Women In Combat:
An Indispensible Army 21 Component Or A Simple Case Of Equal
by MAJ Alex Tan Tuan Loy
"Your mission remains fixed, determined,
inviolable it is to win our wars. Everything else
in your professional career is but corollary to this vital
dedication. All other public purposes will find others for
their accomplishment; but you are the ones who are trained
to fight; yours is the profession to arms."
General Douglas A. MacArthur to the
West Point Graduating Class of 1962
Like the United States military, the
infusion of women into the Singapore Armed Forces (SAF)
was announced with great fanfare and the proclamation of
the politically-correct notion that "women have as
much a role to play in the Nation's defence as the men".
Thankfully, unlike the US military, the inclusion of women
into the SAF did not result in controversies and scandals
that the US military faced in recent years as exemplified
in the Tailhook1 and Aberdeen2
Amidst continued declining birth rates
and greater economic opportunities, the participation of
women in the SAF has been generally accepted as an inexorable
development within the organisation without much ado, trusting
that the authorities have performed the necessary analysis.
Is this naturally the case? Are there larger issues that
we need to grapple with, given our unique circumstances,
noting that up till today, the US military is still debating
on the wisdom of opening up military career opportunities
at such break-neck speed?
This paper will examine the US military's
experience as a relevant example, discuss the arguments
placed forth by proponents and opponents of this issue and
attempt to rise above heated passions to draw the lessons
that the SAF can take heed of.
"The military is
there to defend the country; it doesn't owe a job to anyone."
Ms Elaine Donnelly, former member of the
PENTAGON's Defence Advisory Committee
on Women in the Services
The issue of women in the military is one
of the most important of controversies in the 20th
century, with proponents and opponents putting forth their
case with equal fervour. History is replete with stories
of women in battle. The ancient Greeks, for example, told
of Amazons so dedicated to warfare that each cut off one
breast to improve her ability to shoot and throw spears.
The Americans can point to colonist Magaret Corbin who,
during the British attack on Fort Washington in the Revolutionary
War, operated a cannon until she was seriously wounded.
For the most part, however, the history of women in battle
is a combination of myth and exaggeration, mixed in with
a few true accounts of unique women. Indeed, throughout
history, most societies have banned women from military
service. Those women who did fight were often forced by
circumstances into positions of military leadership or were
conscripted only when men were in short supply, as was the
case in the Soviet Union during World War II. In the absence
of these extreme circumstances, most societies have restricted
women from serving in the military to the same extent that
they have restricted women from other male-dominated occupations.
Two major factors led to the expansion
of the role of women in the US Armed Forces. First, after
the end of the draft and the beginning of the All-Volunteer
Force in December 1973, the military services had difficulty
in recruiting and retaining enough qualified males, thereby
turning attention to recruiting women. Women were recruited
in increasing numbers and assigned to a wider variety of
occupations as one method of meeting shortfalls in enlistment
by qualified men. Second, the movement for equal rights
for women led to demands for equal opportunity in all fields,
including national defence and a gradual removal of restrictions
Two significant events also projected women
onto the pedestal of the military stage.
Despite the failure of the Commission,
the efforts were not totally wasted. One of the few good
things to have come out of the Commission was the wealth
of information with regards to the physiological gender
differences between men and women and their military significance.
Opinions abound on the rights and wrongs
of having women in combat and the larger issue of women
in the military. There are just two ways to see this issue
and two sides to take in the debate. One side believes that
men and women are fundamentally different and will always
remain so; the other side believes that men and women are
very much the same and that their differences are insignificant.
One side wants the status quo to remain while the other
wants revolutionary changes.
The one side that argues against expanding
the role of women in combat does so on the basis of military
effectiveness; the other side arguing for the expansion
of role for women in the military does so in the interest
of equal opportunity. This section will discuss the widely
varying views and discuss these from both the proponent's
and the opponent's perspectives.
Surprisingly, having read about the various arguments
put forth by the proponents in expanding the role of
women in the military, the constant refrain is the desire
to provide for equal opportunity, one of American's
most sacred cultural values, a sine qua non of
American justice. Proponents liken the current restrictions
to that of the discriminations faced by the Afro-Americans
in the 60s and 70s. The passion that Americans placed
on individual rights and equal opportunity transcends
all things and cannot be lightly dismissed.
Of course, proponents have long maintained that equal
opportunities do not imply having differing standards.
They believed that gender-neutral strength / endurance
and performance-based standards should be adopted as
a basis for judging the capability of women for the
various military jobs. To this end, the proponent elements
of the Commission have indicated that aviation, field
artillery, air defence artillery and combat engineers
should be opened to women. As to what these qualification
standards are to be, the Commissioners are decidedly
One glaring motive of this great push has to do with
the career advancement system in the US Army which puts
a premium on soldiers who have chalked up active combat
duties. Restricting combat roles to women is tantamount
to restricting their career prospects. Hence, it will
come as no surprise that the majority of in-service
women who were in favour of the role expansion were
Opponents point to several commonly held reasons for
not supporting the expansion of women's role in the
military. Having mixed-sex institution will severely
affect unit cohesion, increase the workload of the men
due to non-availability of women through pregnancy and
motherhood, increase the risk of sexual fraternisation
and increase the risk of women being held prisoners
of war. In addition to these factors, the reduction
of standards to ensure that women qualify for their
commission presents certain morale problems for men
which will further reduce unit cohesion, which is of
paramount importance in a combat unit.
To each of these, the proponents argued that unit cohesion
is not a single-gender experience, as can be shown by
successful civilian mixed-gender institutions like the
Police Force. In fact, the proponents argue that mixed-gender
units can and have the ability to out perform all-male
units; the women worked harder to gain male approval
and the men worked harder not to be outdone by the women,
thereby increasing unit effectiveness. Parenthood is
a shared responsibility which involves both men and
women while men account for greater non-availability
due to disciplinary problems. On the issue of female
prisoners of war, the testimony of flight surgeon, MAJ
Rhonda Cornum, served to outline the "occupational
hazards" faced by women in combat.
On 27 Feb, 1991, the last day of the four-day ground
war, Cornum and seven other crew members were flying
low and fast over the Iraqi desert in a Black Hawk search-and-rescue
helicopter. Accompanied by 2 Apache attack helicopters
and directed by an AWACS radar plane overhead, they
were answering an emergency call to retrieve a downed
and injured Air Force pilot. The Black Hawk crew was
startled when the seemingly empty desert suddenly erupted
into flashes of green light and the crack of anti-aircraft
guns. In the end, five of the crew members died as a
result of the crash while Cornum and two other crew
members were taken POWs by the Iraqis. When they were
released on day seven of their captivity, the question
on every reporter asked was whether Cornum had been
sexually molested by their captors. The Army said no.
A year later it turned out that the Army had lied.
During the Presidential Commission, Cornum confessed
that she had been "violated manually, vaginally
and rectally." Only Cornum's broken arms and screams
of pain kept the Iraqi from consummating the assault.
"I would have gotten raped but he couldn't get
my flight suit off," says Cornum. Cornum has been
least disturbed. "Getting raped or abused or whatever
is one more bad thing that can happen to you as a prisoner
of war. There're about 400 bad things that I can think
of and it's not the worst of them," Cornum had
testified, calling her incident an "occupational
Perhaps the most explosive issue is that of sexual
fraternisation and harassment. The Tailhook and Aberdeen
scandals within the US military go to show that women
are vulnerable to harassment by men who are supposedly
less susceptible due to their training. Even senior
military women in the US are not spared when the first
female three-star general in the US military, LT-GEN
Claudia Kennedy, the US Army's deputy chief of staff
for intelligence, had accused MAJ-GEN Larry Smith, who
ironically was to assume the appointment of deputy inspector
general in charge of investigating sexual harassment
complaints, for sexually harassing her in 1996.7
Opponents also argued that the men will be vulnerable
to false accusations of sexual harassment from disgruntled
women colleagues or subordinates, distracting issues
the military can ill-afford. Preventing women from entering
the military will instantly make this a non-issue. Proponents
countered that it takes two hands to clap, hence it
was totally unjustifiable to put all the blame on the
Regardless of the arguments and counter-arguments,
the statement of Charles Moskos, a fiercely neutral
member serving the commission, to his fellow commissioners
"You raised a question, Mr Chair[man], where
the burden of proof should lie. Other things being equal,
you say, well, then let equal opportunity triumph. Well,
most evidence that we've heard here and there
will be some debate about the degree is that
mixed-gender units, particularly as it gets closer to
the combat area, have lower deployment rates, higher
attrition, less physical strength, more sexual activity,
higher costs, et cetera, et cetera. It would seem to
me the burden of proof would be on the side of saying
equal opportunity is of such significance that we're
going to override some of these costs."
"A soldier needs physical and moral courage,
ingenuity and integrity, determination and loyalty,
a sense of humour, and of course luck, to be successful
in combat. I do not believe and did not see any evidence
that these qualities are distributed on the basis
of gender or race."
MAJ Rhonda Cornum,
former POW during the Gulf War.
The truth of the matter is that if there
were an abundance of men clamouring to join the military
services in Singapore, there would not have been a push
to target the recruitment of women into the SAF.
Much of the problems encountered in integrating
women into a male-dominated organisation are caused by men
as much as they are by women. The key issue is transparency.
In handling changes, the typical human reaction has always
been to view changes with suspicion. Hence it is imperative
that the Army clearly articulates the rationale for policies
especially that applied to women in the Army. The lack of
transparency and consistency will cause misunderstanding
and resentment by the men towards their women counterpart.
This will counter any good intentions that the Army may
have to integrate women into the Army. The situation within
the Army is clearly benign due to the relatively small percentage
of women that compete with men for the same resource pool.
However, the current situation should not lure us to complacency
as the individual soldier who gets side-stepped in his career
advancement due to perceived injustice will not take it
too kindly. Some of the issues that need to be debated include:
On one hand, opponents argue that no one
is courageous enough to approach the issue of women in the
military as one would with any other issue, analysing it
with cold rationality in the simple terms of costs versus
benefits. The problem with weighing the pros and cons of
using women in the military is that there are too many cons.
These include higher rate of attrition, greater need for
medical care, higher rate of non-availability, lesser physical
ability, aggravated problems of single-parenthood, dual-service
marriage, fraternisation, sexual harassment and promiscuity,
all of which have the potential to affect unit cohesion
and morale. Against these disadvantages, women offer the
military one single advantage: they are better behaved.
They lose less time for disciplinary reasons and are less
prone to substance abuses. The reason for using women in
the military is not a military reason. It is a political
reason driven by an ideology that, under the euphemism of
"equal opportunity" trumps the needs of the military
and the cause of national defence.
On the other hand, proponents argue that
the experiences of the Gulf War conclusively prove that
women can contribute credibly to the war effort as well
as men. The purported problems are cut-and-dry disciplinary
issues rather than problems caused uniquely by integrating
women into the military. It is about women's struggle to
break through the attitudinal and societal barriers shaped
by old but strongly-maintained traditions and myths about
the military institution and women's proper roles in it.
That struggle was never about women seeking special privileges
or double standards. It was about being allowed to compete
based on ability and not gender. It was never about proving
that women can do anything a man can do, but about being
judged as individuals by the same standards as men in any
job for which they can qualify. It has always been about
being allowed to pursue a career based on their individual
qualifications rather than sex stereotypes and male norms
unrelated to the job. In short, the proponents argue that
women's struggle for a place in the armed forces has been
about seeking the full rights and responsibilities of citizenship.
Regardless of which side of the fence one
sits on, the issue of women, like euthanasia and abortion,
will remain a deeply divided issue with no end in sight.
What the Army can do to avoid similar pitfalls in the US
is to have a clear, concise and transparent approach, in
terms of policy and implementation process both at the leadership
level as well as on the ground. This will ensure that men
and women in the Army can come to a common understanding
and work together hand in hand, be it at the frontline or
in a mutually supporting role.
1 The Tailhook
symposiums, held annually, are professional meetings, offering
briefings on aviation safety, advances in aviation technology,
air operations, personnel issues and other professional
topics. The symposiums are peppered with informal parties.
Approximately 25 women, 13 of them naval officers, reportedly
were forced to run a gauntlet of men and encountered various
assaults. This resulted in the reduction in rank of one
retired admiral and actions against 30 other admirals. Another
140 Navy and Marine officers were also disciplined.
2 The case involved the
charging of 5 soldiers assigned to the Ordnance School at
Aberdeen Proving Grounds, Maryland, with various sex crimes
including rape, adultery, sexual assault, fraternisation
and sexual harassment.. When the dust settled, the end result
was a single conviction for rape, several convictions for
sexual misconduct and 1 suicide.
3 The New York Time,
January 7, 1990.
4 The New York Time,
January 10, 1990.
5 Gregor, William, LTC,
USA. Testimony before the Commission, Sep 12, 1992.
6 Testimony of Rhonda
Cornum to the Presidential Commission, June 8, 1992.
7 The Straits Times, April
1, 2000. According to defence sources, the incident took
place in 1996 when a fellow general groped her in her Pentagon
office. Lt-Gen Kennedy tried to handle it discreetly, on
a "peer-to-peer" basis, and was satisfied that
she had resolved the problem. But, more recently, when the
accused groper was promoted, she became concerned and sought
8 The Netherlands
and Great Britain bar women from combat as a policy though
it is not enshrined in the law. Amongst those countries
that grant women free access in the military include Canada,
Denmark and Norway.
1 United States,
Presidential Commission on the Assignment of Women in the
Armed Forces, Women in Combat: Report to the President,
Nov 15, 1992.
2 Brian Mitchell, Women
in the Military Flirting with Disaster, Regnery Publishing,
3 Linda Bird Francke,
Ground Zero: The Gender Wars in the Military, New York:
Simon & Schuster, 1997.
4 Maj. Gen. Jeanne Holm,
USAF(Ret.), Women in the Military An Unfinished Revolution,
Presidio Press, 1992.
MAJ Alex Tan Tuan Loy is an Artillery officer
by vocation. His previous appointment was as a staff officer
in G5 Army and he is currently in the 33rd CSC. MAJ Tan
graduated with a BSc (2nd Upper Hons) in Physics and an
MSc (Defence Technology), Royal Military College of Science,