Young Lady, You Too Can Strap On An Ammo Belt

It’s official: American women can now  kill strange people in strange lands, put themselves in harm’s way and die for their country.  The Pentagon’s announcement that women in the US military will now be allowed to serve in combat zones finally brings to an end a discriminatory policy that had looked increasingly ludicrous as women continued to serve in them anyway. It says a great deal about the world we live in that an announcement such as this is cause for celebration. Of course, my preliminary facetiousness notwithstanding, this is not celebration of the kind that says ‘Hooray! I’m gonna go get me some scalps now’ but rather, one of a more sober kind, one that acknowledges the lowering of a long-standing barrier that had served to showcase unquestioned prejudice, reinforced sexism, and more practically, denied employment opportunities and advancement to women. Consider, for instance, that it was always unlikely that in an armed service, one devoted to armed combat, that non-combatants would ever rise to the highest posts, be granted significant executive power, or have their workplace related issues taken seriously. This systematic discrimination continued while one sad truth was sometimes visible to those that cared to peek around the edges of official military policy:

The biggest safety concern for women in the military is actually not so much enemy fire as sexual attacks from fellow members of their own service. Because the crime is so underreported, it’s impossible to say how many women suffer sexual assault while they’re in uniform, but 3,192 cases were recorded in 2011.

These sexual assaults took place in an atmosphere where, thanks to the proscription of women from combat duty, an internal caste system had been created, one which was guaranteed to generate resentment too: while women were deemed unfit for combat, they were also made the brunt of the aspersion that they couldn’t ‘hack it’ and as such ‘had it easy’ while the men went off to die. So a sexist policy engendered a misogynist response. The creation of this two-tier system was always going to be more of a threat to women than enemy fire.

But women did not ask to be kept out of combat. Au contraire, over the years, an increasing number of women actively sought out responsibilities that would move them ever closer to combat: they flew fighter jets for instance. Conversely, modern warfare, at least in the way that the US conducts it, had made it ever more possible for ‘combat zone duty’ to be defined in such a way that the imagined risks were not those of older combat zones.

Having said all of this, I must return to the tone with which I began this post for try as I might, one cannot be too celebratory about an announcement that the largest, most aggressive military power in the world has widened its recruiting pool. The US military faces recruitment difficulties, and keeping women out of combat zones was always going to be an increasingly untenable policy in light of that. When the disenfranchised have always gone off and fought wars, then why not cast the net wider to rope in a few more of them?

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