, fix, and destroy: infantry, armor, special forces, field artillery, aviation, air defense, engineers. Women are permitted to serve in elements of the last four and not at all in the first three. In the limitations of the last four are for positions that get assigned to infantry and armor battalions. So that is what women are barred from: not combat, some combat arms.
So the question becomes why and how can we remove these barriers? There is of course the old boys' club element to infantry and armor - but that can be dealt with just as DADT was. There are some logistics issues (see Starr's comments on submarines), but professionals can figure these out, too. There is also the American public who often (and wrongly) find the idea of women in combat (especially mothers in combat) quite distasteful. This, too, can be ignored by government fiat and I imagine people's outlooks would slowly change over time.
But the biggest impediment to women serving in the infantry is the Selective Service - a list of potential draftees if a draft were ever needed. All males must register (with some caveats) once they turn 18 years old. Granted, we haven't had a draft since the 1970s, but the Selective Service stands by just in case we do (and according to House Republicans it's going to happen!). What there is absolutely zero political appetite for in the United States is drafting women. Every poll I have ever seen on the matter (sorry don't have one handy) shows dismal support for such a measure. Americans have a hard enough time imagining women in the infantry, they are not at all stomaching the idea that the government can force women to serve in the infantry.
In times of need the draft is a major feeder for the infantry - they go hand in hand. While I hope that we never have to use the draft, we can't ignore that possible eventuality - it is our true strategic reserve. If women are permitted into the infantry they will have to be drafted - it would be both unfair to males (as it is now) as much as it would be stupid not pull from half of the population from a policy perspective.
I think women should be able to serve in any job they qualify for in the military - just like men - and think that we can and should overcome the obstacles to that happening. For me this includes adding women to the Selective Service and making them eligible for the draft in the future. Our wars today have shown women to be as capable and brave as their male comrades (seriously, why wouldn't they be??) and it is only our antiquated notions of gender roles that prevents this from happening. I realize this is a huge barrier to be overcome and we will likely not have a solution in the near the future, but I hope DoD is examining it.