Thursday, November 17, 2005
While the US continues to debate the issue of women in combat roles, I thought it might be useful to take a look at the experience of the Canadian Armed Forces. My interest was raised after reading a post on The Happy Feminist. THF takes on 10 arguments against women serving in combat and quite succinctly puts 8 of them to rest with clear logic and a matter-of-fact manner. It’s worth the read and there are some illuminating comments which both support and refute THF’s position. I will attempt to briefly address the two questions THF has not yet answered (although I'm sure she will): The difference in physical strength between men and women, and the issue of unit cohesion.
Canada, in 1989, was the first NATO country to eliminate the legislative barriers which prohibited women in combat roles. The decision was sudden, unscheduled and received with a great deal of angst by the male dominated military hierarchy. At the time of the 1989 Human Rights Tribunal decision Canada had been conducting a trial known as Combat Related Employment of Women (CREW). The decision ended all trials and opened the doors to women wishing to serve in any position except for submarines. (That restriction has been removed with the commissioning of the Upholder class subs).
Unfortunately, The HRT decision was accompanied by a statement that the difference in the physical strength of women and men was irrelevant. They went on to state that hand-to-hand combat was a relic of the past and that all future combat would be trigger-pulling and button-pushing without directly contacting the enemy. It was this view, from a group who collectively had never served as much as a day in the services, which so angered most of the serving members of the armed forces. The HRT had to be ignored when it came to selection, physical standards and training.
The men serving in Canadian Armed Forces took the integration of women into combat units with a mixture of disdain and welcome. Many men were glad to see the playing field leveled since it now meant they could take up some of the static positions which had been occupied primarily by women. This would give the army and the navy a better field/base and sea/shore ratio respectively. On the other hand, a large number of serving men were unhappy with the infringement on a traditional male bastion.
The “differing physical strength” argument was played often and loudly. It was quelled when headquarters made it clear that the physical, psychological, education and character standards would remain in place. If a woman couldn’t pass the selection standard for a particular occupation, she simply would not be accepted in that trade. The same applied to men. This had an effect on infantry recruiting where out of 102 female recruits only one successfully completed training. Today, there are only five females in the infantry classification. While there is now a focused effort to attract women to combat-arms, the army, quite correctly, refuses to adjust the physical strength standard.
The navy had a different problem. The Canadian navy’s reputation in the Persian Gulf, the Adriatic and the Caribbean centers around one of the most effective embargo and boarding operations of all allied navies. Hostile boardings are a dangerous and dirty task. There is a requirement for brute strength in some cases and some men were concerned that women, with less physical upper body strength would be excused from sharing the risk. (Note that this was used as an argument for not having women in the ship at all. It’s called biting off your nose to spite your face). In my ship the question was approached with some logic. The boarding teams needed a combination of many skills and attributes. It was noted that a requirement also existed for sailors with a small physique just to get into and through small spaces. The hand-to-hand combat requirement could not be discounted, but that was a matter of training; not size. In fact, the solution was training; lots of it. All members of a boarding team have to be able to think on their feet, rapidly adjust to a changing situation and be able to defend themselves and the members of their team. Weapons training was specialized so any attempted argument that women did not possess the necessary weapons skills immediately failed. None of the men possessed those skills prior to selection for the boarding teams either. Women were in and they performed exactly the same as the men on the teams. There were two occasions in my ship where the presence of women enhanced the operation. The ships being boarded had women amongst the crew. They immediately gravitated toward the women on the boarding team and were more than happy to share information which would normally have to be extracted through lengthy and tedious questioning.
Sexual harassment became a problem which has only recently been brought under control. There were many justifiable claims of sexual harassment; at least one reported rape and a case of torture which angered even the hardest of those opposed to women serving in combat. There were also just as many cases which turned out NOT to be sexual harassment. Unfortunately, the naïve leadership of the armed forces simply prosecuted every complaint in an attempt to set examples. The embarrassment of senior officers was clearly visible when one sergeant, at a court martial, asked the military judge, “Why is it that when a female is involved, it’s sexual harassment, but when I make a male do exactly the same thing, it’s considered good training?” The Court Martial Appeals Court was overturning sexual harassment convictions with great regularity and it compelled the armed forces leadership to implement a more effective system of reporting, investigation and resolution.
Unit cohesion was a concern, and I suppose in some areas still is. However, to blame the lack of unit cohesion on the presence of women is to turn away from the real problem. Unit cohesion is born of good leadership. In those units and ships which suffered or suffer from a noticeable lack of unit cohesion there is usually a problem closer to the top than among the ranks. The issue of sexual attraction cannot easily be dismissed. An “in unit” love or lust affair can have a destructive effect on unit morale. Regulations are in place prohibiting fraternization beyond friendship, but only an idiot would believe that a regulation will prevent a group of young people from having sex. The problem arises when it becomes public. Since the population of men numerically always exceeds the women, some men display jealous behaviour when a woman “hooks up” with one of the men. While this may all sound a little juvenile, one needs to remember that most young soldiers, sailors and air force personnel are barely out of their teens. When a relationship becomes public knowledge, one of the pair is transferred. As costly as that may be to the unit at the time, it is costlier to allow the combat edge to dull. Leadership and some tough discipline will usually overcome the problem, but in truth a good leader will invoke a level of esprit de corps through training, communications and individual recognition that motivates people to want to stay in that particular unit. As rude as it sounds, the senior leaders of a unit should have an intimate knowledge of what is going on in the lower ranks of their unit, including who is screwing whom.
In the US debate pregnancy has been tossed around as a major reason for disallowing women in combat. The Canadian Armed Forces situation was no different but it was dealt with adequately. In the CAF pregnancy is simply a medical condition. It does have an immediate impact on unit strength since current practice is to medevac and repatriate those who become pregnant while deployed, and to transfer to base or garrison any woman who is pregnant. It is not permanent or punishment. Women have a variety of options and those who find themselves with an unwanted pregnancy may opt for an abortion if that is her wish. If all this sounds a little lopsided, it is balanced by the fact that men are entitled to parenting leave on the birth of a child by their spouse and that has now been extended to include an adoption. Where this runs into a wall is when the headquarters personnel organization fails to provide a timely relief for the vacated position. It is inconvenient but not insurmountable. Indeed, given a hot combat situation in which casualties occur, the unit must be prepared to fight on in a shorthanded condition.
Canada is no longer the sole NATO ally to remove the combat barrier to women, although it is the only one (aside from the reality of the US situation) to commit women to combat in Afghanistan and quasi-combat in global peacekeeping operations.
Two truths emerge which make restricting the role of women in combat pointless:
1. Ground combat has evolved to the point that there really is no safe rear area. The US is highly cognizant of that fact through their operations in both Afghanistan and Iraq. While the US debates allowing women to serve in front end combat units, it is happening anyway. It makes little sense to insist that women be restricted to support trades when the “front line” is so fluid.
2. The recruiting pool in Canada and many other NATO nations is changing. Lower birth rates, strong economies and higher standards of education are reducing the numbers of young men available for voluntary military service. In Canada’s case, simply meeting manning targets will require that more women enter the service. While the US situation may be somewhat different, that country too has faced a shortage of men. In fact, the US has a higher percentage of women serving than most other countries. Under such circumstances prohibiting women from earning a Combat Infantry Badge seems a bit ridiculous.