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.

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8 Comments on “Women in the military and the myth of male combat”

  1. Kate Says:

    Doesn’t have to do much with this post, but I would love to see you take on these bozos- http://www.the-spearhead.com/about/


  2. Yowza! The internet is, sadly, full of bozos – but the ones you’ve pointed out look particularly bozotastic. Thanks for your input

  3. Stephen Says:

    It seems to me, and this is totally off the cuff with out evidence, that it may have something to do with the idea that warfare is THE manly pursuit. That going to war “will make a man outta ya” and so forth. So when women or men who “aren’t really men” are introduced it creates a free amongst these people seeking to be “manly men” through war, that their vehicle of masculinity is somehow being corrupted.


    • Yup, that’s pretty much what I’m saying too – combat is seen as an essentially male pursuit, and central to the social construction of masculine identity. So to preserve this exclusively masculine field of combat, women and assorted ‘others’ are continually excluded, or the definitions of what ‘combat’ is – changes.

      • Toads Says:

        Why are men excluded from fields like elementary school teaching and nursing?

        Plus, are you aware that combat involves carrying heavy equipment, shooting guns, and getting killed or disfigured?

  4. The Nerd Says:

    I was in the Air Force, and while there is less sexism in that branch (due to larger numbers of women), there is still an underlying current of disrespect to pregnant women. The common thought is that women time their pregnancies to coincide with deployment schedules, so as to avoid doing the hard work overseas.

    To me, this is the ultimate in misogyny. It first assumes that women are not capable of seeing their children as humans, and instead are using them as tools of convenience. It then assumes that the women even have the biological capability to force fertility at their convenience. To top it off, there’s the unspoken message that “something should be done about it”, and there’s only one logical conclusion as to what that “something” would be: the forced limitation of service women’s reproductive rights.

    The military is full of “good old boys” that know what is best for women, even better than the women themselves. This is very sad, because many women including myself joined the service, because the military is one of the few jobs that promise equal pay for equal work to everyone. What it offers in financial fairness it fails to match in respect.

  5. dragnet Says:

    “It first assumes that women are not capable of seeing their children as humans, and instead are using them as tools of convenience.”

    Yes, but is that really all that far-fetched? I’m sure some of those women do, although I would bet it’s not as widespread as the rumors suggest. In my experience, HUMANS are capable of seeing other HUMANS as tool of convenience—including mothers exploiting children. Why should women be immune from this basic human fault? They absolutely are not.

    “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.”

    I agree with this point somewhat—but disagree with the point of the article. Yes, so much of “combat” these days is guiding a cruise missile into a target video-game style. Or something like that. I see no reason why women shouldn’t be able to do that as well as any man. But the fact remains that not all combat is like that. To win wars, you still need boots on the ground to do the unsanitary business of going house to house, or front to front, killing and overpowering people—which is what war traditionally is. The simple fact is that men are better at this extremely physically taxing aspect of war, because they are men. Testosterone matters. So let’s please—please—don’t pretend like it doesn’t. Better to work to change societal mores so that the things of masculinity (ie, direct combat, testosterone, lifting really heavy stuff) isn’t viewed as more important, worthy or essential than other tasks.

    However, I agree 100 percent about gays in the military. They should be allowed to serve openly and with respect, and our society needs to expand our definition of what masculinity is to include them. One thing I deeply respect about the gay community, is how more flexible definitions of what masculinity is have become integral to it. There are different kinds of men, but they are no less masculine as far as I’m concerned.


  6. […] One feminist activist in Australia – supposedly a man of some sort – feels that the entire “masculine identity” is an illusion upheld only by the idea that combat is a man’s job. Keep in mind while reading the excerpt below that this man was so upset by The Spearhead that he didn’t feel that he could write coherently about our publication: In regard to the role of women in combat, and whether or not this is something male military resent,… […]


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