After the September 11 terrorist attacks, there were predictions that the war on terror would signal a return to more traditional gender roles, with manly men assuming their place as women's protectors in a dangerous world. But in fact, like many earlier wars, the military actions in Afghanistan and Iraq have expanded women's role in America's armed forces.
The recent quiet defeat of an attempt by some congressional Republicans to curb women's service in combat zones shows the widespread new acceptance of women warriors in American culture. Yet the debate over women at war remains complex and rife with contradictions.
Technically, women in the US armed forces are barred from ground combat. A 1994 Pentagon policy prohibits them from serving in combat roles in Army combat units—such as infantry, artillery, and armor units—smaller than brigades. Last year, however, the Army started allowing women to serve in combat support units. Representative Duncan Hunter, Republican of California and chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, attached a provision to a military spending authorization bill that would have forbidden the Army to expand women's role in combat zones without congressional approval and would have codified into federal law the policy barring women from small combat units.
The proposed legislation was killed by combined opposition from the Pentagon, the Department of Defense, and members of Congress who argued that the provision would hinder the military's decision-making on the battlefield and send a demoralizing "we don't want you here" message to military women. The Republican opposition was led by Heather Wilson of New Mexico, the first female armed forces veteran to serve in Congress.
This is not sitting well with some conservatives. "Allowing women to get shot to death or blown up or mutilated and disfigured in war is horrible. It's unnecessary. It's barbaric," lamented Tucker Carlson on his PBS show. Evidently, allowing men to get killed and mutilated is no big deal. Of the 1,647 US soldiers who have been killed in Iraq since the war began, 35—just over 2 percent—have been women.
The notion that women deserve special protection from violence is not just a male plot to keep women down, as many feminists charge; it is also an expression of sincere concern for women's well-being. But such chivalry is ultimately infantilizing. On the flip side, no society dedicated to the principle of fair play can demand that men treat women as equals in all other walks of life, and then tell men their lives are more expendable.
Ironically, in recent years feminists have done their share of promoting the idea that violence against women deserves special attention. Some conservative opponents of women's new roles in the military have seized on this feminist rhetoric: Elaine Donnelly, president of the Center for Military Readiness, said that putting women into combat zones amounts to "saying that violence against women is OK."
Champions of women in the military need to face up to other contradictions as well. For one, they tend to discuss the issue solely in terms of equal opportunity for women, without noting that currently men have the unequal obligation to register for the draft. What's more, women's relative disadvantage in upper-body strength is a real obstacle to their service in ground combat units; if integrating women comes at the cost of lowering performance standards, such faux equality will serve no one. Unfortunately, the politically correct taboo on these problems often makes it difficult to gauge women's performance in the military.
The eagerness to celebrate the prowess of women warriors was undoubtedly one of the reasons the media bought into the vastly exaggerated tale of Jessica Lynch's heroics during her capture by Iraqi troops in 2003. Opponents of women in the military, on the other hand, were eager to use Lynch's story to write off the female warrior as a feminist myth. Some women serving in Iraq have proven their effectiveness in combat—such as Army Airborne Captain Kellie McCoy, who led a patrol out of an ambush in Fallujah in 2003 and was awarded a Bronze Star with a combat "V" for valor.
When it comes to serving their country in a time of war, women should be truly treated as equal. Gender should not be an arbitrary barrier but it also shouldn't be a special exemption—whether from service obligations, from the risk of violence, or from equal standards of performance and effectiveness.