Women in the military and the myth of male combat
This originally started as a reply to a comment by Kristy on my Generation Kill post, but it’s a big and important topic, so I thought I’d give it some independent space. The salient section of that comment is below;
“And I wonder if men resent women for not going to war in the same numbers that they do? Does this account for misogyny amongst some male soldiers? i.e. the thought those that silly women aren’t out there risking their lives and limbs for freedom and country like us? I suppose that the idea that women are loathed because they are less physically capable is not new.”
In regard to the role of women in combat, and whether or not this is something male military resent, I would argue that it isn’t a resentment of women not being more involved. Rather I’d argue that the masculine identity constructed relies on what is essentially the myth of a homosocially exclusive experience of combat. Women, especially in a conflict like Iraq are a part of combat, ‘rear echelon’ military see combat along with the ‘front line’ troops, in a type of conflict where these divisions are increasingly meaningless. However the experience of combat is seen as something so quintessentially male, that great social and cultural lengths are gone maintain the strict gender division. Discursively women do not take part in the same combat as men; and the two great arguments always raised in defence of this maintenance of gender are the physical inferiority of women, and their negative effect on morale/cohesion. In regard to the latter variants of the arguments “Men will instinctively risk themselves to protect a female soldier, who is more vulnerable” and “Male soldiers will become sexually distracted” I believe I even once read an argument against frontline female troops based on the military’s inability to accommodate menstruation “on the frontline” (surely if anyone can handle a little blood it’s the army) – but I kinda want to believe I’m making that up.
Oh, by the way, the same argument can be applied to homosexuals in the military – and the convenient political/discurvice tool of ‘Don’t ask Don’t tell’ is a prime example of how combat is constructed as not only a masculine pursuit, but a heterosexual pursuit also.
In Australia at least, there have been man arguments, some quite recent about the role of women in the military, and the debates around this fiercely enforced gender division are often quite vitriolic.
I can think of few other aspects of modern society where the gender binary is so demarcated and enforced as combat. Women take part in combat, not as active, masculine participants, but as victims, as in ‘womenandchildren’ as I believe (and I could be wrong) the excellent Cynthia Enloe so rightly put it. If women are not directly victims of war, then their only role is as some sort of conflated meta-housewife, keeping the home fires burning.
It is essential to the construction of a martial masculine identity, itself an immensely influential hegemonic masculinity, that combat is exclusively male. And in a world were conflict is increasingly technologised, fluid and based less on ‘fronts’ it is hard work for the social and cultural discourses to maintain that strict gender division.
So thanks for your comment Kristy. That’s my take on women and the military.