Despite the “Ban”, I’m a Woman and I Served in Combat

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True story: my military experience included capturing a four foot long snake once.

Andrea Chandler is angry that women in the military have been taking fire for nearly 20 years, and no one in the media seems to have noticed.

The news flashed around the Internet on the 23rd that Defense Secretary Leon Panetta would announce the opening of combat positions in the US military to women, lifting a nearly 20-year ban on women in combat.

And lo, Twitter celebrated, and feminists rejoiced. People reblogged things on Tumblr and waved metaphorical pompoms. Meanwhile, I yawned. Where the hell have all you people been?

Women have been in combat. We’ll disregard the women who fought in the Revolutionary War and the Civil War, who took advantage of lax physical exam rules to dress as men and enlist. The advent of more detailed medical exams on entry shut women out of that route when World War I rolled around. No, we’ll skip to the 21st century and the first US military operation of the new millennium.

The first woman killed in Operation Iraqi Freedom was Lori Piestwa, a Hopi woman assigned to an Army support and maintenance division ambushed outside Nasiriyah, Iraq. The ambush took place on 23 March 2003, just four days after the fighting started; SPC Piestwa’s fellow soldiers Jessica Lynch and Shoshanna Johnson were injured in the ambush.

Since Lori Piestwa, over 800 women have been wounded in Iraq and Afghanistan, and 139 have died. They became casualties while serving in “non-combat” positions in a theater of war in which someone forgot to inform the enemy that there is any such thing as a “non-combat” soldier.

The history of women in modern combat roles doesn’t start with 2003, however. In the US Navy, enlisted women have been serving on board surface warships since 1993, the year before the Pentagon’s ban on women in ground combat positions was instituted. While barred from submarine service, women serve in every role men do on board Navy destroyers, cruisers, and aircraft carriers, including those that deal with offensive and defensive weapons systems.

Women in the Army have been flying helicopters, including the Apache gunship, since about a year after women were barred from artillery and infantry positions. Women in the Air Force have been flying in combat aircraft since 1993 as well, although they still make up only about 2% of the fighter pilot force.

So to hear a bunch of civilians celebrating a decision from the Pentagon that essentially only ratifies reality made me angry. The cheers of “FINALLY women will be allowed in combat” made me want to scream and hit people with my rack of medals.

This is what a combat zone looks like for most Navy Personnel.

The Navy Achievement Medal on my uniform was for my role in launching Tomahawk missiles during Operation Iraqi Freedom, which is exactly as close to combat as the crew of a warship gets in these days when grand naval battles are obsolete.

Women on the ground were taking fire, as Piestwa and her squadmates proved so early on. Women in combat aircraft were dropping bombs and firing guns. This policy change doesn’t even mean pay parity—women have had that.

Women stationed in combat theaters already receive the same combat pay that men do, and have for years. My own pay stubs from my time in the Persian Gulf prove it.

What this policy from the Pentagon does offer to women is equality in career opportunity.

That is what should be celebrated here: that finally women will receive the same career opportunities as men in the US military, where promotion and advancement are often weighted toward those with combat experience, particularly for those in leadership roles.

Well, it offers equality for the most part. The services have three years to implement it, and are allowed to petition for exceptions to the rule.

This makes it likely that some jobs, particularly those in the ultra-macho, obscenely hypermasculine world of special forces, are going to continue to be male-only. The major difference is that right now, the Army and Marine Corps must change the rules in order to allow women into the infantry and artillery.

After this policy change goes into effect, it will take a rule change to keep women out. Anyone who believes that the services won’t petition to ensure some roles remain closed to women is living in fantasyland, as a macho culture doesn’t do an about-face maneuver in a day, or even in three years.

The whole furor surrounding the Pentagon’s policy change highlights for me the problems I have with progressive politics as a woman veteran. Too often the military is ignored, and then when the left does take notice as they have here, they celebrate the wrong achievement and in the process erase the presence of women combat veterans.

These women who have seen fighting are often struggling to be taken seriously as their male counterparts are, and God help them if part of their trauma involved sexual violence.

This is all the room you get for your personal things on a war ship. And the sheets they issue you never, ever look clean.

The Veteran’s Administration does a poor job serving women veterans, and this change in Pentagon policy will do nothing to change that. Nor will it change the fact that women in the armed services are at higher risk of sexual assault than dying in combat, a problem that the military structure in general seems unable or unwilling to address.

This policy will not change the fact that single mothers in the military are often pressured to give up custody of their children or get out. It won’t change the attitude that women who get pregnant unexpectedly are only doing it to avoid deployment, or the million other misogynist attitudes that actively hamper women’s career advancement.

We can hope, of course, that as more women move into traditionally male-only jobs in the military, the macho culture that defines masculinity as opposed to all things (and therefore all people) feminine will change.

That is the hope that this policy change represents, the hope that one day a woman in the military will be more likely to be shot by the enemy than raped by one of her co-workers.

Let’s make sure we celebrate what this shift actually does and the hope it brings us, rather than making women combat veterans invisible in our haste to rejoice that the Pentagon has finally caught up with reality.

by Andrea Chandler

 

Originally appeared at xoJane

 

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Comments

  1. wellokaythen says:

    Excellent point about women already being in combat situations.

    The elite special operations units actually should be LESS hyper-masculine in their outlook instead of more hyper-masculine compared to more regular units. Their operations are supposed to require more subtlety, more flexible thinking, less adherence to strict formal rules, less uniformity of dress and behavior, more thinking outside the box, etc., so being extra bound up in strict gender roles seems counter-productive, just from a tactical standpoint.

    Being locked into traditional gender roles creates strategic and tactical weaknesses that an enemy can exploit. Machismo creates blind spots that an intelligent enemy can take advantage of. (Fortunately, the Taliban have an even bigger blind spot in this regard.) Too much loyalty to established gender roles can actually hamper preparedness, not increase it. Underestimating the fighting ability of women creates unnecessary weakness. The security forces at the Tel Aviv airport have learned the hard way not to underestimate the commitment of women to risk their lives for a cause.

    • Wellok,

      You’re devious, but not devious enough. It goes both ways. The “machismo,” as you call it, may actually be a cover story. The enemy thinks we are more sexist than we really are, which gives us the element of surprise. The official story is that we don’t send women into combat, so the enemy fails to notice when we secretly infiltrate women into their territory anyway. They think we’re too sexist to do anything like that, which is precisely why we can get away with it.

      Think about it. I’m sure there’s someone at the Pentagon thinking about it this way as we speak. Here’s what you do.

      As head of Special Operations you make an official public announcement to the entire world that you do not use women in any combat operations whatsoever. You get an official exemption for your organization. There’s some public outcry, some hearings, people all over the world take note of this policy, the policy stands for a while, and in the meantime you secretly recruit women into Special Operations anyway. You can use people that the whole world is convinced you would never use. This creates all sorts of opportunities. If a woman SEAL is captured in northern Pakistan and accused of being a SEAL, the Navy has plausible deniability. How could she be a SEAL when women aren’t even allowed to join the SEALS? Clearly America’s enemies are lying — those Pakistani Taliban are obviously getting desperate with their propaganda.

      The word “special” in the U.S. military is a codeword which means “I can’t tell you what I do, so don’t ask. It’s better for everyone if you don’t know.” The more “elite” or “special” the units, the more secrecy surrounds them, and the greater gap there tends to be between what the military says it does and what it actually does.

      It’s so quaint, kind of sweet and scary, really, that the public takes the military at its word when it says it assigns roles to some people and not others. When the military acts sexist, everyone assumes that it’s sincere in its sexism. That’s the best kind of cover, the most believable kind! What’s most amazing is how many people in the military believe what the Pentagon says about what it does. The more elite the unit, the more the unit is like an espionage team, and the distinction between soldier and spy really starts to break down. You have to remember that at the elite level there are cover stories, legends, etc. that are there to help operations.

      I wouldn’t be surprised if in the most secret ops the military has already been using women operatives for years without telling anyone. The CIA has already started doing this, quietly using women in very dangerous operations without announcing it. Some of those nameless stars on the wall at Langley are probably women who have died undercover. The really top secret units tend to be more like CIA teams than military squads anyway, so it wouldn’t surprise me if the Pentagon is doing the same thing.

      The secret wouldn’t stay secret for long, of course. But, if sexism is a weakness, then the enemy’s overestimation of our sexism could be THEIR weakness. So, maybe the elite units ought to act MORE macho in the next few years, to add to the cover story.

      • wellokaythen says:

        Wow. Super devious. You realize that you’ve just blown someone’s cover by writing this, don’t you? Don’t answer the door when someone knocks tomorrow. It’s probably bad news for you.

  2. wellokaythen says:

    Now I’m curious about how “the private sector” handles the question of women in combat roles. All those private security forces with those thousands of employees overseas in Iraq and Afghanistan – what are their policies about women mercenaries? (I know we’re not supposed to call them mercenaries, but the word really does fit.)

    Those companies have very little public oversight, so they have very little political pressure either way, so do they put women in harm’s way more or less than the official military system? Just curious if they are more pragmatic or more traditionalist or about the same.

  3. Now if society were to apply ‘social science’ to this situation, we would have Affirmative action. Since women have been banned from combat, I say we ONLY send women into combat for about 20 or 30 years to ‘even things up’. No I am not kidding. That is what we have done (sorta) in other areas when women were deemed to be behind the curve.

    • wellokaythen says:

      Hmmm. 51% of the country’s population, so make women 51% of the casualties? Probably not many voters going to back that anytime soon.

      • Sounds good to me. Every women who dies on the battlefield is another man who wasn’t sacrificed in her place.

        I’ll support women being 51% of casualties just as strongly as I support women being 51% of Congress… and for the exact same reason. Equality.

  4. “We can hope, of course, that as more women move into traditionally male-only jobs in the military, the macho culture that defines masculinity as opposed to all things (and therefore all people) feminine will change.”

    It is clear that you are extremely anti-military and extremely anti-male. Yet you are in the military with men….Something isn’t adding up.

    I don’t think the military will be worried about making the culture less ‘macho’ and more feminine in the case of a war like 1941-1945. Other things will matter more than self-pity and self-absorption.

  5. Richard Aubrey says:

    So. What about gender-norming physical requirements?
    Also, keep in mind that the new idea is putting women in Combat Arms, not just putting them where they could get killed while serving as MPs or signal corps or transport people.
    This is not about getting killed. It’s about killing the other guys.
    So. What about gender-norming physical requirements?

  6. Alowing women to serve in the military without passing exactly the same requirements for physical ability as men actually means KILLING men. If female soldiers can`t run as fast, carry a wounded soldier as fast etc. they will put male soldiers in danger they otherwise would not be in and because of this they will DIE. Men will have to move slower away from teh enemy because they have women in their troop who can`t move fast enough for long enough and this will lead to cases where male soldiers will be killed who would have been able to get away had they not had to slow down for slower women. Women who can`t carry a wounded male soldier long enough will lead to male soldiers dying because thy did not get medical atention because women couldn`t get them there. They will die in order for women who are not physically in shape to be soldiers get to “play war”. If you ar pro women getting into the military without passing the same physical standards as women you are in favour of such a policy of sacrificing male lives for female “self actualisation”.

    • So keep the standards; what’s the big deal? Most women won’t pass them, but then most male soldiers don’t either.

      • WHat are you trying to say here? I don`t get it. All male soldiers pass the standards otherwise they would not be allowed in. It is most of the female soldiers who can`t pass the male standards and they should because it is the minimum requirement for being able to perform well enough as a soldier. CURRENTLY women are given a much, much easier test which means most of them are bad soldiers
        that can not even perform close to the minimum standard because somehow it is seen as not “fair” that women have to pass the same standard as men. This is the view almost all feminist have on this issue. It is a lowering of standards all armies have been against but which feminists have successfully managed to pressure governments to accept. This is the view that male lives are, and actually winning the war, is less important than a woman actualizing herself as a soldier. That is a big deal. It is a big deal if we keep allowing women to get in easier to play soldiers at the cost of male death. It is also a big deal that feminism have showed itself to so blatantly not give any value to the lives of male soldiers or what actually wins wars. It is very revealing of feminism as an ideology, its motives and the specific feminists that have held this view that they value women’s possibility to be soldiers “for fun” above male lives and actually winning wars.

        • wellokaythen says:

          Erik,

          I think it’s totally fair to ask what are the costs and benefits of allowing women into more combat roles. Then, we can add them all together, weight them, and come to an objective conclusion whether it would make things better or worse. That sounds very practical and reasonable to me.

          Can you imagine ANY benefits to allowing women into combat positions, or are there only drawbacks? Is this lifting of the ban just a political stunt to please feminists, or might there be something else to gain? (It could be that the drawbacks outweigh the benefits anyway. Just saying the military might benefit in some ways doesn’t mean it’s not a political stunt.) Just curious what your perspective is.

          • Benefit: Drawing on all available resources to do an important job.

            Drawback: None that I can see as long as the same standards are maintained.

            It’s exactly the same question if you consider the cost/benefits of allowing blacks or gays to serve in combat roles. As long as they can do the job, all objections are meaningless bigotry that hinders our ability to field the best possible force.

    • wellokaythen says:

      What I’ve noticed is that normally when people talk about success in the military, it’s all about teamwork, working together, mutually supporting each other, putting the mission and the unit above the individual, the team is greater than the sum of its parts, etc. Teamwork is more important than individual qualities.

      But, when the subject of women in the military comes up, all of a sudden the military is all about the individual. It’s all about carrying capacity of the individual, and women can’t keep up, the individual woman isn’t strong enough, etc. Suddenly it’s the individual abilities that are the most important factor, not teamwork. When the subject of women comes up, women are assumed to be not integrated into the team, so it’s her versus the men in the unit.

      One woman can’t carry a wounded man to safety? Okay, then make sure the unit has at least two women in it. Problem solved. Two women ought to be at least as strong as one man. If the main problem is individual carrying capacity, then use more individuals. Besides, that’s just looking at the glass half-empty. Women are smaller, so when they’re wounded they’ll be easier to carry. Wouldn’t it be beneficial to have smaller, lighter personnel? I thought the whole Rumsfeldian revolution in the military was smaller, lighter units….

      It just seems sensible to me that if a squad is going house to house in Afghanistan, it could be extremely useful to have at least one woman in the unit, especially if the local women have information that could be vital intel. For all the same reasons it’s useful to have women police officers on patrol.

      • Richard Aubrey says:

        well.
        The Navy already did that. Two women couldn’t carry a simulated wounded man throught simulated passageways during training, which was the standard. So the Navy said, okay, four. Problem is, four people can’t carry a litter through passageways. Those oval thingies in the doorways you sometimes see? The door is closed and the oval thing is opened when in combat. Prevent flooding and fire spreading.
        Use two women to carry a guy? That means two people out of the shooting piece of it, not one.
        The Marines have women–see Lionesses–who help deal with women and the Army has a similar program.
        But to get to talk to the women, you first go over the wall, through the door, and kill the bad guys, and then you have time to talk to people.
        And as to the teamwork issue; the point is each invividual should be able to carry his load, figuratively and literally. Otherwise he is letting down his squadmates.
        Okay, we make it legit for a woman to cock a fifty standing up. She gets shot, draws attention to the position. You do see a downside, don’t you?

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