There’s a mini-debate raging in the comments of a different thread, regarding women in combat, and how this is often portrayed in fiction. Ergo, real vs. unreal. Rather than keep that thread going (because it’s a whole topic unto itself) I wanted to branch things off. And offer a few opinions of my own.
1) I don’t think this is an argument that’s ever going to end, because people are heavily invested in their opinions, there are many different points of view, and each and every one of them is convinced that (s)he is right on the matter. So I won’t pretend that I can “solve” the thing. I merely have my own viewpoint. Take it or leave it.
2) From a real-world perspective, combat capability has (I think) far more to do with politics, than it has to do with anything else. Many say putting women into ground combat roles is foolish and dangerous. That it actually hurts (and does not help) the mission. Which might be true. Then again, the U.S. Department of Defense dumps billions of dollars into jet fighter programs (like the F-35) which may or may not give us airplanes capable of performing to mission spec, thereby proving foolhardy and dangerous too. The drag about being a ‘little person’ at the bottom of the food chain in the military, is you’re given what they decide to give you. And you do the best you can with it. Even if you think the people making the purchasing, strategic, and tactical decisions are full of crap. (Regarding the F-35, I don’t know why we didn’t spend the same money developing a 21st century version of the A-10 or even the A1 Spad. Not resurrecting those precise airframes, per se. I mean, creating a new aircraft with similar flight characteristics, loadout, loiter-on-target potential, and combat damage survivability. Obviously I don’t get to make the call.)
3) World War 2 was not won with 6’2″ 230-pound UFC champions. It was won with 5’7″ 150-pound teenagers. Who had minimal hand-to-hand training. But they did have the M1, and were drilled extensively in its proper use. Being able to shoot means a teenager with a rifle is more deadly than an entire formation of 14th century pikemen. Technology invariably changes the way we fight. Note that a 150-pound woman with steady nerves, good eyes, and good trigger-squeeze, makes her more deadly (on the modern field of battle) than those very same 14th century pikemen.
4) Lowering standards (solely to ensure that x-number of women/people pass a combat arms school) is wrong. But like I said with #2, it might be inevitable. I have been in the military long enough to realize that while the military preaches endlessly about training to singular standards, the military is also adept at inventing rules for itself why it doesn’t have to have a singular standard. In a perfect world, the only people who’d ever enlist would be 6’2″ 230-pound UFC fighting champs, with perfect Chuck Yeager vision and the ability to ruck their own weight 15 miles without breaking a sweat. In the real world we get the enlistees we get. There is no draft. So you either have a very small force capable of meeting a very high standard, or you get a bigger force with variable standards. Sooner or later, raw numbers matter. What kind of Army (or Navy, or Air Force) we decide to have, is a decision (in the United States at least) made by elected civilians. Lots of people hate and loathe this. And for good reason. But hating it won’t change it. Some realities, we’re simply stuck with.
5) Some jobs really do require raw muscle. Can two 120-pound 5’4″ females lug an M107 howitzer shell as effectively as two 175-pound 5’11” males? That’s roughly 100 pounds of high-explosive ordnance. Almost as much as one of the females by herself. Physics matter as much as attitude in this instance. So that even two well-trained, gung-ho female troops might find it a lot more difficult (and time-consuming) to wrestle that M107 to the gun breach, than two male troops who are larger and have more muscle mass. This is the reality most feminist arguments wholly ignore, when discussing the “inevitable” penetration of female troops into all sectors of the military–especially combat arms. I say, by all means, let women apply for entrance. But let them achieve the same results, to the same standards. If it takes a 175-pound 5’11” person to do a given job, then this should be true for females too. It will mean far fewer women get to earn the MOS or the slot. But those who do, will know they didn’t have to have a booster seat to do it. And that’s a good thing. For the women, and for the men who serve with them.
6) Everyone has a libido and this is what fucks (literally) a lot of things up. As long as we put young men and young women into the same space, in uniform, they’re going to be having sex with each other. Everyone knows its a terrible idea, and yet everyone keeps doing it. Peace-time, or war-time. It introduces a range of disciplinary and morale problems. The best way to combat it is to segregate: keep the men and the women apart for much of their operational careers. A co-ed military inevitably results in people fooling around. Even though they know they shouldn’t. Again, item #2: our politics (as a country) probably dictate that we just live with the fallout. Because politics dictate that we share spaces (as genders) everywhere else in the world. The military inevitably reflects this too. Lots of people hate it. I think they have solid reason to hate it. But then again, there are a lot of other strategic, political decisions apart from gender-mixing, being made by DoD and civilian legislators alike, which have detrimental consequences. We just have to learn to live with some things. Mixed-gender military is probably one of them.
7) Many women can shoot and fight. I hate to break it to the macho-man contingent in the debate, but there really are women in the U.S. military who can run circles around them when it comes to basic soldiering skills, like shooting. I can’t shoot worth a damn. Minimal aptitude. Bad eyes, bad reflexes. Things that almost kept me out of the military. I have known women who were deadeyes with the M16/M4, and were far more qualified than myself to fight in a front-line capacity. I don’t think those women should be barred just because they have vaginas. Lots of guys do think they should be barred, just because they have vaginas. Being barred from a role merely because of what’s between your legs, isn’t a very defensible policy. It might satisfy a few folks who think women literally don’t belong in uniform — beyond the capacity of secretaries who fetch the General’s coffee. But I say, let the standard be an objective, measurable standard related to combat effectiveness. Not whether or not a person has boobs. (Speaking of which, I’ve known some Army guys on height-weight who needed a bra!)
8) No matter who decides what, or why, there will always be bitching and moaning, plus finger-pointing any time someone gets killed. Most civilians don’t realize this, but even during complete peacetime, the military lose numerous lives every year, just to accidents alone. Both on and off-duty. It may be true that putting women into combat roles is a questionable risk. But this is the norm already. Carrier flight operations involve daily, extreme risk. We lose planes. We lose people. Without a shot being fired. That risk is deemed acceptable (despite the deaths) because the United States wants a large carrier fleet able to project American power around the globe. Some blood and treasure inevitably gets spent, because the American people say it should be so. I suspect integrating women into combat arms is more of the same. There will always be detractors, and any time a death might be blamed on a woman, the critics will come out in force. But as long as the American people want it that way . . . well, “Cost of doing business.” And it has ever been thus.
9) How this all applies to storytelling and fictional portrayal, depends on the sensibilities of the storyteller, and the sensibilities of the audience. Frankly, I had a tough time believing Black Widow kicked butt the way she kicked butt in The Avengers. A woman capable of dealing that much hand-to-hand damage would look more like an androgynous man, than Scarlett Johansson. Because Black Widow is not Wonder Woman. Black Widow does not have superpowers. And really, unless a female character has superpowers, it’s difficult to explain how or why she can lawn-mow her way through scores of bigger, tougher, more heavily armed and armored male opponents. As noted earlier, physics matters. You can decide to make your female character an indomitable fighter. It’s just that you’re banking on the credulity of your audience in the process. Some people (especially those with actual martial arts or hand-to-hand experience) will be rightfully doubtful. So if you’re going to go there, be ready to take some criticism from informed sources.
10) Of course, a woman capable of lawn-mowering a platoon of stronger, better-armed men, need not be explained with magical or fantastic powers. We can amp her up with a technological solution. Maybe she is “juiced” to be as strong, quick, and durable as her male foes? Maybe she has cybernetic implants for the same reason? Maybe she’s normal, but we put her inside a powered armor suit that gives her the fighting prowess of a main battle tank? World War 2 fighter pilots were often chosen because they could fit into the tiny cockpits, not because they were NFL linebacker material. Robotic augmentation doesn’t seem too far away. They’re already working on this concept, for theoretical combat theater deployment before the middle of the century. When both the men and the women are all wearing exoskeletal machines which boost their capabilities way beyond normal levels, the intrinsic biological differences between male and female troops might be insignificant. If Black Widow puts on Tony Stark’s Iron Man suit . . .
11) Suspension of disbelief varies from person to person. Each and every author will find his or her “sweet spot” in this regard. Stray too far, and the audience will let you know. I have less difficulty believing Black Widow can lawn-mower a platoon of toughs, than I do believing a 21st century feminist will exist (and fight) in a medieval European historical context. Even if it’s fantasy. Feminism (as we know it now) simply did not exist at that time, and in that place. So I get a bit annoyed when the women (portrayed in these periods, be they real or fantastic) act and talk and behave just like a 2015 graduate of a Womens Studies course from the local state college. I understand why authors and movie-makers decide to do this. They want to make the audience happy. It’s something I’ve learned to (mostly) put up with, even if I disagree with it sometimes. Again, suspension of disbelief varies from person to person. I should note that I often find my suspension of disbelief tested with male characters too. The human body can only endure so much punishment. Male heroes (in books and movies) often withstand a colossal amount of damage, and keep fighting like it’s a mere nosebleed. My suspension goes twang while the suspension of others goes bwong.
12) Fictional license probably should not dictate real-world employment of mortal battlefield forces. Consider this very long but very astute analysis of the U.S. Army Rangers, by former Ranger John T. Reed. Especially regarding “off brand” use of the Rangers in situations and under conditions that were ill-advised, at best. Reed’s contention is that the mythos surrounding the Rangers has made them out to be literal supermen who can do anything, under any circumstances. This mythos penetrates at both the civilian and the military leadership level. Rangers are not, in the end, bulletproof. No amount of P.R. can make a real soldier invincible. Even if he believes it. Even if his bosses believe it. This belief is liable to make him a very dead troop. And whatever mission objectives he was to have accomplished, become moot. As a culture, we love action, fighting, and war stories. We are steeped in them. To include larger-than-life heroism that defies the odds. When approaching actual fighting and war, it pays to be conservative. Dial back your expectations. Bank on the vulnerability of your people. This is why raw numbers almost always matter much more than our storytelling might indicate. If Hitler had been sane and sensible, he’d have realized that Russia, Britain, and the United States had far, far more young men to send to the fight, than the Reich did. And restrained his ambition accordingly.