New world order: co-ed trenches

Germany Tuesday became the latest nation to let women join combat units.

GI Jane is coming.

For the first time since the Nazi era, German women will no longer be relegated to simply playing the tuba or tending to the wounded. This week, Germany bowed to a European court order and allowed 244 women to join its combat forces.

But a growing number of countries don't have to be prodded by a judge. The front lines, once a male-only domain, are now slowly opening to co-eds.

In Britain, secret mixed-gender field tests were held this past summer to gauge women's fitness for everything from infantry combat to peacekeeping in Bosnia. The trials "concluded that there was no reason why they [women] should not fight alongside men," said a military report, leaked on Dec. 24 to The Observer, a British newspaper.

Increasingly, women are filling posts on combat ships and aircraft. And 14 nations now send women into ground combat. The reasons are universal. Many countries are dropping conscription, but can't fill their ranks with volunteers. The weapons of warfare are increasingly sophisticated, requiring greater technical skills. And peacekeeping is a more complex mission, say experts. "We desperately need a wider array of people," says Kathryn Spurling, an Australian expert on women in the military who has lectured in the US and at NATO's headquarters in Europe. "We don't have any choice. We have a dwindling defense force and we need people."

The Australian military is about on par with the US military in female representation with almost 13 percent of its ranks made up of women. Neither country allows women in ground-combat positions. But Australia, Dr. Spurling says, leads the US in putting women into combat roles, largely because of the 28 female submariners now serving on the Australian Navy's six submarines.

Denmark, Norway, and Spain are the only other countries to put women on their submarines, according to Spurling. "But they haven't been able to get more than the token couple on board."

Restrictions on women in combat roles results in peculiar delineations of what is and isn't a combat position. For instance, in Australia, under the existing rules women are allowed to fly fighter planes into combat, but they are not allowed to guard the same aircraft on the ground. "There are a lot of absurdities," says Spurling, "and that is what is going to force the change in the end."

Another factor pushing change, particularly in Europe, are gender-equity laws.

The breakthrough in Germany came after Tanja Kreil, an electronics engineer, in 1996 was refused an Army job working on weapons systems because she was a woman. The European Court in Luxembourg ruled in her favor last January, stating that the German ban on women bearing arms violated the principle of sexual equality underwritten by the Constitution of the European Union.

Italy and Spain are switching to all-volunteer recruitment, and their governments are keen to open the door wider to women who want to play an equal part with men in the military.

Michael Wolffsohn, a historian at the University of the German Armed Forces in Munich, calls the trend a "normal, irreversible development. It's a basic fact of life that we have a gender-mixed society, and so finally we have it here [in the Army]," says Dr. Wolffsohn.

In Britain, Prime Minister Tony Blair says he is committed to equal rights over the entire employment spectrum, including Britain's armed forces. Defense Secretary Geoffrey Hoon was reportedly impressed by the female soldiers taking part in the field tests. But Mr. Hoon is encountering resistance from Army chiefs.

In a striking break from protocol, Chief of Defense Staff General Sir Charles Guthrie, Britain's top-ranking soldier, two weeks ago spoke out against women in combat. In a widely reported speech, he claimed allowing women to enter so-called "killing areas" might "damage the effectiveness of the armed forces." He accused the government of allowing "political correctness" to shape defense policy.

But Britain faces the same factors pushing other countries toward coed fighting forces. It has had an all-volunteer regular Army since the 1960s. But a strong economy tends to hurt recruiting. Senior Defense Ministry officials note that currently it is some 8,000 soldiers short of recruitment goals.

Last year's mixed-gender field trials showed, according to press reports, that in general women adapted especially well to peacekeeping duties.

Women would be eligible, too, for service in the proposed NATO rapid-reaction force to which Britain has promised to make a large contribution. In 1997, spelling out the government line, the then Defense Minister George Robertson, now NATO's Secretary-General, said: "The perception is that there is a glass ceiling that acts against women in the armed forces. If you turn off what is effectively half of the population, it is hardly surprising that the Army faces a recruitment problem."

Already the public debate in Britain is spurring interest among possible recruits.

Emerging from a British Army recruitment office in east London, Mary Forbes says she wants to be "a proper soldier," but she's just been rebuffed. "I'd been led to believe that I could join up and be trained for frontline duty," she says, "but they tell me that's impossible because I'm a woman." Around 5 feet, 6 inches tall, and solidly built, Mary complains: "I can't see any reason why I shouldn't be allowed to serve my country like any fit male. But it seems they haven't heard of women's lib in the Army."

But General Guthrie's broadside seems to reflect resistance among senior Army officers. Defense Ministry rules prevent serving officers from speaking out in public on such issues (Guthrie may have been emboldened by the fact that he is soon to retire). But an Army Major, who asked not to be named, says: "I would hate to have to command a mixed-gender unit because I would never be absolutely certain that the women in it would perform up to standard."

The officer recalls that the last time British troops had been involved in close combat was in the early 1980s when Britain seized back the Falkland Islands from Argentina.

"We were in hand-to-hand combat with Argentine soldiers, and there is no way women could have performed as well as men in such circumstances," he says.

The officer cited reported research last year suggesting female Army recruits, put through the same training regime as men, were more likely to suffer injury, including bone fractures.

A Defense Ministry official says that before any final decision is taken on women assuming Army combat roles, the views of serving soldiers and their families will be sought. Thousands of questionnaires are currently being circulated in an attempt to gauge feeling on the issue. Defense Ministry sources say the results of the physical tests, which indicated that men and women interacted well in most battle situations, will weigh heavily on Hoon's final decision.

Whichever way the British go in this issue, Lory Manning, a retired US Navy captain, says that the trend will continue. "It's been inching forward for the past 10 to 15 years, but it's suddenly very apparent." Captain Manning is now the director of the Women in Military Project at the Women's Research and Education Institute in Washington, D.C.

"As women are allowed to fill combat roles, the officers realize they can do it. As they do well at one level, women realize they can take it to the next level," says Manning.

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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