Rethinking Women in Combat

January 31, 2013
By

By Kim Tran

Photo courtesy of theatlantic.com

Photo courtesy of theatlantic.com

Last Thursday, Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta further integrated the armed forces by lifting a 1994 ban barring female service members from combat roles.  The United States Army alone currently excludes women from nearly 25 percent of active-duty roles. By May 15, 2013 that will change dramatically.  Panetta’s announcement opened 230,000 jobs on the front lines across the armed forces to women.

At this point, the debate around whether or not women are physically capable of battle has been thoroughly deflated.  According to CNN, over 800 women have been wounded and 130 have died in Iraq and Afghanistan.  Female strength, endurance, and valor are not in question here. But as the ACLU heralds Panetta’s proclamation as a “victory” against the sexist anachronistic policy of the U.S. military, what has yet to be discussed is how making official combat positions available to women will actually hurt the feminist movement by increasing the reach of American imperialism abroad and weakening domestic families.

United States military interventions have historically been justified using the rhetoric of moral right.  More recently, they purport to combat the terrorization of the American public.  However, Zoltan Grossman, a professor specializing in geopolitics and globalization in Olympia, Washington, encourages us to rethink the invasion and occupation of foreign nations by the U.S. as “opportunistic responses to events, which have enabled Washington to gain a foothold in the “middle ground” between Europe to the west, Russia to the north, and China to the east, and turn this region increasingly into an American ‘sphere of influence’” securing American corporate control over oil supplies for both Europe and Asia.

If there was any doubt regarding American ulterior motives, Mother Jones published an article in July illuminating the nearly 50 military bases built since 2000 in countries like Honduras and Australia.  Affectionately called “lily pads” (as in, a frog jumping across a pond toward its prey), these bases are the strategic smaller cousins of the over 1,000 bases around the world the United States already maintains. American military bases have a long legacy of negatively impacting women and communities of color across the globe.  Indeed, the bipartisan Commission on Wartime Contracting conducted a comprehensive inquiry into the performance of contracts supporting military operations abroad.  They found over 70,000 people were recruited from countries like Bangladesh, Fiji, and the Philippines to work for contractors and subcontractors of the U.S. military at the over 500 bases in Iraq and Afghanistan.  Most importantly, these indentured slaves, a cohort the New Yorker calls “the invisible army,” are exploited for their labor while frequently experiencing sexual abuse.

Considering the ways American militarism disenfranchises and perpetrates violence against communities of color and women specifically, we may want to reconsider the inclusion of women on the front-lines of battle a feminist advancement.  According to the World Health Organization, situations of conflict, post conflict, and displacement potentially “exacerbate existing violence and present new forms of violence against women.” The effects of broadening American militarism not only disadvantage women, but also are downright dangerous for women.

Finally, too little of the conversation around “women’s right to serve” has included the pernicious effects of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder on combat veterans. If the American people take Leon Panetta at his word, that we will in fact see far more women in combat positions by next year, the implications for families with loved ones in the military are great.

Somewhere between 100,000-300,000 veterans experience PTSD. While it can be difficult to diagnose, symptoms include anger, self-destruction, alcoholism and hallucinations. Moreover, studies out of UCSF suggest women who go through combat may be more susceptible to PTSD and face greater age-related diseases. Again, the argument is not that women are physically unfit for combat, but that manifestations of PTSD have a great impact on the welfare of familial relationships, causing anxiety around intimacy, sexual dysfunction, and diminishment in sexual interest and fertility. Further, while it is clear PTSD can be incredibly destructive for one family member, recent evidence alludes it can be passed on from spouse to spouse and between parents and children.

Ultimately, my argument is short but not sweet. The bitter reality is enlistment in the armed services is fiercely declining, with fewer and fewer people believing American wars to extract oil and resources from the global south are legitimate. As feminists, we would do well to see both sides of the ideological coin at work. Yes, more women in official combat positions may challenge the male-dominated, misogynist culture of the military, but the political and domestic repercussions are great and disproportionately affect women’s lives. By extending the “right” to die in armed conflict to women and LGBT citizens, militarism can cloak itself as liberal progress, enabling an extension of American imperialism under the guise of democracy.

_______________________________________________

headshot (1)Kim Tran is a graduate student in the Ethnic Studies and Gender and Women’s Studies programs at the University of California, Berkeley. Her research examines refugee communities, transnational labor, gender, and queer studies. Her work can be found at www.kimtranpoetry.com.

 

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16 Responses to Rethinking Women in Combat

  1. Vet on January 31, 2013 at 12:09 pm

    I’m not sure this article or your theory fully grasps the extent to which women already fight, die, are injured and sustain mental injury (PTSD). Opening up combat roles will not substantially increase PTSD for women (in fact raining for combat can actually help prepare a person to anticipate and avoid it), it will however decrease the barriers those women face when they seek treatment for PTSD. Those barriers exist thanks in part to the ban and the myths regarding women’s ability and roles in the military.

    How exactly does keeping this ban (or DADT) advance the fight against militarism? Fighting militarism doesn’t require making women or LGBT people suffer more than they already do, and in fact, these types of arguments push those people away from progressive ideas. How about instead, just say this advance has no relation to the continued need for a critique against militarism?

    • Kim Tran on January 31, 2013 at 1:09 pm

      Thank you for the important points you bring up. I just want to clarify the point I’m making. First and foremost, I acknowledge the number of women fighting and dying in battle (see the CNN link above) but the argument is not that women don’t already experience PTSD or that they do not need resources that result from their combat experience (see the UCSF article). My point is that in the very least, the rhetorical opening of these positions to women does little to assuage the advancement of militarism BECAUSE they claim the military is making social progress. Making combat positions available to women in the military and allowing LGBTQ members of the military to be openly out does little fight against militarism because it shrouds American imperialism in liberal democracy. In no way am I advocating for DADT because its existence propagated violence against LGBTQ people in the armed forces. But I do hope that we can see beyond the new policies that claim “tolerance and acceptance” to see how the American military as an institution exploits and commits violence against women and communities of color. I’m asking us as feminists to see this more complexly, to question the notion of social evolution particularly if the narrative originates with the U.S. military.

  2. Vet on January 31, 2013 at 12:09 pm

    I’m not sure this article or your theory fully grasps the extent to which women already fight, die, are injured and sustain mental injury (PTSD). Opening up combat roles will not substantially increase PTSD for women (in fact raining for combat can actually help prepare a person to anticipate and avoid it), it will however decrease the barriers those women face when they seek treatment for PTSD. Those barriers exist thanks in part to the ban and the myths regarding women’s ability and roles in the military.

    How exactly does keeping this ban (or DADT) advance the fight against militarism? Fighting militarism doesn’t require making women or LGBT people suffer more than they already do, and in fact, these types of arguments push those people away from progressive ideas. How about instead, just say this advance has no relation to the continued need for a critique against militarism?

    • Kim Tran on January 31, 2013 at 1:09 pm

      Thank you for the important points you bring up. I just want to clarify the point I’m making. First and foremost, I acknowledge the number of women fighting and dying in battle (see the CNN link above) but the argument is not that women don’t already experience PTSD or that they do not need resources that result from their combat experience (see the UCSF article). My point is that in the very least, the rhetorical opening of these positions to women does little to assuage the advancement of militarism BECAUSE they claim the military is making social progress. Making combat positions available to women in the military and allowing LGBTQ members of the military to be openly out does little fight against militarism because it shrouds American imperialism in liberal democracy. In no way am I advocating for DADT because its existence propagated violence against LGBTQ people in the armed forces. But I do hope that we can see beyond the new policies that claim “tolerance and acceptance” to see how the American military as an institution exploits and commits violence against women and communities of color. I’m asking us as feminists to see this more complexly, to question the notion of social evolution particularly if the narrative originates with the U.S. military.

  3. Vet on January 31, 2013 at 12:09 pm

    I’m not sure this article or your theory fully grasps the extent to which women already fight, die, are injured and sustain mental injury (PTSD). Opening up combat roles will not substantially increase PTSD for women (in fact raining for combat can actually help prepare a person to anticipate and avoid it), it will however decrease the barriers those women face when they seek treatment for PTSD. Those barriers exist thanks in part to the ban and the myths regarding women’s ability and roles in the military.

    How exactly does keeping this ban (or DADT) advance the fight against militarism? Fighting militarism doesn’t require making women or LGBT people suffer more than they already do, and in fact, these types of arguments push those people away from progressive ideas. How about instead, just say this advance has no relation to the continued need for a critique against militarism?

    • Kim Tran on January 31, 2013 at 1:09 pm

      Thank you for the important points you bring up. I just want to clarify the point I’m making. First and foremost, I acknowledge the number of women fighting and dying in battle (see the CNN link above) but the argument is not that women don’t already experience PTSD or that they do not need resources that result from their combat experience (see the UCSF article). My point is that in the very least, the rhetorical opening of these positions to women does little to assuage the advancement of militarism BECAUSE they claim the military is making social progress. Making combat positions available to women in the military and allowing LGBTQ members of the military to be openly out does little fight against militarism because it shrouds American imperialism in liberal democracy. In no way am I advocating for DADT because its existence propagated violence against LGBTQ people in the armed forces. But I do hope that we can see beyond the new policies that claim “tolerance and acceptance” to see how the American military as an institution exploits and commits violence against women and communities of color. I’m asking us as feminists to see this more complexly, to question the notion of social evolution particularly if the narrative originates with the U.S. military.

  4. Vet on January 31, 2013 at 12:09 pm

    I’m not sure this article or your theory fully grasps the extent to which women already fight, die, are injured and sustain mental injury (PTSD). Opening up combat roles will not substantially increase PTSD for women (in fact raining for combat can actually help prepare a person to anticipate and avoid it), it will however decrease the barriers those women face when they seek treatment for PTSD. Those barriers exist thanks in part to the ban and the myths regarding women’s ability and roles in the military.

    How exactly does keeping this ban (or DADT) advance the fight against militarism? Fighting militarism doesn’t require making women or LGBT people suffer more than they already do, and in fact, these types of arguments push those people away from progressive ideas. How about instead, just say this advance has no relation to the continued need for a critique against militarism?

    • Kim Tran on January 31, 2013 at 1:09 pm

      Thank you for the important points you bring up. I just want to clarify the point I’m making. First and foremost, I acknowledge the number of women fighting and dying in battle (see the CNN link above) but the argument is not that women don’t already experience PTSD or that they do not need resources that result from their combat experience (see the UCSF article). My point is that in the very least, the rhetorical opening of these positions to women does little to assuage the advancement of militarism BECAUSE they claim the military is making social progress. Making combat positions available to women in the military and allowing LGBTQ members of the military to be openly out does little fight against militarism because it shrouds American imperialism in liberal democracy. In no way am I advocating for DADT because its existence propagated violence against LGBTQ people in the armed forces. But I do hope that we can see beyond the new policies that claim “tolerance and acceptance” to see how the American military as an institution exploits and commits violence against women and communities of color. I’m asking us as feminists to see this more complexly, to question the notion of social evolution particularly if the narrative originates with the U.S. military.

  5. Alex on January 31, 2013 at 3:20 pm

    90% of what these laws do is not encouraging women to apply for new jobs on the front line, but rather making them eligible to receive credit for the work they are already doing, making them eligible for promotions and for service recognition – many awards are only given to service members who have served in combat – and if a woman’s position is not “in combat” she is ineligible for those awards regardless of the job she actually did. So if we keep things they way they are, we are continuing not to recognize women who have actually served out there on the front lines (if you are interested in pursuing this I urge you to watch the wonderful documentary “Lioness”). I appreciate your theory about the move legitimizing war, however, what the laws actually do is recognize more women for succeeding in the jobs they have chosen or been given. Also, I personally find that the argument that we are hurting feminism by weakening domestic families to be itself an anti-feminist sentiment. No one is forcing these women into combat. There is no draft for women. In fact, by opening up these jobs to women, it means that women will know the danger they face, rather than being “behind the front lines” only to find themselves in combat, because in these wars there are no trenches or rows of militiamen. There is also an ENORMOUS argument to be made that women in positions of power within the military will decrease decrease the rape culture both within the armed forces and the culture of imperialism you/we wish to see vanish.

    PTS, as many who suffer, their families and veteran organizations now refer to it, is a natural reaction to war. To lift from an incredible letter from a friend & Vietnam vet to veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan, “It is a response to a terribly unnatural and unhealthy trauma. It is a sign that deep inside you understand that life wants to live.” The fact that these men and women are fighting this trauma is to me the only hope of us getting out – showing us that these wars are not worth fighting given the psychological and physical toll they take on the men and women who return, much less those who don’t. I have great friends who fought in those wars, women who should have been recognized for their service in combat, both who are brilliantly fighting to pass on their stories and fight against future wars. These are good battles that are worth fighting for.

  6. Alex on January 31, 2013 at 3:20 pm

    90% of what these laws do is not encouraging women to apply for new jobs on the front line, but rather making them eligible to receive credit for the work they are already doing, making them eligible for promotions and for service recognition – many awards are only given to service members who have served in combat – and if a woman’s position is not “in combat” she is ineligible for those awards regardless of the job she actually did. So if we keep things they way they are, we are continuing not to recognize women who have actually served out there on the front lines (if you are interested in pursuing this I urge you to watch the wonderful documentary “Lioness”). I appreciate your theory about the move legitimizing war, however, what the laws actually do is recognize more women for succeeding in the jobs they have chosen or been given. Also, I personally find that the argument that we are hurting feminism by weakening domestic families to be itself an anti-feminist sentiment. No one is forcing these women into combat. There is no draft for women. In fact, by opening up these jobs to women, it means that women will know the danger they face, rather than being “behind the front lines” only to find themselves in combat, because in these wars there are no trenches or rows of militiamen. There is also an ENORMOUS argument to be made that women in positions of power within the military will decrease decrease the rape culture both within the armed forces and the culture of imperialism you/we wish to see vanish.

    PTS, as many who suffer, their families and veteran organizations now refer to it, is a natural reaction to war. To lift from an incredible letter from a friend & Vietnam vet to veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan, “It is a response to a terribly unnatural and unhealthy trauma. It is a sign that deep inside you understand that life wants to live.” The fact that these men and women are fighting this trauma is to me the only hope of us getting out – showing us that these wars are not worth fighting given the psychological and physical toll they take on the men and women who return, much less those who don’t. I have great friends who fought in those wars, women who should have been recognized for their service in combat, both who are brilliantly fighting to pass on their stories and fight against future wars. These are good battles that are worth fighting for.

  7. Alex on January 31, 2013 at 3:20 pm

    90% of what these laws do is not encouraging women to apply for new jobs on the front line, but rather making them eligible to receive credit for the work they are already doing, making them eligible for promotions and for service recognition – many awards are only given to service members who have served in combat – and if a woman’s position is not “in combat” she is ineligible for those awards regardless of the job she actually did. So if we keep things they way they are, we are continuing not to recognize women who have actually served out there on the front lines (if you are interested in pursuing this I urge you to watch the wonderful documentary “Lioness”). I appreciate your theory about the move legitimizing war, however, what the laws actually do is recognize more women for succeeding in the jobs they have chosen or been given. Also, I personally find that the argument that we are hurting feminism by weakening domestic families to be itself an anti-feminist sentiment. No one is forcing these women into combat. There is no draft for women. In fact, by opening up these jobs to women, it means that women will know the danger they face, rather than being “behind the front lines” only to find themselves in combat, because in these wars there are no trenches or rows of militiamen. There is also an ENORMOUS argument to be made that women in positions of power within the military will decrease decrease the rape culture both within the armed forces and the culture of imperialism you/we wish to see vanish.

    PTS, as many who suffer, their families and veteran organizations now refer to it, is a natural reaction to war. To lift from an incredible letter from a friend & Vietnam vet to veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan, “It is a response to a terribly unnatural and unhealthy trauma. It is a sign that deep inside you understand that life wants to live.” The fact that these men and women are fighting this trauma is to me the only hope of us getting out – showing us that these wars are not worth fighting given the psychological and physical toll they take on the men and women who return, much less those who don’t. I have great friends who fought in those wars, women who should have been recognized for their service in combat, both who are brilliantly fighting to pass on their stories and fight against future wars. These are good battles that are worth fighting for.

  8. Alex on January 31, 2013 at 3:20 pm

    90% of what these laws do is not encouraging women to apply for new jobs on the front line, but rather making them eligible to receive credit for the work they are already doing, making them eligible for promotions and for service recognition – many awards are only given to service members who have served in combat – and if a woman’s position is not “in combat” she is ineligible for those awards regardless of the job she actually did. So if we keep things they way they are, we are continuing not to recognize women who have actually served out there on the front lines (if you are interested in pursuing this I urge you to watch the wonderful documentary “Lioness”). I appreciate your theory about the move legitimizing war, however, what the laws actually do is recognize more women for succeeding in the jobs they have chosen or been given. Also, I personally find that the argument that we are hurting feminism by weakening domestic families to be itself an anti-feminist sentiment. No one is forcing these women into combat. There is no draft for women. In fact, by opening up these jobs to women, it means that women will know the danger they face, rather than being “behind the front lines” only to find themselves in combat, because in these wars there are no trenches or rows of militiamen. There is also an ENORMOUS argument to be made that women in positions of power within the military will decrease decrease the rape culture both within the armed forces and the culture of imperialism you/we wish to see vanish.

    PTS, as many who suffer, their families and veteran organizations now refer to it, is a natural reaction to war. To lift from an incredible letter from a friend & Vietnam vet to veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan, “It is a response to a terribly unnatural and unhealthy trauma. It is a sign that deep inside you understand that life wants to live.” The fact that these men and women are fighting this trauma is to me the only hope of us getting out – showing us that these wars are not worth fighting given the psychological and physical toll they take on the men and women who return, much less those who don’t. I have great friends who fought in those wars, women who should have been recognized for their service in combat, both who are brilliantly fighting to pass on their stories and fight against future wars. These are good battles that are worth fighting for.

  9. justiceday on January 31, 2013 at 9:42 pm

    You’ve miss the issue of rape and sexual assault in the US military. The announcement for combat was a PR move to take our focus of the real problem that hit the media recently.

    Who cares if women are in combat if they are being raped and sexually assaulted at a rate of 50 a day according to the DOD.

    Men in the military have no respect for women, why would be think they would protect us in combat.
    theusmarinesrapecom

  10. justiceday on January 31, 2013 at 9:42 pm

    You’ve miss the issue of rape and sexual assault in the US military. The announcement for combat was a PR move to take our focus of the real problem that hit the media recently.

    Who cares if women are in combat if they are being raped and sexually assaulted at a rate of 50 a day according to the DOD.

    Men in the military have no respect for women, why would be think they would protect us in combat.
    theusmarinesrapecom

  11. justiceday on January 31, 2013 at 9:42 pm

    You’ve miss the issue of rape and sexual assault in the US military. The announcement for combat was a PR move to take our focus of the real problem that hit the media recently.

    Who cares if women are in combat if they are being raped and sexually assaulted at a rate of 50 a day according to the DOD.

    Men in the military have no respect for women, why would be think they would protect us in combat.
    theusmarinesrapecom

  12. justiceday on January 31, 2013 at 9:42 pm

    You’ve miss the issue of rape and sexual assault in the US military. The announcement for combat was a PR move to take our focus of the real problem that hit the media recently.

    Who cares if women are in combat if they are being raped and sexually assaulted at a rate of 50 a day according to the DOD.

    Men in the military have no respect for women, why would be think they would protect us in combat.
    theusmarinesrapecom

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