Women and Men in the Military: The Battles of the Sexes
Gender, Nature, and Nurture: Looking to the Future
As of 2003, women made up about 15% of the active military forces of the United States, Thus women constituted a relatively small minority of military personnel, even though almost 90% of the U. S. military's more than 1 million jobs were officially open to women. Statistics for other industrialized countries were comparable. Women made up 10% of Canada's armed forces, 6% of France's armed forces, 7% of Great Britain's armed forces, and 8% of the Netherlands' armed forces (International institute for Strategic Studies, 2000). Germany permitted women to participate only in musical and medical units until 2001.
When the modern Women's Movement blossomed in the late 1960s and early 1970s, the right to participate in military combat was probably not uppermost in feminists' minds. However, equality is equality, and the issue of women in the military raises fundamental questions about women's rights, the ability of the two sexes to do the same work and to work together, and the nature and nurture of gender. Do biological factors exist that disqualify women from serving in combat roles? Testifying before the Senate Armed Services Committee on the role of women in the military former commandant of the Marine Corps, General Robert H. Barrow delivered an impassioned affirmative answer to this question:
Exposure to danger is not combat. Being shot at, even being killed, is not combat. Combat is finding... closing with... and killing or capturing the enemy. It's killing. And it's done in an environment that is often as difficult as you can possibly imagine. Extremes of climate. Brutality. Death. Dying. It's... uncivilized! And women can't do it! Nor should they even be thought of as doing it. The requirements for strength and endurance render them unable to do it. And I may be old-fashioned, but I think the very nature of women disqualifies them from doing it. Women give life. Sustain life. Nurture life. They don't, take it.
(New York Times, July 21, 1991)
Many people agree with Barrow. Polls show that a majority of Americans think many military jobs should be open to women, including jobs that expose women to danger, such as working on warships and in combat aircraft; however, most Americans do not think that women should participate in hand-to-hand combat. Why not? Although many Americans might not state it as bluntly as General Barrow did, they probably entertain many of his doubts and reservations.
Do women have what it takes when it comes to hand-to-hand combat? Maybe this is the wrong question. Many men do not have what it takes either. The real question is, Do some women have what it takes? Currently, the U.S. military tests physical fitness by using separate norms developed for each sex. Thus women do not have to achieve the same number of sit-ups or pushups or run as fast as men do in order to be declared fit. is this unfair? Not necessarily. For military men, fitness is graded by age. A 40-year-old man does not have to do as many sit-ups or pushups or run as fast as a 20-year-old man to be declared fit. Fitness is relative, and it seems reasonable to calibrate physical fitness by sex and by age.
But are most women fit to endure the rigors of frontline combat? This is a trickier question to answer. In terms of physical strength, most women will not match most men. Of course, modern warfare, like many other aspects of modern life, depends less on brute physical strength and more on technological prowess. Women may be as capable as men to pilot fighter jets and to launch cruise missiles. However, do as many women as men desire to be fighter pilots? It is here that the nature and nurture of gender may come critically into play, by molding dispositions such as aggressiveness, competitiveness, risk-taking, and thrill-seeking, dispositions that may contribute to a person's desire to be a fighter pilot or combat soldier in the first place.
Most people who advocate equal rights for women in the military are not advocating equal outcomes for the two sexes. It is not necessary that half of all combat forces be composed of men and half of women. Rather, women should have the same opportunities as men, and women who qualify should be able to serve in military jobs. To many people, the very essence of women's roles seems at odds with military culture. Although it may be possible to envision a "kinder and gentler" government and a "kinder and gentler" corporation, a "kinder and gentler" combat force seems a contradiction in terms.
Then again, maybe the contradiction is more apparent than real. Combat is only one aspect of military service. Most military personnel, during most of their military careers, do not engage in military combat. Military service also involves management, procurement, recordkeeping, conflict management, education, and learning complex technological systems. No one would argue that such activities are the exclusive province of either men or women, and indeed, it seems likely that women may have the edge over men in some of these domains. Clearly, the trend in recent years has been for women and men to achieve greater equality in the military. Future military actions will put new gender policies to the ultimate test.