Although women were initially forbidden from enlisting in the United States military, some secretly served as early as the Revolutionary War. However, the duties they were permitted to perform often only included tasks in medical and food supply units. Over the course of the last two hundred years, countless laws and regulations have dictated which roles should be open to the female soldier.
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In 1994, the Secretary of Defense, Les Aspin, comprised a memo directed to the Secretaries of the Armed Forces, titled “Subject: Direct Ground Combat Definition and Assignment Rule.” In his memo, Aspin states, “Direct ground combat is engaging an enemy on the ground with individual or crew served weapons, while being exposed to hostile fire and to a high probability of direct physical combat with the hostile force’s personnel. Direct ground combat takes place well forward on the battlefield while locating and closing with the enemy to defeat them by fire, maneuver, or shock effect” (Aspin).
Many today believe this policy was enacted to limit a woman’s opportunities as a soldier. On the contrary, Aspin expanded the service options available for women at that time, while still restricting the more dangerous direct combat roles to their male counterparts. However, as time has passed, society has pushed for more equality between men and women. As a result, this movement has transferred over into the military with women fighting for more inclusion into infantry units. Now, the question is not whether or not women should fight, but how should they fight?
Although there are different perspectives on how to accomplish gender equality in the armed forces, there are some aspects that both sides agree on. People want the most effective military possible. This means the best soldiers for each position need to be out there fighting, male or female. Despite the fact that not all positions are open to females yet, the military is making a conscious effort to address it. Aspin’s Direct Combat Exclusion Rule was repealed in 2016, granting women access to a wider array of combat positions. While the legality of women in combat has been decided, there is still uneasiness that arises from the idea of sending a woman into “a man’s war.”
One common source of apprehension is the knowledge that women do not possess the full range of physical abilities that men do. According to Dr. Yoram Epstein’s piece in the European Journal of Applied Physiology, titled, “Physiological employment standards IV: Integration of women in combat units physiological and medical considerations,” the average man is about 40% stronger than the average woman (Epstein 2679). This indicates females may not be capable of each combat task men currently perform. It is also important to consider soldiers must carry anywhere from 60 to 130 pounds of added weight, depending on their position (2680).
The increased bulk includes gear, water, weapons, extra ammunition, and any other necessities required when departing for missions. Therefore, even if a woman could normally perform a given task, the extra weight will likely hinder that ability. Additionally, Dr. Epstein and his colleagues suggest that soldiers carry no more than 30-50% of their body weight to ensure they do not overwork themselves (2681). Since most women are smaller and lighter than the male sex, the extra load will inevitably get redistributed, potentially affecting the performance of the male members of the unit. Logically, this leads to the uncertainty of whether women are fully capable of the physical demands that infantry positions require. If females are incompetent, many fear how severe the impact will be on those with whom they serve.
Another important aspect to consider is that the increased physicality of combat is taxing on the body, so time loss becomes critical. Women tend to be more prone to issues with their knees, hips, and shoulders, and carrying heavy loads for extended periods of time will put excess stress on those joints. According to Dr. Epstein, “Female soldiers exercising under the same conditions as males are 1.2–10 times more susceptible to overuse injuries” (Epstein 2681). Any soldiers not at their best could jeopardize the unit and the mission, so injuries need time to heal for soldiers to return to their peak proficiencies. If women are more likely to get hurt, maybe it is unwise to put them in situations where injuries are more prevalent.
The close proximity during quieter days on the lines also poses the risk of male and female soldiers engaging in sexual intercourse, ultimately resulting in the possibility of pregnancies and more missed time. If a woman gets pregnant, she is required to return to base if her unit’s missions put her or the child at risk. However, each time soldiers leaves the front lines, replacements must step in. Just as original units need time to gain each other’s trust, the new recruits will need time to earn the trust of the rest of the unit.
Unfortunately, the time it takes to adjust can be critical. When taken too long, this process could cost some soldiers their lives. If putting women on the front lines could increase the number of pregnancies and need for replacements, then perhaps combat units should still consist of only male soldiers to maintain consistency. Additionally, a man and a woman of equal ranks may not receive similar levels of respect. Even if she went through the same training and obtained the same qualifications as he did, her male counterparts might think less of her simply because she is a female. Some may even question if she is deserving of her rank. Did she earn it because of her abilities or merely because they needed more women out there to keep everyone happy?
In an article from the 2016 edition of the Hastings Women’s Law Journal titled, “Feminism on the Front Lines,” criminal attorney, Blythe Leszkay, discusses the reality that some lower ranking males may be defiant upon receiving commands from female superiors. She claims that one veteran still declares her orders as if they are passed down from a male supervisor in order to get her trainees to follow her instructions (Leszkay 5). Because of this absence of respect, most women are kept out of combat missions. Therefore, their suggestions may not be taken as seriously as a male’s because of their lack of experience, even if the ideas are valid and thoroughly thought out. The combination of disrespect and little experience also impairs their ability to get promoted. If women cannot be expected to lead fellow soldiers into the field, then there is no point in putting them in harm’s way.
Furthermore, lack of respect expresses itself in feelings of superiority, and as a result, sexual assault becomes a very real concern. When an individual is assaulted, it takes much longer for the victim to emotionally recover than it does to physically recover. Not only is this dangerous for the woman, but it can also impact the rest of her unit. Her distractedness and decreased sense of awareness might cause her to accidentally miss certain steps when going through standard procedures or not be as aware when going out on patrol. Each of these changes jeopardizes the people around her. Additionally, if her assailant is someone in her unit, it could put stress between the other members, as well. A strong team cannot afford to have outside issues affecting their own abilities to perform. With investigations and mandatory leave all creating considerable distractions, it seems unwise to put women in situations where lack of respect can lead to rape and sexual harassment, putting those around her at risk, too.
Finally, men might react differently if a woman is wounded in combat. There are some situations when saving an injured soldier just cannot be done, whether it is too dangerous to go back or there is no chance for survival. When a woman gets hurt, there are two different ways men might respond. The most cruel and probably unlikely way is that they abandon her, thinking the unit will be better off without her. While this would probably be a rare incident, anyone who feels she may be slowing them down might view it as an opportunity to get rid of her.
In an article from The Wallstreet Journal, “Canada Offers Lessons on Women in Combat,” Alistair MacDonald addresses the second and more likely scenario. In the article, Army Corp. Donald Hookey looks back and states, “That brother-sister protective thought was always in the back of your mind” (MacDonald). In other words, when a female gets hurt, a man’s instincts to protect her kick in. Sometimes there will not be any negative consequences, and everyone will be fine. Then again, there is the possibility that he may make a reckless decision to try to save her, even if he knows it might endanger the rest of the group. In either case, these dilemmas could be avoided if combat missions were to remain designated only for males.
All of the previously mentioned arguments are very real concerns; still, it should be noted that other countries have already integrated women into combat roles and experienced the effects. MacDonald’s article states that Canada, Australia New Zealand, and Israel are only a few of the many countries who have taken this step (MacDonald). With only 2.4% of Canada’s combat jobs held by females in 2013, women who did get sent in sometimes felt alone and distant because there were so few of them out there (MacDonald). Though on the line, some women also felt as if they were not able to serve up to their full potential when held back from significant missions.
Needless to say, others have adapted nicely and have done well in their respected areas. The first female infantry commander of the Canadian armed forces, Major Eleanor Taylor, was labeled by her superior, Army Brigade General Dean Milner, as one of his best soldiers (MacDonald). In other words, women have been successful in other countries, and it can be assumed that they will be successful in the U.S. military, as well. Although the United States has only recently made it legal for women to fight on the front lines, female soldiers have been in similar, dangerous situations for quite some time. Due to the constant changes of war, land that was well-protected one day could be over-run the next. As a result, women who originally may have simply been part of support units could end up in combat situations anyways.
Nevertheless, there are some groups of women who, like Major Taylor, have been very successful when brought into the fray. For example, the Kurdish Women’s Protection Units were military groups consisting of only female soldiers who were very influential in both Syria and Iraq (Simpson). In both wars, these women showed great courage and risked their lives to fight for their country and protect villagers whose lives were in danger. It is important to remember that female soldiers have been trained the same way as any other soldier. With that in mind, instead of seeing them as inferior, perhaps it is time to recognize their abilities and give them more opportunities to serve in the most effective ways possible.
The other perspective approaches the topic from the standpoint that women should be allowed to join combat units because while, brute strength is certainly helpful on the battlefield, it is not the only requirement. Different people are better suited for different roles. Not all combat positions are the same, so even though most women are not as strong as men, they can still be useful in other ways. For example, a muscular, 6’5” male soldier weighing 230 pounds would be well-matched for carrying a heavy mortar, weighing up to 90 pounds; however, he would likely not fit into a tank or small armored vehicle.
On the other hand, a smaller, female soldier who may not be able to carry the mortar could fit comfortably in the vehicle. Not every position needs to be held by a woman, but in wars where the best of the best should be out fighting, it seems logical to pull from a pool containing all capable applicants, not just males. Additionally, in her article in The Conversation from 2016 called, “Eight Myths about Women on the Military Frontline – and Why We Shouldn’t Believe Them,” Bangor University’s PhD student, Leanne Simpson mentions how new technology could impact the United States military in the future. She suggests that new exoskeleton suits could redistribute weight in a way that would allow soldiers to carry more (Simpson). Depending on how these new suits work, this could mean males and females alike would have the possibility of improving their physical capabilities without harming their bodies. Even without the suits, if certain women are qualified and skilled enough to fight in combative roles, perhaps it might be beneficial to at least give them a shot.
If women are to engage in combat successfully, adjusting boot camp and training methods will be useful in lowering the number of individuals who get hurt. As stated earlier, overwork is one of the most common injuries for women. Taking this into consideration, it is critical to find ways to train them smarter, not harder. Just as people cannot be expected to show up and run a full marathon the first time they go out for a jog, soldiers cannot be expected to perform combat mission tasks for hours on end the first day of training. Athletes gradually build up to harder workouts, and the same approach is now being taken with soldiers to minimize injuries. Additionally, enforcing proper recovery time and focusing on the body’s overall health, not just strength, have made a significant difference. With these procedural changes, Epstein claims the military has been able to decrease the number of stress fractures from 30% to 10% (Epstein 2683). There is the potential that these modifications might increase training time. However, the more important part is that they will keep female soldiers healthy and allow them to stay in service longer when in the field.
While it is not impossible for sex to happen in the military, the likelihood of it occurring on the front lines is less than people think. It is true that men and women will have to sleep near each other when on the front lines; however that does not mean they will engage in sexual activity. During a mission, soldiers are required to be vigilant and alert to pick up any signs of suspicious activity. As Leszkay points out, “If they are not focused, they die” (Leszkay 14). Combine that with how physically taxing a mission is, sex is rarely at the top of their priority list. Although rape is still an issue, women are not the only victims.
Simpson’s article shows that although 27% more of female soldiers were sexually assaulted in 2014 than male soldiers, there were actually 2,800 more males who were victimized than women (Simpson). Looking at these numbers, it should be noted that the higher percentage of women is due to the fact that there are so few in the military compared to the number of men. If ten people were assaulted, five female and five male, the numbers would be equal but the percentages would not. This shows rape and sexual harassment are not just women’s issues, but problems that impact both sexes. Therefore, if these issues are not going to keep men from fighting, then they should not be used to keep women from doing the same.
It is true pregnancies and injuries result in women needing to take time off; however, the numbers show that the rate at which women fail to perform their duties is lower than men. In fact, according to Leszkay’s journal, men missed their duties nearly two times as often as women (Leszkay 13). One potential reason for this could be a difference in behavior. By looking at how kids act in school, it becomes apparent that boys tend to act out and get into fights more often than girls do. While girls may get into verbal arguments, physical altercations between them do not occur as often as they do between male adversaries. Therefore, this could suggest that women miss less time for disciplinary issues.
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