Friday, 19 June 2009

A right to kill?

A while ago, this article caught my attention. It's about the British Ministry of Defence reviewing its ban on military women in close combat roles, in which soldiers are required to kill the enemy face to face.

There is opposition to the possibility of women combatants from within the military. One officer is quoted as follows:

"The reason [for the ban] is not because women are not capable. It comes to the dynamics of units of 18-year-old soldiers ... they would be fighting for attention." He added: "It is all about unit cohesion, not the capability of the soldier."

So women shouldn't be allowed to participate because men can't control their behaviour? Where have I heard that argument before? And these same men who can't control themselves around female fellow soldiers are expected to abide by the conventions of war, including appropriate treatments of civilians? Hmmmm.

That aside, I'm interested in how feminists should respond to this possibility of 'equal opportunity'. I for one, don't want to kill people up close and personal. I don't want to kill them from a distance. In fact, I don't really want to kill people at all. Most women are socialised to have an aversion to violence - but I've no doubt that some of us can and do kill people proficiently, and fancy making a career of it.

I'm trying to separate my own distaste for violence, and my cynicism about the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq, from the issue of what women should and shouldn't be able to do. I'm not a fan of the military as an institution - but so long as we have it, should feminists fight for women to be able to participate in all aspects of it on the same grounds as men? Or is this just fools' gold, masquerading as women's liberation?


katy said...

This is a tricky one. I think the key lies in the statement you have quoted:

"The reason [for the ban] is not because women are not capable. It comes to the dynamics of units of 18-year-old soldiers ... they would be fighting for attention." He added: "It is all about unit cohesion, not the capability of the soldier."

That is, if the only reason not to do it is because of potential disruption because it is assumed that young men and women can't get along, this is unacceptable.

However, I am not sure they are saying that the problem is that men can't control their behaviour; I read it that they assumed that the young women would have a chip on their shoulders and would be determinded to prove their skill. That is, that basically women don't understand the values that underpin the military.

Lucy said...

I think the bans on women in combat are bollocks, because the simple fact is that women have been involved in combat - voluntarily and involuntarily - since combat existed. People don't not shoot at you because you're a girl. All combat bans do is reinforce the anti-female attitude that already permeates the military - women aren't "real" soldiers because they're not considered fit for front-line combat. And, yeah, there's a whole other argument to be had about the existence of the military, but while it exists and women serve in it, they need to be treated as having the same capabilities as men. Otherwise they'll always be second-class citizens - no matter what capacity they are serving in.

portia said...

I think the argument about unit cohesion is a load of crap, a flimsy excuse. If young men will preen for a young woman's attention, why is it only a problem in combat units, but not, say, in support units? Women and men are not segregated in the military except with respect to combat.

I think the real reason has to do with the squeamishness of middle-aged men at the notion of nice girls killing people. They don't like to think about women that way, having grown up in a culture where women were supposed to be nicer than men (to men). Women were considered inferior, but certainly SAFE to be around.

Anna said...

I read the 'competing for attention' thing differently - ie blokes showing off to the ladies. I might have got the wrong end of the stick!

Quite a few years ago, I spoke to a guy in the airforce who supported banning women from combat roles. His rationale is that, when a bloke is injured, his fellow soldiers will keep on fighting, but when a woman is injured, the men will feel obliged to help her. It was a different version of the 'unit cohesion' argument - it assumes that men will always be numerically superior in the armed forces (women wouldn't be a distraction in a unit full of women, after all).

portia said...

Anna, see, that makes no sense to me.

Soldiers aren't just taken off the street, handed a gun, and sent to Afghanistan. They get trained. And if you want them to follow a certain protocol when a member of their unit gets injured, that's what you train them to do. When the poo hits the fan, soldiers fall back on their training. To suggest that men would automatically break training and lapse into a kind of atavistic chivalry, is profoundly insulting to men.

It's also not supported by evidence. We have had female police and firefighters for quite a while now, and if male police and firefighters were falling into protect teh wimmins mode in crisis situations we would have heard about it by now.

It's just so irrational, that's why I figure it's an emotional reaction on the part of the brass.

Hugh said...

Portia, if you see it as a product of the attitudes of the top brass, does it follow that the military leadership in countries like Israel, Switzerland are less sexist than their counterparts here?

Anna said...

Portia, I agree about the misguided chivalry argument (although I'm not convinced that soldiers are as well-trained as they ought to be). It also doesn't square very well with reports I've noticed about sexual assaults of female military by their male colleagues. I think the chivalry argument can be used a bit self-servingly.

Tidge said...

I absolutely think that female solders should be allowed into combat - the only thing stopping them is the attitudes of the men they would be fighting with. However, I'm surprised any women want to, given things like this:

But I guess, if no women ever go into the military, nothing will ever change. But women should not have to put up with this crap until the men learn to behave like decent human beings. That said, I reckon my normal moral compass would be shot all to hell if I was involved with killing people for a living.

AWicken said...

Any takers for "all of the above"?

Different flavours in different armies, but this issue requires consensus within the military establishment and also with their political bosses. Throw in a chunk of people with individual prejudices, and it's just easier for everybody to justify the status quo (i.e. "unit cohesion", "upper body strength", etc). As long as enough people at a glance go "sounds reasonable" it's okay, until *male* recruitment becomes a serious issue.

Heck, as the link posted earlier said, the US have the political best of both worlds - women are in urban combat, but officially the conservatives back home can choose to believe that only men are frontline soldiers.

Faced with a war of annihilation most states accept expanded roles for women in society, often including combat (Soviet Union and Israel being prime examples of the latter).

Switzerland is an interesting one, but then I'm guessing that they're not as militarily active as USA or Britain, so the "body bags" spectre might not be so up close & personal for them.

portia said...

Hugh, good question, and I would answer no. It is possible to have sexist men who are not OK with women in combat AND sexist men who are OK with women in combat. All that's required is a slight variation in the boundaries.

Remember that movie G I Jane? I read that in the original cut Jane comes home in a body bag, but it made the studio execs squeamish. They made Ridley Scott change it, even though the darker ending tested better with actual audiences.

Anonymous said...

I've never met a man who wanted to have a baby. Why are feminists so keen on being a warrior? You should do what men do when childbirth is discussed - heave a sigh of relief and thank their lucky stars that it is something that the blessing of gender means they'll never have to experience.

Anna said...

Anon, the trouble with that argument is that it has been used to prevent women from doing stuff they want to do - voting, or taking on jobs considered too challenging or dangerous for women. Besides, I'm not sure that people 'have to' experience warfare anyway (except if you're conscripted or invaded). No one 'had' to invade Iraq, after all.

Luke H said...

I for one, don't want to kill people up close and personal. I don't want to kill them from a distance. In fact, I don't really want to kill people at all.

That is an interesting perspective. What about defensive, protective military actions such as UN interventions in the Congo?

Also, most positions in the military are support roles rather than combat positions.

Hugh said...

Luke, it's the combat roles that women are being excluded from.

As for 'defensive' actions, in my opinion killing another human being because your government tells you s/he has to die isn't made a more defensible action by the fact that they are crossing a border into your country, not vice versa.

I could go into more detail regarding the UN's actions in the Congo, but killing in the service of the state - and the UN is simply a group of states working together in aggregate - is still killing in the name of the state, regardless of the reasons the state tells you the killing needs doing.