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Breaking The Military Gender Barrier

btmgbThere was considerable opposition to this within the armed forces, although it was rarely allowed to express itself publicly. That women could perform many military functions as well or better than men was acknowledged. But to put them on the firing lines, whether on land, at sea or in the air, was a very different matter. It just wouldn’t work, said many officers.

They cited the experience of the only army in the western world that must maintain continual combat readiness, the Israeli army. It employed women in every branch of the armed forces, but did not use them in the actual fighting. It had encountered three insurmountable problems with women in combat. First, if they are wounded, male colleagues react irrationally in efforts to save them. Second, when women are captured they are inevitably and repeatedly raped. Finally, as one Israeli officer delicately put it to me, “Killing people does not fulfil the Israeli ideal of womanhood.”

In Canada there were other misgivings. How could men and women be expected to share the privations and dangers of frontline life without sex becoming an obtrusive factor? And soldiers, whether we like to admit it or not, are trained killers. A certain aggression of character is natural to them, even encouraged. Given the circumstances of front-line life, was it reasonable to expect that this sexual activity would always be “consensual”? Maintaining the “no-means-no” stipulation is difficult enough under civilized conditions. What about two men and a girl in a shell-hole with all hell breaking loose around them, and a dubious life-expectancy for all three? Finally, said the doubters, a female presence in an infantry platoon, or a ship’s company, or a squadron of fighter planes, will not make a minor difference; it will change the whole picture.

But the planners, of course, saw through such official resistance. The minds of men who had these forebodings were rooted in the past; their view of military life belonged to another era; they were prisoners of outmoded chauvinistic attitudes. True, many could cite the experience of actual battle conditions. But of what possible account was that? The planners had far more impressive qualifications: degrees in sociology and psychology, the experience of government, the knowledge that the world must inevitably change.

Moreover, apart from the Israelis, everyone else is doing it, particularly the Americans. Are we to be “left behind”? So recalcitrant officers were quietly removed and those who shared in the new vision, or were prepared to say they did anyway, took command. Within a few years the result became apparent. The armed forces changed radically. We had a whole new army with a whole new attitude.

How well is this new army doing? Not very well, if you read the papers. We seem to be firing one general after another, investigating one “incident” after another, encountering one hitherto unheard-of problem after another. In fact, never before have the Canadian armed forces existed under such public odium. Compounding the difficulties is the fact that the electorate and the politicians consist mostly of “Sixties People,” a generation that distinguished itself by its resistance to the whole concept of warfare, one that seems to be shocked and appalled every time it discovers the fact that the armed forces are engaged in the business of killing people or getting killed themselves. The public just can’t seem to get used to this idea.

And what of the fears about “gender integration”? Were these borne out? Look at the facts:

* “With just two years remaining before women must be fully integrated into the country’s armed forces,” wrote the Globe and Mail last week, “the Canadian military remains haunted by sexism… The recent history of the armed forces, particularly allegations that Canada’s first female infantry officer was tied to a tree, forced to stand barefoot in the snow and was roughed up on a training exercise, suggest that machismo dies hard.” Meanwhile, a feminist spokesman declared that the infantry are “trying their darndest” to keep women out and are succeeding at it.

* The U.S. Army announced last July that 70 of the 1,500 women soldiers in Bosnia have been sent home pregnant, roughly one in 21. Considering the brief time they had been “in action” (so to speak), after two or three years maybe one in ten or even one in five women will be similarly “invalided out.” The Pentagon said it did not regard the figure as surprising. With men and women working together in a war zone, it was inevitable. Some 5.1% of women soldiers got pregnant in the Gulf War.

* There have been four courts martial involving sexual harassment by officers in the Canadian navy in the last three years. In the Gulf War came another twist. The Navy sent several female personnel home for selling and-or otherwise dispensing sexual favours aboard ship. This was considered inconsistent with patrol duty.

* The treatment, i.e., sexual persecution, of women officers at a U.S. naval graduation party for fighter pilots, known to history as “Tailgate,” provided that service with its juiciest, if not gravest, scandal since the Second World War. Dire measures were promised to prevent this sort of thing.

* The harassment and sexual abuse of women at three American army boot camps is now under top-level inquiry. The problem is chronic, authorities say.

All of which would seem to point to a certain conclusion: You cannot by legislation change human nature. Men and women behave in certain easily observable ways. Social regimens founded on these realities will probably work. Those that ignore or defy them will certainly fail. All sane people already know this. Even the social planners may someday discover it, but don’t count on that happening quickly.

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2 comments on “Breaking The Military Gender Barrier

  1. Trevor Rawls on said:

    I had a strong belief that in this modern age, women can do anything that men are capable of doing. But after reading the facts above, I realized that breaking the military gender barrier is just really difficult to achieve. I thought these people are the most disciplined. But then again, they are only humans, It’s just sad that all these sexuality issues seem to outnumber the advantages of having female members in the military.

    • Garry on said:

      Absolutely, Trevor. Fantastic post. I wish men would talk about this more, but we do seem to have a silent majority that feel the same way. Kudos!

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