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A female Canadian officer cadet on a shooting range in Farnham, Que., in this photo from 2009. (John Morstad for The Globe and Mail)
A female Canadian officer cadet on a shooting range in Farnham, Que., in this photo from 2009. (John Morstad for The Globe and Mail)

Meghan spilka o’keefe

Women too weak for combat? Facts say otherwise Add to ...

Since the United States announced the end of the combat ban for women, commentators have invoked an outdated concept of gender differences in an effort to show that women are not cut-out for combat.

Arguments that women are physically weak, risk averse, and emotionally vulnerable – and thus should not fight in frontline units – fail to address that war is physically demanding, mentally terrifying, and emotionally scarring for soldiers of both genders.

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We’re also forgetting what soldiers want: The best person in the trench next to them, regardless of sexual orientation, gender, height, weight, or eye colour.

An oft-repeated argument is that men are superior warriors because they are bigger and stronger. Sure, men are, on average, stronger than women. Yet, size doesn’t capture average fitness levels in combat units.

The physical fitness standards in the Canadian Forces (CF) Expres Test, however “watered down” they are said to be, are merely a minimum standard. The Canadian Army’s Battle Fitness Test (BFT) is a gender-neutral measure of the occupational demand of the combat arms. The BFT consists of a ruck sack march, trench dig, and casualty drag. Both male and female soldiers carry the same load and are expected to complete all tasks in the same time frame. The test favours stronger and taller soldiers, but even the tallest and heaviest admit that the BFT is a demanding task.

Soldiering is so demanding that 24 per cent of CF medical releases in 2009 were due to physical injuries, while 32 per cent of soldiers surveyed for the Canadian 2010 Surgeon General’s Report were unable to deploy on operations due to musculoskeletal injuries.

Pundits also argue that men are exceptionally protective of the women they serve with. Though Canadian doctrine prioritizes mission above self, the often overlooked priorities for Canadian soldiers is mission, soldiers, self. For the American soldier, their Creed says “I will never leave a fallen comrade.” Soldiers are instilled with the value of protecting each other before protecting themselves, regardless of the gender of their fire team partner. Lieutenant-Colonel Dave Grossman, author of On Killing: The Psychological Cost of Learning to Kill in War and Society, provides research showing that while many soldiers are unable to kill to save their own lives, they can and will do so to save their buddy.

This past week, opinion pieces have implied that combat avoidance is exclusively a female attribute, ignoring the 60,000 young men who dodged the Vietnam draft. No doubt both genders can find war frightening or find political and social reasons to not participate. For those who serve, the risk tolerance of soldiers varies by trade with front-line units attracting more risk-seekers. Risk averse but looking for a subsidized education? Infantry would not be a first choice – male or female.

Emotional vulnerability and lack of warrior spirit are also cited as reasons women can’t hack it in combat. Yet, the incidence of Operational Stress Injuries (OSIs), including Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), in soldiers is currently one of the most pressing issues facing Veteran Affairs Canada. OSIs remain underreported, but it is estimated that 26 per cent of soldiers will experience an OSI one year after being released from the military. Rigid conceptions of gender norms have done a disservice to soldiers who speak up about, or admit to, suffering from depression, anxiety, or addiction.

Men and women alike find killing discomforting. In On Killing, Lt.-Col. Grossman further notes that the majority of Second World War U.S. soldiers purposely lowered their kill rates because they were not properly trained as warriors. All of the soldiers he referenced were men.

The U.S. move to lift the combat exclusion policy on women is nothing more than policy finally catching up with reality. Commentators who begrudge the U.S. decision are behind the times, while the pundits who look at the Canadian example and still argue against women in combat are nothing short of sexist.

This type of commentary ignores the fact that several Canadian female soldiers have outperformed their male colleagues in gender-blind evaluations to achieve operational tours and promotions. By diminishing the achievements of female soldiers, critics are reducing the achievements of all those that females have surpassed, a not insignificant proportion of whom are Canadian men.

Basing policy choices on an outdated perception that females are weak, vulnerable, and cowardly limits the recruitment base of the military. If allowing women in the combat arms results in even one more highly trained and extremely capable infantry soldier on the front lines, it will have been worth it. It has certainly proven to be so for Canada.

Meghan Spilka O’Keefe is a senior consultant in procurement at Hill+Knowlton Strategies, an infantry reservist, and the VP of communications for Women in Defence and Security (WiDS).

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