A growing number of American women are joining the U.S. Armed Forces to serve in an ever wider array of duties. In the past decade, they have eroded one of the last remaining barriers in the military by entering the combat zone. Zlatica Hoke reports there is strong support for women in this role, but there is also resistance.
The capture and rescue of Private Jessica Lynch in the earlier stages of the Iraq War and subsequent involvement of Private Lynndie England in the Abu Ghraib prison scandal brought the world’s attention to U-S women in the military. Chris Hanson, professor of journalism at the University of Maryland, says the media coverage of the women in service is usually unfair.
"Women in the military are shown to be either too vulnerable and too weak or somehow too strange and aberrant," says Professor Hanson. Too much focus on sex scandals, rape and other difficulties gives the impression that women hinder rather then contribute to the success of the armed forces. He says such reports feed the stereotypes which slow the progress of service women.
Yet American military women have come a long way since World War Two when 150.000 joined the Women’s Army Corps. These were the first to serve in the US Army in posts other than nurses. Today women make up 15% of the armed forces, says Chris Hanson, and can serve in most capacities.
"When the draft ended in the early 1970’s, the military needed person power," says Professor Hanson. "And they went out and started to recruit women and they opened up a lot of jobs to women that earlier had been closed to them in the military. So women ended up by now doing all kinds of specializations, many of them combat related, although they are still kept out of infantry, tanks, artillery."
Until the Iraq War, scant public attention was paid to this progress. But the close-up television coverage of Iraq battlefields has drawn attention to the number of women soldiers. Roughly one in seven Americans serving in Iraq is female. Close to 30 have died, most in combat.
"We have never seen so many female soldiers," says Elaine Donnelly, President of the Center for Military Readiness, an independent public policy organization specializing in military issues. We know that many of them are married. "They are mothers. Some of them are single mothers – great numbers of them. And we are sending them to fight our wars in a way that is unprecedented, not just in American history, but in history around the world."
Ms Donnelly says many Americans are understandably upset to see women so close to enemy lines. A specially appointed presidential commission examined the issue of women serving in close combat in 1992 and found that presence may indeed hinder rather than improve troops’ readiness.
"Women are not as tall, as strong. They don’t have as much upper body strength as men do," explains Ms Donnelly. "So to put the load of body armor, for instance, on a female soldier, is a much greater load on her proportionately than it is on men. In every test that’s ever been done in Britain as well as the United states and in Israel it has been found that the physical differences really do put women at a disadvantage, and it is unwise to have them therefore in land combat units."
Elaine Donnelly, who was a member of the presidential commission, says the case for women in combat is based on the concept of equal opportunity, which is an important American value, but not applicable to the armed forces.
"I can summarize a huge body of information by saying this simply: female soldiers do not have
an equal opportunity to survive or to help fellow soldiers survive in a combat environment," says Elaine Donnelly. Still, some countries, including the Netherlands, Canada and Denmark have lifted all restrictions on women serving in the military. Chris Hanson says a similar trend will continue in the US armed forces.
"I think that the controversies now are what other types of jobs they’ll be allowed to have," says professor hanson. "Will women be allowed to be in the artillery, which requires less physical strength than being in the infantry? Will they be allowed to be in tanks, which in theory could be operated by someone with less physical strength just as an airplane can? I think special forces in the infantry are going be the toughest nuts to crack and they might never be cracked."
But as Elaine Donnelly points out, countries that have removed all restrictions on women in service have not engaged in combat substantially since World War Two. The United States has. "We are the nation that has taken on the bad guys and we do so in the best way that we can, says Ms Donnelly. "We provide, of course, career opportunities, but that's not our primary objective. The military is there to defend the country. Careers are important, but when there is a conflict with the needs of the military, then military necessity should come first."
When national security is at stake, most Americans would agree that the need to maintain a strong military must take precedence over concerns about equal opportunity. Some believe that one does not exclude the other, citing historic examples from medieval French heroine Joan of Arc to modern day women veterans. The argument will, no doubt, continue as long as there is a need for an armed service.