In 2016, the status quo will finally become official as the Pentagon completes the goal of integrating servicewomen into combat roles across the armed services. Women will finally be able to serve as equals, rather than being limited to positions the Pentagon deems safe enough for their delicate sensibilities — and the military as well as society will have to recognise the already existing fact that women have been in combat roles for some time. Nearly 200 women have died in Iraq and Afghanistan as a result of serving on the front line, and their stories often remain untold because they weren’t supposed to be there — they are made invisible by nature of the rote denial that women don’t appear on the front lines or in the field.
Women have of course been in the military for as long as there has been one — throughout history, women have fought alongside others from their home nations, sometimes openly, and sometimes in disguise. Some cultures, like the Greeks, revered women warriors, making Athena one of their most central goddesses for a reason, and the mythical Amazons feared for their ferocity and dedication. Others, like early North American colonists, thought the woman’s place was at the hearth, but women like Deborah Sampson disagreed, adopting drag to serve in the Revolutionary War and fight for the independence they believed in.
With the modern military, official integration has been a very slow process. The military didn’t really begin to explore racial integration until the balance between racism and a desperate need for soldiers became too much to bear, making it impossible to continue excluding young men of colour. The push from women demanding the equal right to serve has been a function not of a need to fill boots, but of a genuine desire to serve on the part of women — and the military is still struggling with trans servicepeople as well as LGBQ people despite evolving policies on their presence. Not that long ago, Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell was the law of the land and people could be discharged for being gay — notably, one reason DADT was struck down was because the military was losing Arabic speakers, showing how functionality trumps bigotry for the military.
As long as women weren’t ‘officially’ in combat roles, the costs to servicewomen were high. It wasn’t just the inherent sexism in not being allowed to pursue the positions they wanted to pursue, but it was also the emotional cost of knowing they were valued less, and receiving less counseling and support after deployments. There was a social lack of understanding about what women went through and what they’d done overseas, because the collective belief was that they had been safely isolated back at base when in fact many were involved in tactical operations and logistical support, working alongside men (and those of other genders in stealth) in war zones where they bled just like everyone else, died in IED blasts just like everyone else.
It also meant that women weren’t eligible for combat pay and other benefits associated with combat injuries and deaths. While those costs might have been nominal to the military, which will certainly absorb them now without a ripple, they made a huge financial differences to the financial lives of servicewomen and their families. And again, they erased the contributions of women — by claiming that an injury like limb loss couldn’t have been sustained in combat because women ‘couldn’t be in combat,’ the contributions of that servicewoman and her experiences were overwritten, locked away into a box somewhere to be ignored.
As Veterans Day approaches, servicepeople all over the country will be attending events and we’ll be surrounded by the usual outburst of patriotism, one sometimes painful for those who have actually served. Many women with a history of military service will also be reminded of the fact that they are a silent presence in the eyes of the Pentagon as well as the public, though not necessarily so among the people who served behind them in the field and know perfectly well that they survived — or didn’t — combat just like everyone else did.
Even as the Pentagon ruled that gender integration would happen, and began to roll the process out over the services, people still protests. From outside the military, sexist and antiquated groups insisted that women would somehow impede military readiness or disrupt unit cohesion, the same arguments used against other minorities when the Pentagon made the decision to finally fully integrate them into military units. Women, the public learned, were apparently a Problem for servicemen, who wouldn’t be able to focus with the looming and noxious presence of women over their shoulders. The repulsive sentiment was echoed by some members of the military, including those of high rank, who felt that women would apparently be too much to bear.
Gender equality won in this case, although the fight isn’t over for servicewomen, who will be put in the position of having to fight twice as hard for half the recognition, and will be forced to represent all women ever, everywhere, in the course of their work. They will be facing the same problems their minority counterparts did when they entered the military — when Black men were finally allowed to enlist, when lesbians were finally allowed to be open about their sexual orientation. Suddenly, they are more than just members of the armed services, but symbols, and those who teeter and fall, as humans must inevitably do, will be used as evidence that all are unsuitable. That’s a rough burden to bear, and I don’t envy servicewomen. I hope that in the coming decades the full integration of the services will appear unremarkable, as it does in many nations around the world, and that we will have gotten over it to focus on more important things, like treating veterans better so they don’t end up isolated and without resources in a hostile world.
Image: Expert Infantry, Flickr