Women in Combat: Gender Neutral Killing?
The Pentagon — and the United States government in thrall to it — is congratulating itself on overcoming a hurdle that other nations have long gotten beyond or never faced in the first place. Feminists and progressives sympathetic to women’s rights are expected to be delighted that women can now officially be assigned to combat roles in the US military. The overcoming of this great hurdle follows a long tradition, in that the Pentagon’s self-congratulatory run around the field operates to distract Americans from arguably the most critical problem relevant to their future.
America is a hugely powerful nation caught in the headlights of history. We desperately need to forge a new social contract to accommodate an inevitable future of diminishing resources and comforts. But, at the same time, we’re a nation that desperately wants to hold onto the sense of “exceptionalism” preached to its citizens incessantly.
We fear real change like it was some kind of plague.
The fact is, women have served in combat roles since the beginning of time. Many European nations are quite comfortable with women in their ranks; Israel and Canada currently come to mind. Women have certainly operated in harm’s way as spies from Mata Hari to Valerie Plame. Muammar Ghaddafi had a special unit of armed women to guard him.
In the so-called developing world, Vietnam is a great example. If we recall, Vietnam won a long, cruel war to overcome an American invasion. They thoroughly employed women as combatants, many of these women now heroes of their nation. I met such a female Vietcong officer in Alaska in 2005. It’s possible a male could have kicked her ass and might have been better suited to haul a 300-pound wounded male comrade from the battlefield, the big test much touted right now by opponents of women in combat. But all that misses the point entirely.
The Vietnamese, of course, used females to kill invading and occupying Americans without any of the self-congratulatory feminist hoopla here accorded the recent Pentagon decision. The Vietnamese had bigger fish to fry. They knew that women are just as capable as men of engaging in lethal combat. What’s key — and the reason the Vietnamese beat us — is that the Vietnamese are a more humble and patient people than we are, and they are not burdened with the yoke of empire and the cult of masculine superiority our US empire tends to generate.
What’s actually most critical to killing in war is, one, the self-delusion of exceptionality and, two, the sense of being threatened from outside by some dark, malicious and readily demonizable force. This permits the dehumanization necessary for otherwise good, decent men and women to kill in the name of their clan, their nation and even their God.
This much-repeated idea that killing and destruction, the two most fundamental ingredients of warfare, rely on male strength, especially when modern technological support systems are deployed, is nonsense. Physical endurance and agility, yes; but not brute strength. The brute force idea is rooted in the sweaty Sylvester Stallone Rambo myth, in which Sergeant John Rambo won the Vietnam War in our minds. (Stallone is approaching his dotage but keeping in shape with a new movie called Bullet In The Head.)
Even the most mousy male will generally attest that, when it comes to brute strength, the average male can whip hell out of the average female. But when you break things down to individuals it doesn’t hold up — especially in a culture that encourages androgynous muscle-pumping and athletics and a pop culture that often favors hot female assassins in spandex tights. (To be gender fair and correct, here, we might reshape the word-conceptandrogynous as gynandrous.)
When I was in eighth grade, a girl came up to me and declared that she could kick my ass. I was non-plussed. I don’t know why she insisted on pressing me that she could kick my ass, because I had never had anything to do with her. As I look back I imagine her sexuality was a little confused at the moment and she saw me as a vulnerable male, since I was not the jock type. And I probably had my own adolescent confusions.
By then, I had had a couple fights and had done pretty well for myself to the surprise of others. So I felt confident I could have cleaned this girl’s clock if I had to. But I really didn’t want to fight her and felt I lost nothing by not doing so. The fact was, all I wanted was to find a girl who’d let me have a peek in her pants. Raised with two brothers and no sisters, girls frankly mystified me. As they say, in my heart I wanted to be a lover not a fighter.
So if this girl grew up to want to join the military and go to Vietnam, where I ended up going, I’m sorry she was not permitted to do so. My experience there and much reading later has told me that the misguided invasion force I was part of was a tragedy and an international crime on a vast scale. My sisters should have had that opportunity too.
I’m 65-years-old now and out-of-shape enough that any 18-year-old with some determination and stamina could whip my ass in a minute. So, like the aging generals and politicians who make the wars, if I have to fight now I fight first with my head.
There’s a profound effort afoot to employ the term “warrior” for those young men and women in our military. This has especially gained momentum in the highly militarized, post-911 culture we live in. The term “soldier” is rarely used anymore. In Vietnam, I was a soldier; in Iraq and Afghanistan, one is a warrior. I read an essay recently (I forget where) that explained how the term warrior is atavistic and harks back to pre-democracy eras of broad swords and battleaxes and rugged men hacking away at each other. It was a time of Warrior Bands led by War Lords and War Chieftains. The term warrior probably gained some of its momentum after the 2000 election when democracy seemed to really break down, to be trumped by power — a moment when the deeply entrenched power of the Military-Industrial Complex clearly became the undisputed top dog in the land.
So now Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta — the man with the sad Eyore eyebrows — announces that women can be employed by our imperial militarist behemoth in combat roles. Culturally, it shows we are better than Muslims. We are saying, “Hey, look how sensitive we are to women’s rights.” Not like those heathen, extremist Islamosexists who are replacing Cold War communists as our big enemy in the world.
The important question is not who can do the killing and the dying for America. The question we should be asking ourselves as a nation is who exactly is it we’re asking these male or female warriors to kill and to be killed by? And why?
This naturally brings the discussion to drones and can a person with a vagina and maternally-purposed breasts kill “terrorists” via a video monitor from 12,000 miles away? This is a no-brainer. Of course she can. And for some women who have swallowed the Kool-Aid it may be a feminist frontier they’re eager to explore.
The US Military is currently militarizing Northwest Africa. The push is on. Our first drone base is in Niger, directly east of the large contentious Saharan area in northern Mali. Of course, the facts on the ground are all secret. Africom commander General Carter Ham was confidently coy and Orwellian when he told The New York Times that the US drone base in Niger was “too operational for me to confirm or deny.”
This brand of safe, lethal warfare far removed from the actual battlefield is much favored by the Obama administration. (Until further notice, the more masculine special ops teams will remain a warrior domain for males only.)
One good sign is that the burgeoning use of lethal drones is beginning to generate a national conversation. PBS’s Nova had an interesting show on the history and current use of drones — notably financed by Lockheed Martin and the Koch Brothers. On the protest front, there’s a demonstration planned for Washington DC April 13th across from the White House.
In a legal-moral arena, for the next nine months a United Nations special investigative panel will delve into US drone operations. Unlike the Novashow, the UN panel is not interested in the technological or nationalistic attractions of these weapons; the panel will look into the question who is being killed by them and, as the leader of the UN panel put it, “whether there is a plausible allegation of unlawful killings.” Estimates are in the range of 3000 killed by lethal US drone assaults in Pakistan, Yemen and elsewhere — 172 of them innocent children.
(For a list of children by name and age in Pakistan and Yemen killed by US drones see Dave Lindorff’s story .)
“This form of warfare is here to stay,” said Ben Emmerson, the British human rights lawyer in charge of the UN panel. “[I]t is completely unacceptable to allow the world to drift blindly toward the precipice without any agreement between states as to the circumstances in which drone strike targeted killings are lawful, and on the safeguards necessary to protect civilians.”
At a historic moment when the United States is encountering more and more local hostility that makes it dangerous for Americans to be on the ground in many places, our expanding reliance on remote, some say cowardly, killing is the real issue responsible and courageous Americans should be focusing on.
The fact women can now pull the trigger and die next to men is a distraction.
JOHN GRANT is a founding member of ThisCantBeHappening!, the new independent Project Censored Award-winning online alternative newspaper.