Female Heroes in a New Kind of Combat
When U.S. Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta announced yesterday that the military would drop its ban on women in combat, the breaking news quickly spread across the web, with bloggers on one side declaring victory for women and the undoing of civilization on the other.
Maybe we are picturing the rise of a generation of G.I. Janes, doing grunt work and carrying big guns, bouncing foxhole to foxhole with huge packs on their backs.
But that's not what war looks like anymore. There are no front lines. War is no longer dominated by tanks, troops, and traditional military strategy. Our soldiers are engaged in a different kind of conflict, and as we discuss women in combat we must be familiar with the true picture of combat for the U.S. military in the 21st century.
After all, less than 1 percent of Americans have served on active duty, and in spite of a decade's worth of war coverage, few of us on the home front understand the true situation in Iraq and Afghanistan.
It's called "asymmetrical warfare." Basically, the forces our soldiers face don't behave like our military does. Our opponents are a ragtag, unpredictable bunch, fighting the world's most advanced military with homemade roadside explosives, random rocket launches, and suicide bombers.
"These conflicts, where battlefield lines are blurred and insurgents can lurk around every corner, have made it almost impossible to keep women clear of combat," said the Associated Press story that broke the news yesterday. "While a woman couldn't be assigned as an infantryman in a battalion going out on patrol, she could fly the helicopter supporting the unit, or move in to provide medical aid if troops were injured."
In other words, combat troops are not the only ones who who face the unpredictable threats of asymmetrical warfare. Pretty much everybody involved is at risk. Men and women together are subject to bullets, bombs, and rocket fire as they ride across the country in Humvees, fly in helicopters, and live on military installations that are periodically attacked.
Yet, it was not until last fall that the Army finally developed specialized body armor for women, with curves to fit better around breasts and hips. The standard armor, designed for men, was uncomfortable and sometimes unsafe for women, leaving gaps between their body and the Kevlar plates.
And it's not the combat troops who are the sole heroes of war anymore. In the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the military hasn't set out to outnumber and outshoot the enemy, as it did in World War II. Instead, they must outsmart them. Fighting the insurgency, the U.S. works to find and eliminate threats. The "finding" part requires advanced intelligence, evidence-gathering, and research. For a prime example, consider the killing of Osama Bin Laden, as told in Oscar-nominated film Zero Dark Thirty.
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