Women Soldiers Will Have To Fight


Defence Minister Stephen Smith’s announcement last week that ADF gender restrictions on combat would be removed caused a predictable response from sections of the ADF, the Department of Defence and the public. Some were truly upset by the announcement but struggled to explain why. This might be because there are really two parts to the women in combat question — the first is, "Can they?" and the second is, "Should they?"

Can women serve in combatant roles? Absolutely, they have and they do.

Ancient history abounds with examples of women dressing up as men and participating in toe to toe fighting. In many worlds and many time periods women soldiers have been in resistance and rebel forces. It is only when armies become "official" that the weapons are taken away and women are sent back behind the lines.

The only nation to encourage women in combat positions in World War II was Russia. In 1942 the Soviet Union formed squadrons of women combat pilots. The Germans nicknamed them the "Night Witches" because they would attack at night. When they were over enemy encampments the women pilots would cut their aircraft engines and glide — when the Germans heard the whistle of the wind it was already too late, women aviators of the 588th would fire and restart their engines. There were Russian women snipers too. Lidiya Gudovantseva was credited with killing 76 German soldiers in World War II and was awarded the Lenin Order Medal. The Soviets found women made good snipers because they were "more patient, careful, deliberate". Russian military women served in tanks and as machine gunners. More recently female Viet Cong fought with as much ferocity and deadly skill as their male counterparts.

Modern warfare is very different from the industrial wars which were World War I and II. Now, there is little clear delineation between combat and non-combat. In Iraq and Afghanistan IEDs (improvised explosive devices) kill everywhere as do suicide bombers. 138 United States "non-combatant" military women and 12 other NATO servicewomen have been killed on active duty in Iraq and Afghanistan and 1,758 US servicewomen were injured as of May 2011. US servicewomen serve and die as combat medics and forward intelligence personnel.

The "Lionesses" was a female US Marine Unit attached to forward units to search villages and fire when needed although their primary duty was searching women inhabitants for weapons and explosive devices. Military Police have long allowed women members and this corps has also been sent in to secure frontline installations.

There have been 12 other NATO military women killed in Iraq and Afghanistan. Canada is one of a dozen western nations which permits women to serve in direct combat. Captain Nichola Kathleen Sarah Goddard was the first female Canadian combat soldier killed in combat. A graduate of the Canadian Royal Military College, she was serving with the Light Infantry in Afghanistan when killed in 2006 in a fire fight. Canadian Trooper Karine Blais was killed in April 2009; Master Corporal Kristal Giesebrecht was killed in June 2010. Private Sophia Bruun of Denmark was "combat active" when killed in this war because Denmark also has women in the combat arms.

The United Kingdom does not permit women to directly take part in "combat" but in May 2011 Captain Lisa Head was killed on operations in Afghanistan. The Hurt Locker won the Academy Award for Best Film in 2010. It told of male soldiers who defused bombs in Iraq. Captain Lisa Head was a member of such a British team in Afghanistan. She had been blown off her feet already that day but continued to defuse more of the mines that were endangering a patrol of all male paratroopers. She made another mine safe but another was booby-trapped and exploded. Her Commanding Officer said "It was an act of breathless bravery". These are just a few examples of women who have fought on the front line.

It is often cited that 93 per cent of Australian Defence Force occupations are open to women.

In the Royal Australian Navy (RAN), only one is closed, that of Clearance Diver (although there has been a woman RAN Reservist diver). Women have served at sea in the RAN since 1992 and have commanded warships. Australia has led the world in the deployment of women in submarines since 1998. The USA and UK have yet to accomplish this. Currently around 18.5 per cent of our navy is female.

In the Royal Australian Air Force (RAAF) only Defence Guard is closed. Approximately 17 per cent of the RAAF is female. Women RAAF professionals have flown the massive C-17 Globemaster aircraft. A woman has piloted with the elite RAAF acrobatic team The Roulettes — and could anyone pick which Pilatus PC-9/A was flown by a woman officer?

These aside, the remaining 7 per cent includes the bulk of occupations in our largest military force, the Australian Army. Women have not been permitted to serve in the bulk of army careers — Armour (Calvary), Artillery, Infantry, and Special Forces (SAS). Only 9.7 per cent of our army are women personnel. Due to the physical demands required to be an Australian infantry soldier there may only be a small cohort of women who can meet these standards — and no one is suggesting standards be diminished. Artillery is increasingly mechanised as is cavalry, so the cohort will be larger. SAS requirements and standards deter and eliminate a lot of male candidates so this will be the hardest of all. Yes there are women who wish to serve and some are already military cadet officers and recruits.

The second part of the question "Should women serve in combat?" is the most diverse and too often the answers lack rationality. Some see this issue as messing with nature. They believe women are the givers of life and therefore should not take life. Men are the natural protectors. Women should be behind the lines protected.

Any study of war will reveal that those who suffer most in war are civilian populations. Rape and the destruction of the enemy’s women has forever been a weapon of war. Can anyone explain where the "front line" and "protected civilian demarcation" is today? Perhaps they could explain this to those families who lost loved ones in the World Trade Centre or Bali nightclubs.

An attempt to justify the male-only stance is "men will put themselves in harm’s way to retrieve a wounded woman soldier". Were not most of our Victoria Cross and other military awards given to military personnel who, under fire, put themselves at risk to retrieve or draw fire to protect injured comrades?

One recent letter to the editor claimed that "Smith is going to make many Australian families weep identifying a mutilated daughter and then burying her". No Australian family has been asked to identify the remains of the 30 soldiers who have died in Afghanistan. Those countries who have had women soldiers killed have not observed greater family and public sorrow than on the occasion of the return of the bodies of male soldiers.

Is this resistance to women in combat corps more to do with the control of the gun? Has this issue more to do with the conservative assumption that women are less, that women will devalue an occupation? Has it more to do with male sensibilities and the preference for all male company too few feel comfortable enough to discuss? The term "male bonding" is bandied around an awful lot.

When the RAN sent women to warships for the first time in 1992 the cries of resistance sounded similar to those emanating from old warriors now. Some Commanding Officers believed their ship’s company would be compromised and their fighting unit effectiveness would suffer. One of the more ridiculous claims was that long hair worn by woman sailors would clog up the drains. Long hair was a non-issue and warship captains discovered the greater variety of personal traits and strengths enhanced, and mixed crews of professional RAN personnel improved the effectiveness of their ships.

Heard in one army section of Department of Defence this week was the comment, "the enemy will smell women frontline soldiers when they menstruate", apparently, "this was the case during the Vietnam war". The statement is perhaps an indicator from which generation the resistance to women in combat  derives.

In the next decade Australian women volunteers in combat corps will do it very tough until certain "old warrior" attitudes cease — as one proponent said: "Combat will be easier than acceptance within the Australian Infantry". Hopefully within a generation this resistance will be expunged by a more professional and effective ADF.

Launched in 2004, New Matilda is one of Australia's oldest online independent publications. It's focus is on investigative journalism and analysis, with occasional smart arsery thrown in for reasons of sanity. New Matilda is owned and edited by Walkley Award and Human Rights Award winning journalist Chris Graham.