Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Don't write off female front-line warriors just yet

The Canberra Times: Don't write off female front-line warriors just yet

Women in front-line combat: it's literally the stuff of science-fiction. In the film Starship Troopers and television series Battlestar Galactica, women pilot fighters shoot in firefights and brawl in fist-fights. They eat, sleep and shower with men.
Can fiction become reality in Australia? The Government recently flagged the introduction of women into front-line roles. ''Men and women'', said Prime Minister Julia Gillard, ''are equal''. Opposition Leader Tony Abbott concurred. ''If a woman has the capability'', he said, ''there's no reason why she shouldn't do the job''. Former chief of the defence force, General Peter Cosgrove, is also a reported backer.

Coming after recent scandals, these announcements might be seen as political game-playing: whitewashing the dirty khaki. Nonetheless, they are bona fide questions, which Australian politicians and military personnel must ask. And they should be asked rationally and practically, rather than deferring to utopian abstractions or bigoted custom.

Those in our armed forces may doubt whether civilians can discuss the issue authoritatively we have no experience of combat's demands. This is a legitimate doubt. But the armed forces themselves are divided on this, so military experience alone is clearly not enough for consensus. The debate is partly one of values, not simply military prowess.

As the military fights on our behalf, it certainly behooves civilians to take the issue seriously. It's about being clear about our soldiers' rights. They are still Australian citizens, and we rightfully expect standards of gender equality to apply to them. Do they?

The most obvious problem is physiological. Women are, on average, weaker and less physically robust than men. A 2003 study by the Israeli Defence Forces concluded that women were less able to lift heavy equipment, and continue sustained, strenuous movement. However, many physical limitations are relative look at female boxers, weightlifters, wrestlers. Limitations can be decreased with training. Mrs Average might not be as strong as Mr Average. But self-selecting, motivated, well-trained recruits are not average. Retired US Navy Captain Lory Manning cites female military recruits in Britain running almost 10km with over 20kg on their backs. They needed extra training, but they succeeded. Some front-line equipment is heavier, but Manning's point is clear: physical fitness can be increased for women, as with men.

Can every woman carry injured comrades or lift heavy munitions? Probably not. Neither can most men. But as in the workplace and sports, the curve for women's physical strength and stamina can certainly be pushed to the right of the graph. Another argument against women on the front-line is psychological: they increase stress, decrease morale and cohesion. Women will snap in combat. Men will be demoralised by female casualties and fatalities, and their male-only bonds will break. There's no evidence that female soldiers are more prone to psychological instability, or that traditional ''feminine'' traits are hard-wired into female brains. And anecdotal evidence is promising. Many women in support positions in Iraq have seen prolonged combat. In 2007 Manning reported on PBS that they've done ''brilliantly well'', with no discernible difference in combat performance or psychological well-being.

The ''morale'' argument is more serious. It doesn't matter how physically fit, well-trained and skilled female soldiers are. What matters is male soldiers' responses to them: unease, alienation or horror. Civilians might roll their eyes at these double-standards, but in combat morale and cohesion are vital. Whatever compromises them is suspect, no matter how egalitarian.

Men's reactions to injured women are undoubtedly raw. Women are routinely killed and maimed in war most are unarmed civilians. This rightly elicits a visceral response, though perhaps to innocents brutalised rather than simply to gender. In 1948 Israel's military took women off the front line after a captured female soldier was raped, mutilated and murdered. Even veterans can be horrified by women soldiers' suffering. However, attitudes can slowly change.

Since the Arab-Israeli War, Israel has continued to draft both sexes. Today Israeli women are fighter pilots and snipers, and the Caracal Battalion has male and female infantrymen. According to The Washington Times one Sergeant Pini joined Caracal hoping for a girlfriend, but discovered that ''everyone becomes one of the guys'' on patrol. The point: military service can unite soldiers by common experience, not simply by gender. Male bonding is not the only kind of unity. Of course these arguments are not the final word. More evidence for or against is required. But the debate should continue, for Australia's standards in the military, and in gender equity demand it.

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