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The Role of Women in Combat: A Critical Analysis Analytical Essay

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Updated: Jun 3rd, 2019

Abstract

In the US and other nations, female soldiers are assigned various responsibilities in battle. Over the years, the number of women serving in the military has increased. The increase has raised a lot of concerns in the society. Some people in the society feel that it is high time women were involved in combat. The reason for this is that men have dominated the battlefield for years.

On the other hand, there are those who feel that women should not take part in combat. The reason for this is that the physical and biological composition of women is not suitable for combat. The controversy surrounding the inclusion of women in combat came to the fore when a group of female soldiers demanded to be included in the exercise.

The female soldiers filed a case against Leon Panetta, demanding a repeal of the exclusion policy that keeps women from combat. The role of women in combat has changed for the better over the years. In spite of these developments, the issue of women in combat has not been addressed adequately enough. A lot more needs to be done by the government, the military leadership, and other stakeholders in the society.

Introduction to Women in Combat and on the Battlefield

The United States of America, together with other nations in the world, such as the United Kingdom (UK), Greece, and India, assign female soldiers various responsibilities in battle. Over the years, the Occident has improved the inclusion of women in the military. The progress made to this end, however, has raised a lot of concerns in various circles in the society.

For example, some scholars and security analysts are of the view that it is time for men to take a break from combat. Men have dominated this field since time immemorial. On the other hand, some individuals in the society feel that women should not participate in combat. The individuals holding this view cite several reasons to support their argument.

For example, they argue that the physical and biological composition of women is not suitable for combat. The controversy surrounding the inclusion of women in combat (or lack of it thereof) was highlighted some years back when a group of female soldiers demanded to be included in the exercise.

Four female soldiers filed a case against Leon Panetta demanding a repeal of the exclusion policy that keeps women from combat (Stachowitsch, 2012). In the file, the women felt that the exclusion was outdated, citing various reasons why such a move has no place in the 21st century.

The current paper is structured around this issue. The author feels that the role of women in combat has improved and changed for the better over the past two centuries. The improvements notwithstanding, the author feels that the issue has not been addressed adequately enough. A lot more needs to be done by the government, the military leadership, and other stakeholders in the society.

Women in Combat

Female Buffalo Soldier

Cathay Williams was a female American warrior. According to Silva (2008), she was the first and only female buffalo soldier. She served in the US army during the Civil War. Given the status of women in combat at the time, she found it hard to serve in the army under her real identity. It is one of the reasons why she served the army under the disguise of William Cathay.

She was born in Missouri to a slave mother and a free father. Consequently, she became a slave, just like her mother. As a teenager, she worked in Jefferson City as a servant in a plantation. During her teens, the Union forces came to her city and captured a number of young people.

The captured individuals were forced to join the military. At that time, women did not serve in the forces, at least not as soldiers. As a result, she had to change her name and appearance to look like a man in order to join the army (Silva, 2008).

Civil War

When the Civil War began, the US government was in the middle of a battle with the Indians. The government withdrew soldiers from the war in the West in efforts to quell the rebellion.

By the time the Civil War was coming to an end, a large number of colored individuals had participated. According to Silva (2008), more than 186,000 African-American soldiers had taken part in the fight. Approximately thirty eight thousand of these soldiers died in action.

Colored soldiers were not accepted in some communities in the country. For example, eastern and southern populations detested the site of black soldiers within their community. They also feared that the blacks were going to increase competition in the labor market. The blacks living in these regions were largely discriminated against on the basis of their ethnic background.

Among others, many employers were apprehensive when it came to employing black persons. It is for this reason that may blacks treasured the possibility of serving in the military. They felt that in military, they were entitled to far more benefits than in any other form of employment available for them in the community.

For example, in military, the blacks were assured of a pension, medical cover, a steady and reliable source of income, opportunities to further their education, and good shelter. The same could not be said for employers in the private sector, including those operating in the farms and in industries.

Some African Americans, such as William Cathay, decided that working for the military was far much better as compared to working as a servant girl in a plantation. Initially, Cathay was taken to Little Rock to prepare meals for the serving soldiers. She was, however, reluctant to take up the job in spite of the fact that working in the military was preferable than working in the farms.

The major reason why she was unwilling to take up the job at first was because she did not know how to prepare food, especially for many people. Her reluctance notwithstanding, the colonel took her in. She travelled with the command to Arkansas, Louisiana, New Orleans, and later, to Washington, D.C (Silva, 2008).

According to Agazio & Buckley (2010), Cathay joined the thirty eighth infantry in 1886. At the time, the infantry was under the command of Captain Charles Clarke. Her fellow soldiers knew that she was a woman, but they agreed to keep it a secret among themselves. While on duty, she contracted smallpox, but after treatment, she went back and joined her colleagues. She served for a period of two years.

She was discharged on medical grounds after she pretended to be sick. She complained of pains in some parts of her body, and she was referred to a military doctor. The military doctor discharged her after finding out that she was a female. To date, many issues about her stint in the military are shrouded in mystery.

For example, it is not clear how she managed to go through the various physical and medical examinations, which are common to any serving officer, without anyone detecting that she was a woman.

Women Serving in World War II

During the Second World War (herein referred to as WWII), a number of American women played a significant role in military. According to Brown (2012), up to 60,000 American women served as military nurses during the war. The women, however, did not participate in combat. In 1942, the Japanese captured 67 of these women. The women were held as prisoners of war for a period of two years and six months.

In 1942, the significant role that women played in the army was recognized by the military command. In this year, the government, through the military, formed the Women’s Army Auxiliary Corps (WAAC). A year later, the entity changed its name and became the Women’s Army Corps (WAC).

During WWII, there were approximately 150,000 women serving under WACs. In addition to this, a total of 15,000 women served as nurses in the navy during the same period. In total, 350,000 American women served in various capacities in the forces during WWII. Sixteen of them died in action (Brown, 2012).

Operation Desert Storm

On August, 1990, Kuwait and Iraq differed over the prices of oil in the world market. As a result of this disagreement, Saddam Hussein, the famous Iraqi dictator, decided to invade Kuwait. The same day that Iraqi forces entered Kuwait, the US President put in place an economic embargo against Iraq.

The economic embargo was followed closely by similar measures by the United Nations. Five days after the invasion, the US President approved of Operation Desert Storm. The operation was prompted by Saddam’s refusal to withdraw his troops.

The United Nations made efforts to reason with Saddam. The UN advised him to consider entering into talks with those involved in the conflict, but he disregarded the advice of the international community.

Operation Desert Storm officially began on 16th January. On 27th February, the US defeated Iraq. Seven percent of the soldiers who were actively involved in the war were women under combat-support (Agazio & Buckley, 2010).

Women in Combat: Societal and Cultural Concerns

There are various concerns raised over the inclusion of women in combat. Some of the issues are addressed in detail below:

Physical Concerns

The bones of a woman are weaker compared to those of a man. The bones are more vulnerable to breakages than those of men. Initially, there were issues about the ability of women to handle g-forces experienced by combat pilots.

Recent studies have, however, indicated that men are less adept when it comes to handling g-forces compared to women (Haynie & Haynie, 2012). Men are more prone to black-outs than women because the blood vessels around their neck rare longer than those of women.

Health concerns are some of the issues why the Navy avoids recruiting women. Researchers who posit that women should not serve in combat point out that on average, women have a smaller and shorter physical stature compared to men. The strength of a woman’s upper body is about 40-50 percent that of men. In addition, their aerobic capacity is 25-30 percent that of men.

Consequently, their level of endurance is lower than that of men (Haynie & Haynie, 2012). However, Stachowitsch (2012) notes that some women have physical characteristics comparable to those of men. Such women have what it takes to become combat warriors.

Psychological Concerns

Romantic relationships between male and female soldiers are another reason for the exclusion of women in combat. In some cases, women become pregnant deliberately to avoid participating in combat. Another major concern is based on the fact that allowing women to engage in combat is risky to their life. For example, enemies find it easier to capture, torture, and sexually assault female soldiers than male soldiers.

Individuals supporting the inclusion of women are opposed to this argument. They argue that if the government continues to deny women the opportunity to serve as combat soldiers, it will be losing the opportunity to tap in a large pool of resources. According to those supporting inclusion, the US military regards women as inferior citizens (Haynie & Haynie, 2012)

Tactical Concerns

Since 1948, the Israel Defense Forces has barred women from taking part in combat. One of the reasons is the poor performance of women in war. Second, the injuries of a female soldier highly affect their male counterparts, thus lowering the effectiveness of combat. In addition, Islamic militants do not surrender to women.

Women are very useful when it comes to acquiring intelligence in combat. For instance, female civilians in the Middle East are at ease interacting with female soldiers. As a result, women are able to obtain information from women and children. In the Islamic world, men do not talk to women they are not related to. Women are also useful in training fellow women in the police force.

However, the women can also compromise missions. For example, during combat, the attention of male soldiers can drift from completing a mission to saving their female counterparts. It is easy to program men to kill in combat, but it is difficult to train them to abandon women (Haynie & Haynie, 2012; Stachowitsch, 2012).

Women of Honor

Medal of Honor

The Medal of Honor is the highest acknowledgment that any officer or soldier serving in the United States’ military can receive. The medal comes in three versions, one for each arm of the military. In addition to officers in the military, the US President has awarded the Medal of Honor to eight civilians who have immensely contributed to the success of the US forces in critical times.

One such civilian was Mary E. Walker. Mary E. Walker was an American prohibitionist, abolitionist, feminist, prisoner of war, surgeon, and an alleged spy. She is the only female recipient of the Medal of Honor. Just before the Civil War, she had launched her medical practice after graduating from Syracuse Medical College. She volunteered as a surgeon under the Union Army during the war.

Confederate forces arrested her after she crossed into the enemy’s territory to offer treatment to wounded civilians. The Confederate accused Mary of spying on them and took her to Richmond as a prisoner of war.

She was released when the US military exchanged her for other prisoners. After the war, she received the Medal of Honor for her selfless contribution during the war. After leaving the army, she became a lecturer and an accomplished writer.

The Distinguished Service Cross

The Distinguished Service Cross is the second highest award in the military. Various women have received the award. Jane Jeffery served as a nurse under the American Red Cross. She sustained severe wounds after a raid. However, she did not leave the post.

Instead, she went on to assist other wounded officers. Beatrice MacDonald lost one eye after a raid in Belgium. The two women received this award. Other recipients include Hellen G. McClelland, Eva J. Parmelee, and Isabelle Stambaugh (Brown, 2012).

The Navy Cross

While distinguished army men and women receive the Distinguished Service Cross, their naval counterparts receive the Navy Cross. The Congress established the award in 1919.

The Department of the Navy presents the award to Marine Corps, Coast Guards, or officers in the US Navy who perform exceptionally well, but do not qualify for the Medal of Honor. Some female recipients include Lenah Higbee, Marie L. Hidell, Lilian Murphy, and Edna Pierce (Brown, 2012).

The Silver Star

The Silver Star is the third highest military medal in the United States. The US Armed Forces offers the award to an officer who has displayed exceptional gallantry in an operation against an enemy of the State. The Silver Star replaced the Citation Star in 1918.

The military awards officers who have made outstanding contributions in the forces, but did not qualify for the higher awards. Mary R. Wilson received the award during WWII. She was the supervisor of fifty nurses. Other female recipients include Mary Roberts, Elaine Roe, Rita Rourke, and Ellen Ainsworth (Brown, 2012).

ACLU versus the Department of Defense

Mary Hegar was a very successful pilot serving in the armed forces. She flew US soldiers to Afghanistan three times. She has served for eleven years in the Air National Guard and the Air Force. She has witnessed battle first-hand and has flown many wounded American soldiers from the battlefield to safety. In 2009, her helicopter was shot down in Afghanistan.

She fired back at the enemies and successfully accomplished the rescue mission. She received the Distinguished Flying Cross and a Purple Heart. However, she cannot hold a combat job because she is a woman. Currently, the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) is engaging the Department of Defense in a battle that may change all this (Stachowitsch, 2012).

The ACLU filed lawsuits against the department because of the policy that excludes women from taking direct positions in combat. Although women like Hegar can rescue their fellow soldiers, they cannot engage in battle. The Supreme Court bars any institution or individual from discriminating against any American on the basis of gender.

However, the court justifies such discrimination only in a case where it is the only way to achieve an objective of the United States government. In spite of the fact that national security is a crucial objective of the government, the ACLU posits that the exclusion of women from combat is unjustifiable. The suit by ACLU outlines the achievements, awards, and limitations of four female who have served in the US military.

Because of the exclusion, close to 300,000 women who have served in Afghanistan and Iraq cannot attend some military schools. The women lack the opportunity to do what they are capable of doing (Stachowitsch, 2012).

George Little, Pentagon’s spokesman, hinted that the Department of Defense may have barred the women from engaging in combat, but it is in the process of giving the female soldier more duties. According to Little, such duties will go a long way in empowering women to compete with male soldiers for top jobs in the military.

Since 1994, the Department of Defense has made it clear that women are not suitable for 20 percent of the jobs in the Armed Forces. For a person to earn a promotion to the top ranks in the military, they must have combat experience. Consequently, women cannot hold 80 percent of the leadership positions in the Army.

However, Hegar points out that the problem is not the stifling of her career advancement opportunities per se. She avers that the policy has resulted in an organizational culture of gender stereotyping (Mackenzie, 2012). As a result of this, women are regarded as the “weaker sex”.

Her major concern is that the policy fails to acknowledge the contribution made by service-women in enhancing the security of the country and that of fellow soldiers (Stachowitsch, 2012).

Women should not be allowed in Combat

Women have the ability to serve in combat. However, there are a lot of concerns when it comes to women and war. As aforementioned, the military is already doing away with some of the traditional policies that have barred women from advancing their careers. Although they may not be able to participate in combat, the Department of Defense will allow female soldiers to offer perilous support to other combatants.

The society has abandoned some positive traditional “stereotypes” about women, such as their sensitivity and uniqueness in protecting and nurturing children. The abandon is seen in movies like The Hunger Games, where men and women kill each other without a second thought. The girl child is growing up knowing that she has a point to prove. She knows that she has to be aggressive.

The consequence is that girl-to-girl violence has increased in schools and the marriage institution has fallen apart. There are vital gains made when girls are treated equally with boys. However, the gains overshadow some crucial attributes of culture. Women have the ability to do what male soldiers do.

But most male soldiers are incapable of standing by and watching their female colleagues die in combat. Women in combat will only compromise military missions of the US Armed Forces.

Conclusion

From the first female buffalo soldier to Mary Walker and Mary Hegar, women have played vital roles in the United States’ military. Their contribution to national safety and security is immeasurable. But the traditional roles of men and women are based on the uniqueness of each gender. Men are tough, while women are tender. Men should engage in combat, while women should offer non-combatant support to fellow soldiers.

References

Agazio, J., & Buckley, K. M. (2010). Finding a balance: Health promotion challenges of military women. Health Care for Women International, 31(9), 848-868. doi:10.1080/07399332.2010.486095

Brown, M. T. (2012). “A woman in the army is still a woman”: Representations of women in US military recruiting advertisements for the all-volunteer force. Journal of Women, Politics & Policy, 33(2), 151-175. doi:10.1080/1554477X.2012.667737.

Haynie, C., & Haynie, J. (2012). Marines or MARINES*?. U.S. Naval Institute Proceedings, 138(11), 46-51.

Mackenzie, M. H. (2012). Let women fight. Foreign Affairs, 91(6), 32-42.

Silva, J. M. (2008). A new generation of women? How female ROTC cadets negotiate the tension between masculine military culture and traditional femininity. Social Forces (University of North Carolina Press), 87(2), 937-960.

Stachowitsch, S. (2012). Military gender integration and foreign policy in the United States: A feminist international relations perspective. Security Dialogue, 43(4), 305-321. doi:10.1177/0967010612451482

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