In a milestone for gender equality, the Pentagon is finally ending the combat ban for women – a ban that had become woefully obsolete. At last, women warriors will get the recognition and promotions they deserve. The brass ceiling has been shattered, and that's good news for both women and the military.
Or is it? I admire tough fighting women as much as anyone. Their leadership skills are as good as men's. They have important roles to play in war, and they've been on the front lines – and dying – for years.
But please, people. Let's get real. Women cannot equal men in ground combat, the kind of dirty, brutal stuff that (fortunately) makes up a very minor part of modern military life, especially post-Afghanistan. It's not that they can't be trained to kill – they can. The issue is that the physical differences between men and women are very large, and on the battlefield, they really matter, and can't be wished away. Men are better fighters because they are bigger and stronger and can endure far more physical punishment before they break down.
The average female soldier is "about five inches shorter than the male soldier, has half the upper body strength, lower aerobic capacity and 37 per cent less muscle mass," Stephanie Gutmann, author of The Kinder, Gentler Military, wrote in the New Republic. "She cannot pee standing up … She tends, particularly if she is under the age of 30 (as are 60 per cent of military personnel) to get pregnant."
U.S. Marine Captain Katie Petronio is as tough and motivated as they come – a combat engineer officer with five years of active service, during which she led many field operations. She used to think women like her could serve in the infantry, but she has changed her mind. For one thing, women are far more prone to injury than men. Her last stint in Afghanistan was so gruelling that after seven months, she had lost a large amount of muscle mass and stopped producing estrogen. "I went from breaking school records to being broken in a rather short amount of time," she told an interviewer. "And I was only doing a portion of what my infantry brethren were doing."
The full integration of women in combat roles has been portrayed as a breakthrough equivalent to the integration of black soldiers and gays. But when it comes to fighting, gender differences matter much more than race or sexual orientation. Not that any military leader dares to say so. Any effort to question the equal capabilities of men and women is a career-ender. And so we have developed the fiction that these differences can simply be negotiated away. With the exception of the Marines, training and performance standards in the U.S. military are now gender-normed (i.e., watered down) for women. Officially, this is not a problem. If a woman isn't strong enough to carry a wounded soldier off the field, they'll just work in teams!
What happens when women are fully integrated into combat? Fortunately, we have a great example: Canada. Overall, women account for 14 per cent of all jobs in the Canadian Forces, a slightly lower percentage than in the U.S. As a result of a human-rights decision, front-line combat jobs were opened to women in 1989. Yet today, despite strenuous recruiting efforts, women hold just 2.4 per cent of these jobs. Their commanding officers praise their competence but treat them differently, by shielding them from combat. According to a Wall Street Journal report this week, the widespread impression among Canadian female soldiers – much to their frustration – is they are used "only sparingly." Men serving next to women also exhibit a counterproductive battlefield trait: protectiveness. They want to carry women's gear and keep them out of harm's way. As one male soldier told the Journal, "That brother-sister protective thought was always in the back of your mind."
In the real world, few enlisted women want to be on the front lines. Like a lot of men (but more so), they join up for the free education and career training, and would really rather not get anywhere near combat. The drive for full combat integration comes from female officers who need front-line experience to build their careers, as well as from a persistent band of activists who have succeeded in making the U.S. military hypersensitive to charges of discrimination.
Nowhere is the military ethos more challenged than over issues of sex, pregnancy and motherhood. The high rate of pregnancy among females in the U.S. military is a big taboo and an operational nightmare. According to a study reported this week by Reuters, more than 10 per cent of active-duty U.S. military women had an unintended pregnancy in 2008 alone – a rate that one of the study's authors called "really shocking." But it shouldn't be. One study of a brigade operating in Iraq, cited by commentator Linda Chavez, found that female soldiers were evacuated at three times the rate of male soldiers – and that 74 per cent of them were evacuated for pregnancy-related issues.
Outside the developed world, women do not take equal roles in war alongside men. There is a reason for this. The reason is that women on the battlefield are a liability. The sheer physical demands of war (to say nothing of group cohesion, and all the rest) mean that fighting capability and performance are simply not compatible with gender equality. It's a fantasy to think otherwise. Fortunately, our world is generally peaceful enough to indulge our fantasies. If things heat up, we'll snap back to reality soon enough.