Women in Combat

On Jan. 24, 2013, U.S. Defense Secretary Leon E. Panetta announced “the end of the direct ground combat exclusion rule for female service members”[i] Welcome news to many of the 280,000 American women serving and having served in the U.S. wars in Iraq and Afghanistan,[ii] to the women who have already had to pick up their guns to engage the enemy when the troops around them were under attack, to women who are about to enlist with the intention of going into combat!  Now, it seems, nothing stands in their way!

Of economic equality with men in the military?  Women serving in combat zones as medical personnel, truck drivers or fighters already earn the same ‘imminent danger pay as men, an extra $225 a month.  But then there is the Brass Ceiling, that boys club that has been kept in place by the supposed ban on women to high ranking promotions because they have not served in combat, according to Anu Bhagwati, former Marine Corps Captain and executive director of the Service Women’s Action Network (SWAN).[iii]  But women are and have been serving as generals in the U.S. military without having been in combat. The way it works is that if higher ranking men such as former Defense Secretary Robert Gates want to keep women out of a position, they simply have used the excuse that they have no combat experience, which was the “reason” he gave to keep a woman from being appointed to the Joint Chiefs of Staff.

If not from economic inequality, then what is it that women have gained with the new right to serve in combat?  The same right as military men to be grunts and macho, to be violent fighters and kill without remorse such as  Britian’s Prince Harry recently disclosed when he gave the military justification for that which I have named “preventive killing”[iv] (murder) where you “have to take a life to save a life.”[v] Most of the time this “just-in-case” killing is aimed at anyone you think might kill you even if you have no evidence of a threat.

Military combat has attracted many men because in the military they have the opportunity to act out their violent masculinity without any fear of punishment; in fact, it is rewarded.  One male soldier recently interviewed on television from his barracks in Afghanistan, who is by no means the exception, said “I love the Marines – they take care of you – food, clothing, no bills – and they pay you.”  Then he explains why he really loves the Marines – he gets to do what he likes to do, “I grew up as a hunter.  So I’m familiar with weapons.  I love to kill.  I love to kill people.”  Then he added as an afterthought likely becoming aware of the camera in front of him, “I love to kill bad people.”  Aired recently on a major U.S. television channel, there was no outcry over his statements. If the military does it, whether it is random killing, destroying peoples homes, or massacres, the public gives it a pass because fighting and killing is legitimate in the military.

Revenge seekers are among the kind of men who seek out combat. Will women enter their ranks to take revenge, “an eye for an eye” kind of fighting? In Syria, a “female sniper” known as Guevera, fights back “I like fighting. When I see that one of my friends in my katiba [rebel division] has been killed, I feel that I have to hold a weapon and take my revenge.”[vi]

As I show in Unmaking War, Remaking Men, that kind of fighting is not defensive. It is criminal, the consequence of being trained and sent to commit war crimes – invasion and war where there is no imminent threat of attack, such as the U.S. wars against Iraq and Afghanistan, as well as the undeclared war against Pakistan. Of war crimes the Nuremburg War Tribunal found, “To initiate a war of aggression, therefore, is not only an international crime; it is the supreme international crime differing only from other war crimes in that it contains within itself the accumulated evil of the whole.” Part of that accumulated evil are crimes against humanity such as the daily massacres, unrelenting drone bombing of villages and families, preventive killing.  These constitute normal combat for U.S. soldiers.

Illegal U.S. wars where soldiers and their state commit crimes against humanity is the place of combat where women now have won the “right to serve.”

There is another side to those who go to combat. Some believe that they will be protecting their country and act from a personal calling or commitment to serve the greater good, even at the risk of their own lives.  People who act from a genuine commitment to serve and protect are the kind of people who become firefighters or who travel miles and days to help rescue victims of floods.  For them service is like a calling.  In Iraq and Afghanistan, many have found that random and preventive killing (murder) and home destruction is what is expected of them.  That is why so many men in combat have become Conscientious Objectors or have simply deserted. Will we soon see an increase in women deserters from combat and the military when they face the heinous acts they are trained to commit and expected to carry out?

By being admitted into combat women have won the opportunity to have their empathy kicked out of them in training which is where post traumatic stress disorder really begins. It is military induced. With their empathy suppressed, they too will kill indiscriminately and without remorse. For that they too will be thanked by patriotic Americans as they go through airports in their military fatigues.  Men of every generation know that they have breached the limits of their humanity when they kill in combat. The military pushed them there. Soldiers themselves refer to that harm as “loss of soul.” Now women will be pushed over that edge too.  And for what?

The official entry of women into combat, considered by many to be an “opportunity,” brings us face-to-face with the limits of equality.  The opportunity to engage in their country’s war crimes, to commit crimes against humanity, to go through combat training until they have their empathy kicked out of them and can face combat without remorse. It is equality to exercise ruthless violence and heinous acts of degradation against the people who are invaded and occupied by the United States. That is the story of one male revolution after another. Witness Egypt today.

The masculine power of the U.S. military, or any other male dominated institution, requires of those to whom they admit to full equality that they collude with and carry out the acts that enforce American domination through aggression. Male protection which ultimately turns to harm against women and children has been one of the justifications for the military and violent masculinity.  It’s more than a long shot to think that the presence of women in combat could become a step in breaking the delusion of male protection.  More likely the military will intensify its masculinization of women, grudgingly drawing them into the brotherhood of killers.

I’d rather bring to American women who are thinking of signing up for combat the words of CODEPINK’s Medea Benjamin who, when it was announced that the US military is now open to gays, said “Now that you can, DON’T!”

Kathleen Barry, Professor Emerita, is a feminist human rights activist and sociologist.  Her books include Female Sexual Slavery which led to the global movement against trafficking in women and Prostitution of Sexuality: Global Exploitation of Women which led to the movement for the abolition of prostitution. Her most recent book is Unmaking War, Remaking Men. (Phoenix Rising Press of SR in the US, Spinifex in Australia, Women Unlimited in India).



[i] U.S. Department of Defense. (Defense Department Expands Women’s Combat Role By Claudette Roulo American Forces Press Service  http://www.defense.gov/News/NewsArticle.aspx?ID=119098)

[ii]  http://servicewomen.org/wp-content/uploads/2012/02/FinalDoDWISfeb9statement.pdf

[iii]  http://servicewomen.org/wp-content/uploads/2012/02/FinalDoDWISfeb9statement.pdf

[iv] Kathleen Barry, Unmaking War, Remaking Men, Phoenix Rising Press, 2011