In the Globe and Mail, Margaret Wente “celebrates” the recent announcement by the US government that American women will soon be allowed to take front-line combat jobs:
In a milestone for gender equality, the Pentagon is finally ending the combat ban for women – a ban that had become woefully obsolete. At last, women warriors will get the recognition and promotions they deserve. The brass ceiling has been shattered, and that’s good news for both women and the military.
But she admits that there are problems with the new rules:
But please, people. Let’s get real. Women cannot equal men in ground combat, the kind of dirty, brutal stuff that (fortunately) makes up a very minor part of modern military life, especially post-Afghanistan. It’s not that they can’t be trained to kill — they can. The issue is that the physical differences between men and women are very large, and on the battlefield, they really matter, and can’t be wished away. Men are better fighters because they are bigger and stronger and can endure far more physical punishment before they break down.
The average female soldier is “about five inches shorter than the male soldier, has half the upper body strength, lower aerobic capacity and 37 per cent less muscle mass,” Stephanie Gutmann, author of The Kinder, Gentler Military, wrote in the New Republic. “She cannot pee standing up … She tends, particularly if she is under the age of 30 (as are 60 per cent of military personnel) to get pregnant.”
And there’s the practical experience the Canadian army has accumulated:
Overall, women account for 14 per cent of all jobs in the Canadian Forces, a slightly lower percentage than in the U.S. As a result of a human-rights decision, front-line combat jobs were opened to women in 1989. Yet today, despite strenuous recruiting efforts, women hold just 2.4 per cent of these jobs. Their commanding officers praise their competence but treat them differently, by shielding them from combat. According to a Wall Street Journal report this week, the widespread impression among Canadian female soldiers — much to their frustration — is they are used “only sparingly.” Men serving next to women also exhibit a counterproductive battlefield trait: protectiveness. They want to carry women’s gear and keep them out of harm’s way. As one male soldier told the Journal, “That brother-sister protective thought was always in the back of your mind.”
When I was in the militia in the mid-1970s, our basic training was fully integrated: the girls did the same physical training and field exercises as the boys. Even in peacetime, it was quite obvious that the sections with girls in them were doing what they could to encourage the girls to pass the training (re-distributing their gear to the others in the section, and pairing the girls up with the biggest guys for the more physical duties like digging trenches, etc.). I can only imagine that the same thing goes on in actual combat conditions.
Fortunately, we didn’t have any of the girls drop out for pregnancy (it was a summer training course of just about two months duration), but the US military reported that over 10% of all women in combat zones (not in actual front-line combat) were evacuated from the combat zone due to pregnancy in 2008.