In one of his final acts as Defense Secretary, Leon Panetta announced on January 23 that he would be lifting the ban on women in combat. This turn of events would open up 238,000 opportunities for women in the military, allowing them to officially serve on the front lines. The decision overturns a ban placed in 1994 that previously denied women from serving in smaller, ground combat units.
Unsurprisingly, there has already been some backlash regarding Panetta’s decision to lift the ban. In a Wall Street Journal article, Ryan Smith, a marine who served in Iraq, states:
“Societal norms are a reality, and their maintenance is important to most members of a society…Combat effectiveness is based in large part on unit cohesion. The relationships among members of a unit can be irreparably harmed by forcing them to violate societal norms.”
I’m going to ignore the sexist language for a moment, because sadly his ideas are not new within the United States. It is a pretty common argument that women should not be allowed to serve on the front lines because it would disrupt the structure of the unit. Smith’s claim, as well as many others (I’m looking at you, Rick Santorum), is that having women present on the battlefield is too distracting. It is said that men would feel such a sense of protectiveness over women that they would disobey orders to keep them safe. This goes right along with the arguments that women are not physically capable of keeping up with their male counterparts, even when able to pass the same tests as men.
It sounds an awful lot like the type of victim blaming that goes along with street harassment and rape culture. Because some of these soldiers are “too distracted” by a female presence, they should not be allowed at all. We do not trust our soldiers not to rape their unit mates, nor do we stop them from doing so. In the documentary The Invisible War, director Kirby Dick outlines the statistics regarding women in the military. What’s so shocking isn’t necessarily the number of women who have been raped by her service mates, but the way these survivors have been treated since. Those who came forward were reprimanded, their cases swept under the rug while the perpetrator was left alone or sometimes promoted to a higher rank. It’s pretty clear that the priority of the United States Armed Forces hasn’t been protecting our women; it’s been doing everything possible to keep them out of this so-called “boys club.”
Fortunately, not every country is nearly as close-minded as those who have set up these boundaries in the United States is today. While many countries, including the United States, have had a female presence in the army for some time, several lifted any bans on women in combat decades ago.
One prime example is the Israeli Defense Force, largely considered to be one of the most inclusive armies in the world. The only country with a mandatory draft for both men and women (with a few exemptions, such as non-Jewish citizens and Orthodox women) has seen women in the army since the IDF’s formation in 1948. During the War of Independence, female soldiers fought in combat on the front lines alongside the men in the militia. However, after the war ended, women were barred from the front lines; the fear being that if a soldier were to be captured, there was a greater risk of rape for a woman than a man. Many of these doors for woman remained closed until 1996 when Alice Miller was barred from taking the pilot’s training exam based solely on her gender. The High Court of Justice ruled that the IAF cannot ban a qualified person from taking the exam, opening the door for female soldiers to gain access to any job for which they were qualified. Finally, in 2000, the Equality amendment stated that, “The right of women to serve in any role in the IDF is equal to the right of men.” The position of Women’s Affairs advisor, a position held by a woman, was created in place of the Women’s Corps in order to ensure equal opportunities for women as well as safe working conditions. Today in the IDF, roughly 33% of enlistees are women, with about 90% of all positions opened to them, including combat. One notable unit is the Caracal Batallion, a co-ed infantry unit, which contains 70% female soldiers.
When Brigadir General Yehudit Grisaro, the Women’s Affairs Advisor who retired in 2010, speaks about sexual harassment during her career, she says:
“I don’t know if there were men brave enough to take the chance. This is not an issue in the IDF…The men in the IDF are educated and aware about the issues of sexual harassment, so it is not a phenomenon. I used to say that the most sophisticated weapon against sexual harassment was improving the awareness of men. The majority of soldiers know the rules and recognise the contribution of women. Women are treated in the same way as the men, and they are judged the same as the men. They are paid the same as the men.”
And yet we’re still worried about the “complications” having women on the front lines would bring.
Israel is not alone in allowing women in combat positions, although they are the most progressive. Canada, Denmark, Finland, France, Germany, the Netherlands, Norway, Poland, Romania, and Sweden were all listed in a 2010 British Ministry of Defense study as countries that allow women to hold combat positions in their armies, with Australia to join their ranks in 2011. And more countries are slowly beginning to join then.
So what lessons can we learn from the IDF? First off, the idea that “allowing” women to serve on the front line alongside men would be too distracting is completely ridiculous. If a woman can pass the tests needed to join combat units, there should be no reason to bar them from holding that position. These bans only make it impossible for women to climb up the ranks within the army, restricting them to lower level positions.
The second lesson is that sexual assault is only an issue in the US Armed Forces because our current system lets it be one. There is no real, progressive educational system in place. There are no repercussions for the predator, allowing them to get away with their actions, which only increases the likelihood that it will happen again. Without a system to actively protect women who are victims of crimes against them within their own unit, lifting bans on the front lines does little good. These men do not view the women who serve with them as their equals. They are not too afraid to try anything. These rapists are confident enough to use their position of power over the women they serve with. They often drug them or break into their rooms while the women sleep, sometimes physically injuring them in the process. And virtually nothing is being done to stop it from happening.
The problem clearly isn’t the presence of women, it’s the fact that our current system is broken and no one wants to admit it. Yes, lifting the ban on women in combat is a good first step to having women seen as equals. But it means little if we don’t do something to protect the ones already there.