Two articles appeared in the New York Times this weekend as part of a series called “Women at Arms,” exploring the experiences of female American soldiers in combat zones. Salon has covered many of the grimmer realities women in the military face — being raped and punished when they report it, being discharged because of the career-killing combination of sexism and homophobia, serving as instruments of torture, even dying under mysterious circumstances — so it’s hard to get too excited about the more positive stories in the Times series. But a bit of good news is nice every once in a while, and the people interviewed for these articles are offering a cautiously optimistic message: Sexual assault, sexual harassment, and sexist attitudes die hard, but the more women soldiers are fully integrated and allowed to do the same work as their male counterparts, the more they see their situation improving.
Most of the theoretical arguments against allowing women in combat zones, it seems, are put to rest once women are actually there. Yes, soldiers end up having consensual sex — and occasionally, a pregnant one is shipped out — but birth control is easily available, and romance doesn’t seem to be the fatal distraction everyone feared it might be. (As Lizette Alvarez notes in “G.I. Jane: Women Break the Combat Barrier,” this is also a potential boon for gay men wishing to serve openly. “Those opposed to such change say that permitting service members to state their sexual orientation would disrupt the tight cohesion of a unit and lead to harassment and sexual liaisons — arguments also used against allowing women to serve alongside men. But women in Iraq and Afghanistan have debunked many of those fears.) And concerns that women won’t be able to keep up with male soldiers were apparently unfounded. Alvarez writes that a retired Army lieutenant colonel, Michael A. Baumann, “said he had seriously doubted that women could physically handle infantry duties, citing the weight of the armor and the gear, the heat of Baghdad and the harshness of combat,” but the women he worked with proved otherwise. Says Baumann, “Not only could they handle it, but in the same way as males. I would go out on patrols every single day with my battalion. I was with them. I was next to them. I saw with my own eyes. I had full trust and confidence in their abilities.”
In another article, by Steven Lee Myers, Col. Burt K. Thompson says his experience has shown that women are just as tough, if not tougher: “I’ve relieved males from command. I’ve never relieved a female commander in two and a half years as commander.” And Brig. Gen. Heidi V. Brown, one of the two highest ranking women in Iraq, told Myers that when the war started, “There was a lot of debate over where women should be. Here we are six years later, and you don’t hear about it. You shouldn’t hear about it.” As Baumann puts it, “Debate it all you want, folks, but the military is going to do what the military needs to do. And they are needing to put women in combat.”
There’s just one problem: Some of the women fighting bravely and changing minds still aren’t technically supposed to be there. Writes Alvarez:
Their success, widely known in the military, remains largely hidden from public view. In part, this is because their most challenging work is often the result of a quiet circumvention of military policy.
Women are barred from joining combat branches like the infantry, armor, Special Forces and most field artillery units and from doing support jobs while living with those smaller units. Women can lead some male troops into combat as officers, but they cannot serve with them in battle.
Yet, over and over, in Iraq and Afghanistan, Army commanders have resorted to bureaucratic trickery when they needed more soldiers for crucial jobs, like bomb disposal and intelligence. On paper, for instance, women have been “attached” to a combat unit rather than “assigned.”
So women are doing the work but can’t get the credit for it without Congress approving policy changes, which Alvarez notes “is unlikely in the middle of two wars.” Representative Loretta Sanchez of California, senior woman on the House Armed Services Committee, sums up the problem: “We have to acknowledge it because the military is like any other corporation. If you are not on the front lines doing what is the main purpose of your existence, then you won’t be viewed as someone who can command.”
And in the meantime, despite all the positive stories, the same old barriers to women’s advancement remain in place, if not quite as firmly as they once were. Although Alvarez reports that “some experts say the hostility toward women in the military was fading on its own” even before women soldiers started proving themselves in greater numbers and more dangerous circumstances, Staff Sgt. Patricia F. Bradford told Myers that sexist attitudes and gendered slurs are still common on her base. “You’re a bitch, a slut or a dyke — or you’re married, but even if you’re married, you’re still probably one of the three.” The progress and attendant hope for equality described in these articles comes not from the elimination of hostility toward female soldiers, but from their unprecedented ability to rise above it. Says Bradford, “I think being a staff sergeant — and a bitch — helps deflect those things.”