The U.S. military is opening up more positions to female troops. But women already serve in combat in more than a dozen countries.
- By Joshua E. KeatingJoshua E. Keating was an associate editor at Foreign Policy.
The Pentagon made big news this week when it announced it was opening up more combat positions to women in the U.S. military. These 14,000 positions include tank mechanics and frontline intelligence officers. However, about one-fifth of active-duty military positions, including the infantry, combat tank units, and Special Operations commando units, will remain off-limits. The change doesn’t go far enough for some, like California Rep. Loretta Sanchez, who called it "ridiculous" to "open a few positions at the battalion level to basically create a pilot program." But it goes too far for others like presidential candidate Rick Santorum, who worries that having women in combat could compromise operations since "men have emotions when you see a woman in harm’s way."
In a policy debate like this, it might be useful to study the experience of countries where women are already allowed to fight. But finding just how many of these countries there are can be surprisingly difficult. Some countries have no formal restrictions on women joining combat units but rarely allow it in practice. Others, like Japan and Switzerland, allow women in some combat positions, but have not engaged in combat in recent history.
Then there’s the issue of what constitutes "combat." There are rarely defined front lines in a war such as Afghanistan or Iraq, so driving a support truck or working in a medical facility can quickly put rear-echelon troops in a battlezone (remember Jessica Lynch?). This week’s rule change in the United States was largely a reflection of the fact that women are, to a large extent, already participating in combat. Despite the restrictions in place, 144 American women have been killed and 865 wounded in Afghanistan and Iraq since 2001, according to the Defense Department.
The number of countries that have opened frontline combat positions is also larger than you might think (or than media reports sometimes suggest). A 2010 survey by the British Ministry of Defense listed Canada, Denmark, Finland, France, Germany, Israel, the Netherlands, Norway, Poland, Romania, and Sweden as countries that allow women in "close combat roles," defined as "engaging an enemy on the ground with individual or crew served weapons, while being exposed to hostile fire and to a high probability of direct physical contact with the hostile forces personnel." Australia joined that list in September 2011 when it opened its front-line units — including one of the largest contingents in Afghanistan — to women.
A handful of other countries could probably also be added. South Korea has begun opening up more frontline positions to women, including in artillery and armored divisions. Women have fought in Eritrea’s military since its war of independence from Ethiopia in 1991 — at one point they made up 30 percent of the country’s combat forces — and are required, along with men, to serve a year and a half of military service. Women have flown combat missions as fighter pilots for Britain, Pakistan, Serbia, South Africa, the United States, and others.
Even among the countries identified in the MoD survey, some restrictions remain. Dutch women are barred from submarines or the Marines. In France, submarines and riot-control units are off limits. While the French infantry is theoretically open to women, in practice they make up only 1.7 percent of combat troops.
In Israel, which is well known as one of the few countries where women are drafted, the policy is evolving. Santorum cited Israel as a country that doesn’t allow women on the frontlines because of the psychological effect it has on men. But in fact, the Israeli military does allow women in the vast majority of combat positions.
Israel began including women in combat units after 1995, when a 23-year-old South African immigrant who arrived with a pilot’s license from her native country was denied entry into the Air Force and successfully sued for discrimination. Since then, the Israel Defense Forces has gradually integrated more units in compliance with a Supreme Court order.
All told, only 12 percent of military positions in Israel are off-limits to women, including combat positions in the armored corps and infantry. But women can service in light infantry, artillery, and border patrol roles. More and more positions have been opened over time, though there are also reports that the IDF often doesn’t accept women for units for which they are eligible and evacuates women during combat situations. Women comprise only 33 percent of the IDF due to a shorter length of service and a more lenient discharge system for religiously observant Jewish women. Recent years have seen the creation of the "Caracal Batallion" a mixed-gender infantry unit that patrols near the southern border with Egypt and the first woman commanding a sniper platoon.
Even in countries with no restrictions, women’s participation in combat units is relatively rare. For instance, in Canada, which has had no restrictions since 1989, 17 percent of troops are women but women make up only 3.8 percent of combat troops. Although not excluded by law, no women have yet qualified for Canada’s elite anti-terrorist unit, which requires an extremely high degree of physical fitness.
The Afghanistan war has been something of a testing ground for women in combat, with coalition members including Canada, Germany, Poland, and Sweden deploying women in frontline units for the first time. No significant problems were reported in the British survey, and some militaries found that women officers were more effective at some tasks, such as gathering intelligence from female civilians.
Among the world’s most powerful armies, the United States is actually comparatively progressive. The Chinese military, the world’s largest by number of troops, allows women only in support positions, and has been criticized for requiring female recruits to demonstrate a talent such as singing or dancing as part of its selection process (in case you were wondering where those pink-clad, go-go-booted marchers in Beijing’s military parades came from). The Indian Army has only a handful of women in support roles and doesn’t allow them to hold permanent commissions.
Russia has a long history of fighting women, including the "women’s death battalion" during the 1917 revolution and Lyudmila Pavlichenko, one of the most successful snipers of World War II, but today, women are not subject to the country’s draft. Women volunteers do comprise about 3 percent of the Russian army, mostly in support and clerical positions, though the annual Miss Russian Army beauty pageant is not exactly a sign of respect for their role.
Unfortunately, no matter what a country’s policies on the roles women can play in the military, one constant from Canada to the United States, Australia to Sweden, is the prevalence of sexual harassment and sexual assault at military facilities. While female soldiers around the world increasingly brave the same dangers as their male counterparts, they still face a unique set of risks from their own fellow soldiers.