Women have been involved in the military since the Revolutionary War when they served as nurses, cooks and laundresses. Over 150,000 women served in the Army during World War II, mainly in noncombatant roles such as administration or medical fields. In Vietnam, American women continued to serve in these jobs, though most were kept out of uniform and only the Nurse Corps officers saw frontline action.
As the war in Vietnam ended in 1973, so did the draft. For the first time since World War II, the U.S. shifted to an all-volunteer force. Faced with the need to fill vacancies in the military through recruitment, the obvious solution was to begin to take more and more women in. This became even easier due to the opening up of the service academies to women in 1976.
By 1991, the percentage of women in the military had grown from two percent to 15 percent, where it is today. In the first Gulf War, women worked in aviation, transportation, communication and other roles that brought them closer than ever to the actual combat arena. Impressed with the performance of military women during that conflict, the Clinton Administration lifted longstanding bans keeping women from serving aboard combatant aircraft and ships. The “risk rule” was also amended, which meant women could not be excluded from positions simply because they were deemed unsafe.
Although additional positions were opened for women, the new policy clearly stated that a prohibition would continue for ground units participating in direct combat. These included offensive positions, such as infantry, armor and artillery units, as well as special forces. It also outlined a “collocation” rule that prevents women from being attached to ground combat units, even in support roles.
New Roles in Iraq
As the conflict in Iraq has evolved, new roles for women have emerged. While their roles as support troops may be officially defined as defensive, women are fighting back when their convoys come under attack. In addition, the combination of a guerrilla insurgency and the Muslim restrictions on male-female interaction has necessitated that female soldiers be attached to combat units. Some women, like the Lionesses, perform door-to-door patrols and work directly with the infantry.
Observers both in and outside the military agree that the combat exclusion policy, with its attendant collocation restriction, is incompatible with the nature of the war that U.S. forces are currently engaged in, as well as any future conflict they are likely to be committed to in the foreseeable future. As one Army report pointed out, “The nature of the current battlefield makes it impossible to apply strictly the existing rules for excluding women from combat without serious reduction in combat capabilities, degrading the professional development and thus status of women and producing a potentially serious reduction in overall readiness.”
Clearly, the existing rules governing the employment of women do not fit the situation in Iraq and Afghanistan. And there is no doubt that women can perform their assigned duties in the combat zone: engaging in combat actions essential to their personal and unit’s self-defense, and when called upon, engaging in offensive ground combat. Although there is continuing ambivalence about the assignment of women to direct combat units, there is strong support for revising the existing rules.