Women have served in the military in various capacities throughout history, but in many cases cultural norms have prevented women from active military service in combat zones even when there was an acute military need. The U.S. decision announced Wednesday to allow women to serve in direct military combat roles is a step toward gender equality in the military. Each military branch has until 2016 to implement this new policy and decide on any exemptions they deem necessary.
Uniquely, this move is being driven by the cultural imperative for the all-volunteer force to resemble the society it defends as opposed to filling a need, so while the political implications are grand, the military reality is negligible. The U.S. decision will likely not be a completely open door due to possible exemptions, but it will serve as another step toward meeting this cultural requisite.
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The opening of this demographic to combat roles comes at time when the United States dominates militarily, does not face an existential threat and is not in need of personnel. In fact, it is currently downsizing the entire force. These last two factors have been the usual historical drivers for militaries to accept the greater — albeit limited — inclusion of race and gender in the military, despite existing cultural dynamics.
With the dawn of World War I, the mass inclusion of women in the war effort became inescapable. In the United Kingdom, in a process known as Dilution, women replaced the millions of men sent to the front lines by working primarily in armament factories, agriculture, logistics and medical services on the home front. Even during the Great War, the notion that women could serve in the trenches was culturally impossible.
The only exception to this rule was a short-lived experiment in 1917 by the Russian government to deploy women's battalions — largely for propaganda purposes — to revitalize the army's flagging morale. The 1st Russian Women's Battalion of Death did charge an enemy trench during the Kerensky Offensive, with mixed results. For the most part, though, the only viable way women could serve close to the front lines was by working as nurses in the medical corps; hundreds of women lost their lives doing so.
The role of women in combat evolved dramatically during World War II. Nearly half a million American women served in the armed forces, but the U.S. military decided not to include them in direct combat because the American people would not tolerate it. The United Kingdom, once again desperately in need of more personnel, included women in a number of protected units that were technically involved in combat but were unlikely to be overrun or captured. The most notable examples are the anti-air artillery batteries in which then-Prime Minister Winston Churchill's daughter Mary served.
Opposition to active female service-in-combat roles are best demonstrated by Germany during World War II. The German need for additional personnel started reaching critical levels by 1944, and yet in November 1944, Hitler still issued an official order that no women were to be trained in weapons use except in the most extreme cases. The Germans finally decided to raise a female combat battalion in February 1945 to shame men into fighting, but the war ended before the battalion was raised.
Once again, it was the Soviet Union that broke the trend by deploying female soldiers in combat. Nearly one million women served in the Red Army during World War II, half of whom served in front-line duty. That is not to say that there wasn't some resistance to the mass involvement of women in combat, but due to military need and the much greater cultural acceptance of an equal female role in the Soviet Union, the Red Army was able to call on vast numbers of women without going through the intermediary auxiliary service stage. Russian women served in anti-aircraft batteries, in tanks, as snipers, as partisans and as combat pilots. The only two female aces in history, Lydia Litvyak and Katya Budanova, served in the Red Air Force 586th Fighter Aviation Regiment.
After World War II, the pace of reform involving the inclusion of females in the military dramatically slowed. With the evolution of cultural norms in Europe, the United States and around the world over the past 60 years, women have been able to steadily acquire more latitude in military service. Europe witnessed the fastest pace of reform in this regard. By 1978, Danish women could serve in all areas of the military. In 1985, the Royal Norwegian Navy became the first navy in the world to permit female personnel to serve in submarines. In 2000, the Israeli Equality amendment to the Military Service law enabled women to enter combat roles, including establishing a co-ed infantry battalion. In September 2011, Australia instituted a phased five-year plan under which restrictions would be gradually lifted on women in combat roles.
The United States faces three major considerations regarding this new policy. First, how far will the exemptions extend throughout the various services? Putting women in combat units but limiting them to a company headquarters element is very different than allowing them open application to all levels with access to all jobs within that unit. The second consideration will be physical standards. Most of the military services run a dual physical assessment for male and female personnel evaluation. It will need to be established whether this system is appropriate for combat-related jobs, especially ones where there is already more selection criteria for the men, such as in special operation forces. The third consideration is how to overcome the culture in all-male units into which women may be integrated. The military is already struggling with sexual harassment in mixed gender units and this policy will likely exacerbate the problem.
In many ways, the distinction between women in combat roles and women in support roles has been blurred by recent conflicts. An occupation force fighting insurgents has no clear line of battle, and many female service members in support roles have found themselves in the line of fire. The truth is that these bureaucratic distinctions are just catching up with reality.
The U.S. military will accept women in combat roles regardless of the decision's popularity within the ranks. There is a precedent for the services' accepting force restructuring despite resistance from U.S. society or from within the ranks themselves, such as desegregation, allowing openly gay service members and the initial allowance of women into non-combat roles. This has led to occasional friction, but in general the military has continued to operate as usual. Despite the punditry to be had on either side, the real constraint on future combat power will be from fiscal constraints and political will, not the demographics of personnel.