Friday, January 25, 2013

Women in combat

Topical reading:

We've come to another moment in which science fiction from earlier decades has morphed into reality. Good or bad, it's certainly one of those pivot points we call historic change.

American women going to war is an issue I've swung back and forth on a few time. The idea of women taking part in combat has been with me from an early age. I grew up reading speculative fiction that depicted women participating in life or death struggles. Everything from William Gibson's mirror-eyed street samurai, Molly, to the dropship pilots and warship helmswomen in Heinlein's Starship Troopers.

Then, as a twenty-something I joined the military and saw women in uniform at forward-deployed locations in East Asia and the Balkans. That complicated things, seeing the reality versus the theory in literature.

Mostly I've been on the pro side of the issue. A child of the Post-Civil Rights Era, I came of age immersed in the idea of meritocratic willpower. Capability isn't a function of innate traits, but rather a matter of applying oneself. Anyone can do almost anything with the right amount of sacrifice and drive.

So I was more than pissed off when I arrived at my first duty station in Korea and heard a scout sergeant, whom I had immense respect for, badmouth the idea of women in combat, and women in the Army for that matter. To me, the sergeant in question was an otherwise model noncommissioned officer and an exemplar of open mindedness. He had a solid respect for the Korean civilians and military personnel whom we dealt with, and despite his sometimes reserved manner, he excelled at communicating across cultural boundaries precisely because he saw no fundamental difference between them and us. So it irked me all the more when he said "wait and see what they're like" on the matter of women in uniform.

Tough to swallow, but fair enough. The isolated border cavalry unit that we belonged to had just a handful of female soldiers and warrant officers in it. They were pilots and maintenance personnel in the Kiowa scout helicopter and aviation support troops that were a part of our squadron--a unit that was an unusual combination of ground and air elements that formed a kind of super battalion built for aggressive, armored and aerial reconnaissance. I'd only seen those soldiers from our sister camp in passing from a distance when the whole unit was in the field, so I sure as hell wasn't in a position to make any contrary arguments about on-the-ground reality. Certainly not to a former Military Policeman who had actual experience working with female soldiers on a daily basis.

After the year in Korea, my second posting took me to a much larger legacy Cold War base in Southern Germany inhabited by soldiers from a host of combat and support units. That was my first extended experience of being around the Army's other half: The services and support groups that gave me an an eyeful of out-of-shape female soldiers lagging behind their units during morning runs--gossiping in gaggles rather than putting their hearts into the physical conditioning that their lives and mine might depend on if we were called to war.

They also gave me an earful to consider. My first evening on post, I dropped off several sets of BDUs at the post tailor's shop to switch out my 2nd Infantry Indian Head / Captain American shield patches for the Big Red One of the 1st Infantry Division. Waiting in line, I was treated to a loud and angry monologue by a bitter female soldier bragging to a friend how she was faking a pregnancy to get out of a field deployment in winter, and how she resented her chain of command's accusations that she was...get this...faking a pregnancy to get out of a field deployment.

Well, shit. It turned out there was at least a grain of truth behind those derogatory remarks in Korea. Something at some level was broken. Women and the Army did not appear to be meshing all that well from what I could see in other units, and the idea of female soldiers in ground combat no longer seemed like a good one.

My first actual on-the-job interactions with female soldiers came almost a year and a-half later, when the all-male tank battalion I was assigned to sent me to attend the noncommissioned officers academy at Grafenwoehr. This was the last step in the process of earning my sergeant's stripes, and included in my training platoon were three female soldiers from support units.

Two of them most definitely left a lot to be desired as warriors. Lots of complaining and some notable deficiencies in physical conditioning and basic military skills. The third was one of the most squared away individuals in the class. During our first ruck march, one of the instructors stepped up the pace, and sure enough, our class was soon strung out, with red-faced panting soldiers struggling and failing to keep up. Except for me of course. As one of the few combat arms soldiers in the class, and as a scout, I sure as fuck wasn't going to let myself be smoked in a short, five mile trek.

And neither was the lithe amazon on my left. The tall cook strode along with a smile on her face. Pretty soon we were trading wisecracks and witticisms at the expense of our classmates, until the instructor, whose footsteps were were dogging, told us to shut up in no uncertain terms. In hindsight I can't blame him for that. We were pretty full of ourselves, and we probably weren't near as funny as we thought we were.

It later turned out, to no great surprise, that unlike her sister soldiers in the platoon, the cook endured cold and sleep deprivation without complaint. She had a ready sense of humor that she used to help other soldiers get through the unpleasant moments, and her test scores were always near the top of the class. What she didn't know in field skills, she quickly picked up from me and the two 11Bravos (infantrymen) in the class, because she was more than willing to ask and then apply herself to mastering whatever task was at hand.

I came away from the school and a subsequent deployment to Macedonia and Kosovo with a new impression of women soldiers. Whatever the reason, the Army of the late 90s seemed to be producing excellent and poor female soldiers, but not a lot in between. It also left me still dubious about allowing women to go into harms way in ground combat units.

Remedying that was a topic I wanted to tackle in science fiction when I left the Army, and started writing again. The uneven performance of female soldiers in practice offended both my youthful notions of merit and the sense of standards and work ethic that I had picked up in uniform. Was there a cultural solution? Most definitely. Culture appeared to be a part of the issue. Could technology play a role? Possibly. It could help to negate many of the average differences between women and men in physical performance, and perhaps be used to address some of the 'women's issues' that less-than-motivated female soldiers sometimes used to get out of work and deployments.

Ultimately my plans to take on these issues in fiction ended up being all for not. 9/11 happened soon afterwards, and the Army found itself in two wars with with no clear front lines. In these environments both the institution and the individuals adapted. Any misgivings about the performance of average female soldiers in peacetime were soon laid to rest by the actual performance of women at war.

American women have fought, died, been wounded, and triumphed in the ultimate test of the issue. They've established battle record that speaks for itself, and the recent decision to rescind the early 90s ban on women in ground combat is simply a recognition of that fact.

Which brings us back to today, and the turning of that page in history. Live long enough and who knows how much science fiction will come to pass before your eyes.

1 comment:

Mike said...

Outstanding piece!