No Matter How Many Times You Say Women Can’t Be in Combat, War Doesn’t Seem to Care

The military serves a couple of important functions in our culture, aside from the ones it’s officially charged with.  One is giving poor folks a way of seeing the country and the world and encountering a lot of different people and cultures and the other is revealing stupid bullshit between groups in our own society for what they are.

I think I told you about the Mississippi vet I talked to in the airport a while back, who was going on about how it was the Army that taught him that racism was stupid, because, when the Grand Ole Opry came on and all the white guys from the city started making fun of him, calling him hillbilly and hick, it was the black guys from Mississippi who sat with him and listened with him, because they, too, back home on Saturday night listened to the Opry.

And, also, one only has to look at the dates to see how desegregating the military gave added urgency to desegregating the rest of the country.

In other words, even though we tend to think of the military as a very conservative institution, it has, in many ways, been the catalyst for a lot of progressive change.  That, I think, is one reason the fight over gays in the military has been so fierce, because both sides know that, if gay people are allowed to serve openly, it will mean shifting a lot of people’s fundimental attitudes.  They won’t have to like serving next to gay people, but they will have to get used to it.  And once they’re used to it, many of them are going to find it damn foolish to worry about working and living next to gay people when they get home.

All this brings me to women in combat.  The arguments against letting women serve in combat have ranged from the criminally stupid (“Once a month, women are more prone to infections!”) to the old tried-and-true “It’ll ruin unit cohesion” to whatever else folks can think of at any given moment so that a fog of “women can’t/shouldn’t be in combat” shrouds the land and prevents us from looking at the truth:

Women are, right now, in combat zones–civilian women and female troops.  There they are.  Fighting and dying and living and going about their jobs, just like the men.

And it’s become so ubiquitous that Dick Cheney himself can put a silver star on Monica Brown, give her the third-highest combat medal, before anyone realizes that means she’s been in combat.

What are you going to do?

We don’t line up in great big swaths just a few people deep and stand on either end of the field from each other waiting to see if our opponant is going to mow us down before we mow him down any more.  Why we did that in the first place is too stupid to even contemplate, but it’s over, it’s done, and has been for decades.

There is no front line now.  There is no safe “non-combat” place for a person in a war zone to hang out.  That’s not how war works.  And keeping up this charade of not allowing women into combat serves only two purposes–to give the appearance of protecting male soldiers from girl cooties and to make people too invested in chivalry feel good.  Both of those are bullshit reasons.

Women are in combat.  It’s time to let go of the dream of keeping us out of combat.  We’re there and we’re serving along side our fellow soldiers and it’s not the end of the world.

Here’s what change looks like:

“I didn’t want to leave,” Brown said, after being pulled from the platoon. Robbins said he and his men, who called Brown “Doc,” also wanted to keep her as their medic.

“I’ve seen a lot of grown men who didn’t have the courage and weren’t able to handle themselves under fire like she did,” said Staff Sgt. Aaron Best of Canton, N.C., Robbins’s gunner that day. “She never missed a beat.”

21 thoughts on “No Matter How Many Times You Say Women Can’t Be in Combat, War Doesn’t Seem to Care

  1. Also, I just feel like I must point out that, when talking about so-called white supremacy, folks never seem to have a good explanation for why, if we’re so smart, we invented a method of warfare that involves lining up and facing our opponants who are also in a line and fighting each other like that. And not only did we invent that, we kept it up for hundreds of years. Often while wearing bright colors.

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  3. We don’t line up in great big swaths just a few people deep and stand on either end of the field from each other waiting to see if our opponant is going to mow us down before we mow him down any more. Why we did that in the first place is too stupid to even contemplate

    actually, military historians could list quite a few reasons we used to fight like that, but one way or the other that is indeed over and done with now. long ranged rifles dealt the first blow to that tradition, fast-loading gatlings and machine guns dealt the heaviest and bloodiest blow, and wireless communication delivered the coup de grace.

    today, as you rightly state, anybody wearing the right uniform (which might be the wrong skin color, depending on who’s in the fight) anywhere even near the fighting is a soldier at the front lines. the marines have it right, now; every soldier needs to be a rifleman, and we should start thinking seriously about a gender-neutral replacement for “rifleman”, because we’re gonna need it. (Jeff Cooper, for all his flaws, agreed we needed one, and suggested “shootist”. that might be too civilian-sounding for the services, though.)

    (we started the “massed, tightly packed lines” way of fighting back in ancient days, because that was how you got shield walls to work against swordsmen. we kept it up because it let pikemen hold their ground against cavalry charges, and in the end, because it let officers yell their orders over the din of battle and be heard; besides, firearms weren’t that much longer ranged than crossbows anyway, and just about as slow to reload too.

    until, about the American civil war, they weren’t anymore. smart armies started taking notice about then. stupid armies kept up the old ways until the trenches of the first great war. after that point, really, the old notions about women in combat should have been withering already, and perhaps in a sense they were.)

  4. Also, the US Civil War and the Crimean War (about the same time) put an end to the old glorious cavalry charges. Pickett’s Charge and the Charge of the Light Brigade are famous for a reason.

    I would point out that one of the side-effects of pretending that women in the military are not in combat is that female soldiers get paid less, and are eligible for fewer benefits.

  5. I would point out that one of the side-effects of pretending that women in the military are not in combat is that female soldiers get paid less, and are eligible for fewer benefits.

    Wow. Really? (heres hoping that reads as wonderment, not sarcasm) i always assumed that, at least when i was in service, the enlisted pay scales were gender neutral. I don’t think I ever thought to ask, though.


  6. My understanding is that soldiers “in combat” have a different pay scale than those “not in combat.” And since women are officially never in combat, they don’t get combat pay. And since they officially aren’t in combat, their stresses or injuries are officially not combat related, and the benefits and pensions they receive reflect this.

  7. wrong. if you are in a combat theater, or combat zone, regardless of gender or MOS, you get combat pay.
    leave the military talk to us menfolk and go fix me a turkey pot pie now that I think about it, sweetie.

  8. But I want to stand up and say “what the hell are people talking about?” In the period I study, women were constantly on the battlefield and taking part in combat. They camped right behind the lines, they took artillery fire (and helped to return it), they delivered meals out to their husbands (under fire) when the battle raged all day. They carried water, they carried guns, they made bullets, they got in the way, they led the way, they kept their army on the field. Some of the best battlefield descriptions we’ve got come from women (either Tory or Patriot).

    Not sure when we all decided that women never have been in combat zones in the US. I know that’s a common idea, but a look at the record in the 18th and 19th century shows that it’s just not correct. (I am guessing that it has a lot to do with the development of an argument made by white men in the mid-19th century between soldiering at time of war, manliness, and the full extension of civic equality.)

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  10. Sarcastro, I thing you’d better hope that NM is having a lot of turkey and pot before she reads that comment and is sufficiently tired and mellow to not feel compelled to stuff you in a pie.

    Bridgett, that and I’m sure it’s some Angel of the House lingering bullshit, too.

  11. Yeah, that too. But I’m sure someone has studied the erasure from public memory that women were on the battlefield, got pensions for their service, etc….if not, what a fabulous book topic. I know that the theme of women and protection (in the home, as the people defended) was constantly talked about as part of early women’s rights movement because it connected so many of the activist arenas (like temperance, domestic violence law, property rights, divorce) that women operated in. My money is between 1815-1840, because the gendered rhetoric of the Mexican-American war is substantially different. However, quite a few women and kids were in the Alamo throughout the battle…so while the official story goes that they huddled in the sacristy of the church, I’d be really surprised if that was true.

  12. I was in combat with women – a PATRIOT battery in Desert Storm. They were fine, no overt “little sister” complexes from the men, everybody did their jobs.

    As long as you do your job, with no whining, no one cares what your gender is.

  13. It made some sense to keep women out of the front line back in the day when combat was muscle powered, but these days not so much.

  14. Sar, honey, you go right on thinking about pot pies. That’s about your speed.

    I am curious now, though, because I know I’ve seen a number of stories about women in the Gulf War not getting proper pensions because the disabilities they ended up with from combat were regarded as non-combat injuries, because, as women, they couldn’t have been in combat.

    Bridgett, didn’t George Washington complain bitterly about all the ‘camp followers’ with the Continental army?

  15. NM, I have heard that, too, and how keeping women out of combat is an effective way to keep us from moving up in the ranks, because you usually have to have combat experience to be promoted to the highest levels.

    But I did some cursory research last night and, though I could find people saying those things, I couldn’t find anything that felt to me like a primary source, so I didn’t feel comfortable including that in the main post.

  16. I had two female cousins in combat in Desert Storm and one of my five cousins deployed now is female; the women pull the same duty as the men. There have been about 400 women in Iraq classified as “combat amputees.” The list of female combat dead are climbing along with all the other deaths.

    So…I guess the question is “What purpose (or whose purpose) is served to deny that women not just serve in combat now, but have been serving as combat troops for a very long time?” When something is so palpably untrue but keeps being repeated nevertheless, that’s a society caught in the act of telling itself a foundational lie.

  17. When something is so palpably untrue but keeps being repeated nevertheless, that’s a society caught in the act of telling itself a foundational lie.

    and such delusional lies are often more about form than function. it’s likely not about serving anybody’s purposes, really. more likely it’s that, as a culture and society, “we” want to keep deluding ourselves because “we” think life would look better if it didn’t involve women in combat.

    sort of like gay people in the military, which anybody with half a brain knows there are and no problems arise. which anybody with a brain knows there always have been, since most armies have always been conscripted and/or drafted, and no problems from the sexuality angle unless it was sleeping with your C.O.’s wife. yet the USA specifically keeps wanting to delude itself about that, too, even though absolutely nobody benefits from it — it’s about a large group of people preferring the self-delusion to reality, nothing else.

  18. Washington did complain at times. He also gratefully took the money raised by Philadelphia women to make the Continental payroll when he was camped at Valley Forge (otherwise, the rest of his army would have deserted because they hadn’t been paid in a while). Thereafter, his attitude started to soften a little. He thought that women were nuisances in the field because he thought they inhibited his mobility; women were often camped in the rear by his line of retreat and he was a commander who liked to back away a lot (which was a pretty good strategy overall). Other leaders were less critical of women’s presence and recognized the connection between hot food, nursing care, clean socks and fighting ability. Frankly, there were points when state line commanders were happy for any kind of support they could get. The general argument on women on the field is that the British did a whole lot better and remained in better fighting condition generally than Patriot troops because Tory women didn’t want to be left behind when their husbands bailed and they tended to travel along.

    I think the bigger fiction at work is the whole “it only counts if you enlist.” Typically the more “irregular” the resistance (the attacking of civilian populations in their homes to break Patriot will, terroristic activities designed to demobilize Tories in South Carolina), the more women were directly involved. When the war comes to you, you don’t have any choice but to fight. The burning of New York City to destroy anything of value before the British took it was accomplished by “old women” and Patriot women were arrested for the “bottoming” of coastal boats (basically knocking a big hole in the bottoms of shallops to keep the British from transporting troops by water). Anybody with access to coals could burn up British supplies and there were women in the New York and PA countryside that burned their own crops rather than let them be used. Is this “combat?” They wound up losing their homes and a year’s worth of labor, so I construe it as patriotic sacrifice…but it’s not quite the same thing as rocket’s red glare yada yada.

  19. Bridgett, I’m thinking that there has to be some connection with the professionalization of nursing, as well.

    B, possibly the uproar over the Gulf War stories led to a change in policy?

  20. The mid-19th c women’s movement advanced a notion of co-equality in which men and women had complementary civic roles, duties, and obligations. There was also a huge discussion of what counted as service to one’s country during the ongoing debate over Revolutionary war pensions after the Panic of 1819. Many male soldiers found out that whatever they thought they were doing tramping around the hillsides of Vermont wasn’t soldiering because they had just “turned out” and hadn’t enlisted. As the claims on federal monies came into play, rules got tighter about what counted for soldiering. Since women couldn’t enlist formally unless they dressed in drag like Deborah Sampson, that left them out.

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