In Ghost Recon, a popular first-person shooting videogame made in 2001, the developers boldly envisioned a future of military operations (the story of the game took place in 2008) where women fought alongside men as Special Forces warriors.
In that same year, I remember wondering as a new, junior Marine if that prediction ever would or could come true. Eleven years later (and after a decade of many real wars) and women are still banned from being in the infantry and many other direct combat military jobs and combat units, but the lines are blurring.
In the Army, for instance, male and female recruits train alongside each other. And even in the notoriously stalwart, conservative, and hardcore Marine Corps, women now train with men at Marine Combat Training after boot camp. In Iraq and Afghanistan where there is asymmetric warfare (meaning, there are no front lines), woman war-fighters who ride in convoys might man the gunner’s turrets or provide other types of security; they might be called upon to go on patrol and search suspect local females (because of cultural sensitivity and respect to Arab culture, male soldiers don’t do this); or, as sentries, they might guard the gates at forward operating bases.
But is this a good thing? Is it the right thing? With the repeal of Don’t Ask Don’t Tell, the military has been required to emulate the values and liberties of the society they protect. But where is the clamor to allow women to be treated as equals? Is it even possible? Is America prepared to go to war with all of its consequences, including a new reality of female fighters coming home in body bags?
Firstly, yes it is possible for women to fight alongside men in direct combat. The old model of war envisioned conditions where most women might not be as physically capable overall to perform the tasks required. The old model trained and planned for wars of large regimental or division formations, troops traveling everywhere with all 100 plus pounds of their gear on their backs and living off the land, digging fighting holes or pitching tents, indefinitely.
But in the recent protracted battles, the types of conflicts that some at the Department of Defense are predicting for the 21st century, these considerations are not as important. Oftentimes, the modern landscapes of battle will require the troops to ride out on a mounted (vehicle) patrol as a show of presence, take enough provisions for a day or two, sweat their ass off, and then return back to their base (most frequently right outside cities or villages) to play X-Box, hang out at an internet café, shower in a mobile facility, and then sleep on a mattress. So yes, obviously, women are just as proficient and capable in such an environment. I don’t think many are trying to dispute that anymore.
Secondly, the clamor for equal rights doesn’t exist in any significant way because almost no one is championing it. There is a very clear double-standard in the military as far as equal treatment goes. Men fight and die. Women, for the most part, stay on the sidelines. Maybe that’s just because of the old paradigms and the unique nature of the work of war. In the military, even the most gung-ho don’t beg to go on patrol. They’ll volunteer when asked because of duty and pride but almost no one – man or woman – is walking up to their superior and saying, “Hey, lieutenant, I think it’s unfair I’m not out there every day.”
To be fair, some female officers have tried to create a groundswell of support for this cause since promotion to very high ranks is often based, in part, on combat experience. However, it’s unclear whether they represent the views of their enlisted female counterparts who vastly outnumber them.
Beyond all this, though, is the most important question here, for which, I believe the answer is still no. Is America ready for this?
No doubt, in the modern world and the internet age, the military, like any large organization, is obsessed with their image. They learned their lesson from Vietnam and have decided that, instead of secrecy or manipulation, keeping an open and honest public face with the media is the best practice, and should be a huge part of their mission. As such, it’s a tremendous setback for their overall goals when stories like the Abu Ghraib Scandal or the recent reportage of a photo of Air Force troops disrespecting a travel container for fallen soldiers come out.
Just the same, the military doesn’t want stories of women being killed or injured in war to come out. The military took a strong blowback from reportage like several women being killed or injured during a single IED attack in Fallujah or the huge controversies caused by Jessica Lynch’s capture. Stories like these ones stay in the national conscience in a bad way (especially when, like in Lynch’s case, maybe out of necessity, many of the facts were distorted by the military to control the story).This is why there will not be a push from the military’s top leadership to have women fight like men do anytime soon.
Photo Credit: Courtesy of LCpl. Michael McMaugh, 1st Marine Division Combat Camera