Women In Combat


Cheryl is a retired Air Force officer, living and writing in Asheville, NC.  You can read more of her work at www.cheryldietrich.net.

Last week, the Pentagon announced plans to open combat positions to women.  This seems an appropriate time to give you my take on the subject, as written in my book, In Formation: What the Air Force Taught Me about Holding On and Manning Up.  Part of this post was published in the anthology Birthed from Scorched Hearts: Women Respond to War (compiled and edited by MariJo Moore, Fulcrum Publishing, 2008).

In the 1990s, the Air Force opened up combat aircraft to women.  First the bombers, the rationale being, I suppose, that bombers stay well above the conflict, and there’s plenty of other crew on board if a woman should develop hysterics. But the exciting planes were the fighters, the sexy planes, the sleek sports cars of the air.  Most pilots wanted a fighter.  Normally weapon system choices were handed out with the highest scoring graduates from UPT (Undergraduate Pilot Training) getting first choice.  Originally, women had been restricted to carriers, tankers, and trainers.  Now, finally, women could choose a fighter.

While I was at the Pentagon, a woman graduated top of her UPT class and got first choice of weapon systems.  She chose the fast, mean F-16 Falcon.  The press slobbered all over the story, doing its best to generate conflict.  They found plenty of whiny second-raters to complain about the woman’s receiving what they confused with preferential treatment.  But I read an interview with one brand-new UPT graduate, a male lieutenant, who was asked by an eager reporter, “How do you feel about women taking fighter planes away from the men?”

He responded, “For years, men took the women’s fighters away, and no one noticed.  I congratulate this class of women pilots, who are finally receiving the aircraft they’re earned.”  I hope this young lieutenant is now rapidly working his way up to general officer.

Flying the fighters definitely put women in the role of combatants, still a controversial issue.  I’ve often thought of a course I had to take years ago on dealing with the media.  During a fake TV interview with an Air Force public affairs officer pretending to be Diane Sawyer, she asked me, “Do you think your parents are prepared to see you come home in a body bag?”

I had no prepared answer, just a gut reaction.  “No. But I don’t think they’re prepared to see my brothers come home in body bags either.”

The instructor called out, “Cut! Good response.”

The camera stopped.  I stepped down from the dais and joined the other students.  While the instructor talked about the power of a pithy sound bite, I thought about the question.  It wasn’t an unlikely one for a woman officer to be hit with.  It had been the big concern since women were first integrated into the military services.  The media wondered if the American public was prepared to have their daughters killed in wartime.

They still ask it, but the concern about women in body bags is specious.  Women have always died in wars.  We’ve been raped, kidnapped, enslaved, massacred.  We’ve been considered a legitimate prize for the winners.  We’ve been taken prisoner.  We’ve been tortured.  We’ve been bystanders whose only crime has been an inability to get out of the way of armies.  We’ve also participated in war.  We’ve served as spies, as nurses and doctors, as instructors.  We’ve cooked, tested and ferried planes, provided support and entertainment.

There’s little outcry when women are the victims of war, except when it serves a political purpose to paint the adversary as particularly brutal.  The more difficult the war is to justify, the more likely the politicians are to trot out the women and children.

I read about an Air Force general who opposed efforts to allow women to fly combat aircraft, not because they were incapable but because, as he said, “I have a very traditional attitude about wives and daughters being ordered to kill people.”

This is the real sticking point.  We often hear the pious precept about the willingness of military members to give up their lives for their country.  Unsaid is the harsher truth: what makes the military unique is it exists to exert lethal force, and all its members must be willing to take the lives of others.  To many it seems by definition “unwomanly.”

Woman as victim receives a grudging acceptance.  Many consider it part of the natural order of things.  What truly makes the press, the politicians, society in general uncomfortable is the idea of woman as fighter.  Woman with weapons. Woman as killer.

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