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Tarak Barkawi
Tarak Barkawi
Tarak Barkawi is Associate Professor in the Department of Politics, New School for Social Research.
Equality in army and society
It is time to accept that women and men are equal even in war, says author.
Last Modified: 16 May 2012 11:29
Women in the US armed forces have been serving in combat for over a decade now in Iraq and Afghanistan [GALLO/GETTY]

New York, New York - In December 1944, Hitler launched his last great offensive in the West, known as the Battle of the Bulge. His tank divisions smashed through the American lines in the Ardennes, capturing and killing thousands of US soldiers.

Amid the crisis, US commanders deployed African American units to Bastogne, a key road junction. At the time, African Americans served in segregated units, only a few of which were combat units. African American soldiers cooked, cleaned, chauffeured, and laboured for their white counterparts, under the strict supervision of white superiors, much as they did back home in civilian society.

But there were some black combat units, like the 761st Tank Battalion, which fought alongside the 101st Airborne Division at the siege of Bastogne. When General George S Patton first sent the 761st into battle he told them: "I don't care what color you are as long as you go up there and kill those Kraut sons of bitches." That is pretty much what the 761st did, paying a heavy price for the honour.

 US army to open combat-related jobs to women

As the Battle of the Bulge wound down, the US commander in Europe, General Dwight D Eisenhower, was short of infantry replacements, as so many of his men were dead or wounded. He lifted the embargo on African American soldiers serving in combat in white units, asking for volunteers from the black support units. Nearly 5,000 responded and would go on to serve in their own platoons alongside white troops.

Their valour and sacrifice was noted by white officers who, after the war, rose to positions of seniority. When President Truman decided to end segregation in the military in 1948, in the face of significant opposition, these officers proved crucial allies. They had seen with their own eyes black men who fought with dedication, intelligence and bravery. They had seen them bleed and die for a country that did not treat them as equal human beings.

One can imagine the conversations in officers' messes. Racist white officers would claim that black men could not fight, or that white troops would never serve alongside them. Neither claim would hold much water with those who had seen otherwise.

Direct wartime experience trumped racial prejudice. It meant that the US military was racially integrated well in advance of US society.

Over the last decade, something very similar has happened with respect to women in combat. Only this time, the army - that bastion of masculinity - lags behind civil society.

Women have been serving in combat for over a decade now. Notionally, with some exception, they are not permanently assigned to combat units. But in Iraq and Afghanistan, there were no front lines. Women in support units got caught up in ambushes or were called upon to serve in foot patrols. In many other cases, female soldiers were "temporarily" assigned as specialists to combat units, serving directly alongside their male counterparts in arduous and dangerous roles.

Military police units are known as the "female infantry". They offer a way for women to serve in units whose role approximates the ultimate ground combat vocation, especially in counterinsurgency campaigns.

So it is that many male soldiers and officers have already served alongside women in combat. They too have seen with their own eyes. The recent decision by the Pentagon to allow women in specialist roles to serve in ground combat units simply formalises what has been the practice in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Now, female medics, radio operators, tank mechanics and other specialists can be "permanently" assigned to combat units instead of only "temporarily attached".

This is hardly a victory for feminism and equal rights. As long as women are barred from ground combat roles in the army, they will not have the same career opportunities or respect accorded combat soldiers. In Western navies and air forces, including the US, women have been serving on warships and flying combat jets for two decades. The Royal Navy is now introducing women into its submarine service.

Why then is there such resistance over land combat, especially if we take as given that many of the arguments against women's participation - strength, romance, sex - have proven manageable in practice?

The answer is that in contemporary Western society, the army is one of the last redoubts of traditional masculinity. Curiously, it is probably much more significant for civilian men that women are kept out of combat. Whenever the Pentagon tries to loosen the strictures on women in combat, it runs into aggressive opposition in Congress.

In the actual military, as with African American soldiers in times past, male soldiers have seen women (and gays and lesbians) fight. They are under few illusions about just what tough combat soldiers women can be if they so desire.

But in US society, many still prefer women to occupy traditional roles. Conservatives want traditional wives and traditional marriages; they want to control women's wombs. Meanwhile, in popular culture, women appear either as sex objects to lust after or as angels to be protected and saved.

It is the civilians who have no place in their imaginations for the female soldiers who serve their country.

Many may recall the Jessica Lynch saga during the invasion of Iraq in 2003. Lynch was captured by Iraqi soldiers after an ambush and then "rescued" by US special forces. The Pentagon and especially the media played up false stories that Lynch was tortured and badly treated by the Iraqis before her rescue.

In these retellings, Lynch, a cute blonde, was but an innocent girl who needed protection and saving by men. The story stuck because it fit so well with traditional images of gender relations.

Lynch would later testify to Congress that she never fired her weapon. To her great credit, she also did her best to bring to everyone's attention the real hero of the saga: Lori Ann Piestewa. Piestewa was a Native American of the Hopi tribe and the driver of the Humvee in which Lynch was riding. With great coolness, under heavy fire, she manoeuvred her vehicle out of the ambush in which her unit was caught. She almost made it but for an RPG that slammed into the Humvee, fatally wounding her.

In the media spectacle surrounding the Lynch affair, Piestewa, a single mother of two, was forgotten. Later, she would be remembered and honoured but she never achieved the presence in the national imagination accorded Lynch.

Piestewa did not need to be rescued. She did not fit the role reserved for women. Neither do the women who right now are walking patrols in Afghanistan, flying combat aircraft, or serving on warships, among many other tough jobs.

It is time to accept that women and men are equal even in war.

Tarak Barkawi is Associate Professor in the Department of Politics, New School for Social Research.

The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera's editorial policy.

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