On a bright blue day in mid 2001, a training exercise took place on board the Royal Australian Navy’s amphibious ship HMAS Kanimbla, which was on patrol near the Solomon Islands. On the bridge, the officer in charge steadied the ship by manoeuvring it to face the wind while above the deck the pilot of the Sea King helicopter adjusted the hover position. The chopper’s observer determined conditions were optimal and threw out a rope that uncoiled onto the bullseye far below. Seconds later, a soldier leapt out and fast-roped down – no safety harness – and landed nimbly on the heaving deck. The rest of the army assault team quickly followed suit.
A few years later, that soldier asked the other three officers who had assisted her maiden fast-rope that day to be bridesmaids at her wedding. Lieutenant Toni Wilson, who’d been on the bridge, was overseas and unable to be there but Lieutenant Commander Natalee Johnson, the chopper pilot, and Lieutenant Karly Pidgeon, the observer, were able to join Major Matina Jewell in northern New South Wales for her nuptials. It was something of a reunion for the Australian Defence Force Academy graduates – and it must have been a helluva hen’s party.
The subject of women in the military has become very contentious since the government’s decision, announced by Defence Minister Stephen Smith on 27 September, to remove all remaining restrictions on women in combat roles in the Australian Defence Force. Yet women in the ADF are already performing functions previously only done by men, and the once-rigid distinction between combat and non-combat duties is now so blurred as to be virtually non-existent.
Fast-roping was an operational requirement on the Kanimbla. Matina Jewell was army, with a background in logistics, but had been assigned second-in-command to the ship’s army department and officer of amphibious operations, responsible for offloading up to 450 soldiers, including their vehicles and equipment, offshore into battle. “My navy boss needed me to do it,” she told me. In the army, only Special Forces did fast-roping. “The army found out and had to grant me a waiver because usually only men fast-rope.”
Within months of her first fast-rope, Jewell found herself in Bahrain. In the wake of the terrorist attacks on the United States on September 11, the Kanimbla was sent to the Middle East and became a platform for Special Forces operations, launching US Navy SEALs, the elite American commandoes, to conduct counter-terrorism raids, covert reconnaissance and surveillance and hostage rescue. And Jewell was in charge: “Within a few weeks we were able to launch a SEAL team in under 20 minutes at night – without lights or radios, so they could go undetected by the enemy,” Jewell wrote in her recently published book Caught in the Crossfire. “We were launching and retrieving SEAL teams […] in less than half the time that US Navy ships took.” She also worked side-by-side with the SEALs: “I did jumps with them, and fast-roped.”
Jewell’s experience is far from unusual. Even though women might not be actual members of the infantry or the Special Forces, they accompany infantry as medics and signallers, including on-foot patrols in Afghanistan, clearly a combat zone.
Take the example of Corporal Jacqui de Gelder, a medic, armed like any other soldier, who has served in Afghanistan and who recently received a commendation from the governor-general for her “distinguished level of skill, medical knowledge and selflessness while attending multiple incidents involving seriously injured or dying personnel, including Australians, Afghan National Army and local nationals”. Yet the public remains largely ignorant of the fact that women are already engaged in frontline combat.
“We’ve had mixed-gender units in frontline service since the Boer War,” says Neil James, executive director of the Australian Defence Association (ADA). In an era of terrorism and counter-insurgency wars, it does not make much sense to talk about a frontline. “The last time we saw a frontline was in Korea,” says Lieutenant General Peter Leahy, former chief of army and current director of the National Security Institute at the University of Canberra. “We saw in Rwanda, in Somalia and in East Timor that women had become an integral part of every unit and that the frontline had collapsed.”
Yet there continues to be impassioned argument against the idea of women in combat. “It’s up there with abortion and euthanasia,” says academic Kathryn Spurling, who has written extensively on the subject of women in the military.
It is claimed that military standards will be lowered to accommodate women’s assumed lesser strength, that gallantry on the battlefield will see male soldiers protecting the women rather than killing the enemy, and that women will be singled out for capture and then raped.
At the heart of these arguments is the notion that women are fundamentally unsuited for war because they are “the breeders and nurturers, not the killers,” says Spurling. Augmenting this traditionalist view was the feminist position that women, as life-givers, are (or should be) inherently pacifist. These days, feminists are more likely to champion women’s equality within the military, a position denounced recently by academic Clive Hamilton as “the great betrayal of the women’s movement”.
But perhaps the most astonishing line of reasoning against women in combat has come from the Australian’s foreign editor, Greg Sheridan: “It is a decision born of a postmodern fantasy, a kind of derangement of nature contrived by ideology against reason, common sense, military professionalism and all human experience. It is almost certainly a sign that the Gillard government has more or less stopped taking defence seriously.”
This is a pretty big call. Especially since the proposed changes have “the strong support of the Chief of the Defence Force and the Vice Chief of the Defence Force and the three Service Chiefs,” according to Smith. “It’s also a change which had the strong support of their predecessors.”
“When I was there, senior levels were coming to the view that the only restrictions should be strength,” Paul Barratt, who was secretary of the defence department in 1998–99, told me. Serious discussion for all jobs to be opened to women began in 2002, says Peter Leahy.
In 1984, when the Sex Discrimination Act became law, opposition from the ADF was such that the Hawke government was forced to insert a special clause, section 43, that exempted the military from having to employ women in combat or combat-related duties. There was a 16% increase in the numbers of women in the first two years of the Act, with around 25% of positions becoming open, although women comprised only 7.9% of the ADF. In 1990 the government opened up combat-related positions to women, a decision driven principally by recruitment difficulties. Two years later, women could fly combat aircraft and serve on submarines.
It was 2005 before the Howard government agreed that women could be deployed within battalions so long as they were not exposed to hand-to-hand combat. The Gillard government decision of 2011 will open the final 7% of jobs to women, meaning in future “the capacity to do a job [will be] decided on the individual’s capacity to do the work, not on their gender,” said Warren Snowden, minister for defence science and personnel.
Unlike issues such as climate change or pokie reform, the government and Opposition are in total agreement on women in combat. “They are on the very front line and have established a beachhead to the point where we cannot be optimally capable without them,” Senator David Johnston, shadow minister for defence, told me. “Women have carved out a niche so that they are not just accepted but are desperately needed.”
Yet women have continued to face discrimination. “For my generation and those coming behind us, we have been fully integrated throughout our training and we are used to men and women serving together,” Major Jennifer Harris, only recently returned from Afghanistan, told me. She has served for 15 years. “It’s only after training that we saw segregation in terms of corps [such as infantry] and roles that women could not go to.”
This is about to change, although some question why implementation is going to take five years. “The military is ready for this,” says Peter Leahy.
By the end of 2011 the ADF will have identified a specific set of physical employment standards (PES) for every single job in the military (except the Special Forces whose PES will be specified early next year). Lieutenant Colonel Peter Conroy, who is the army officer in charge of both the implementation of the PES and the integration of women into combat, says this approach will provide “an extremely credible means of demonstrating that a woman can meet the standards” of any particular job. “They are not going to be easy tests,” he says. “If a woman demonstrates an ability to complete these, she is competent to do the job.”
The PES were developed by the Defence Science and Technology Organisation in partnership with the University of Wollongong and are essentially an occupational health and safety initiative, designed “to ensure we don’t hurt people,” says Conroy. The PES are built around four tests of aerobic and anaerobic capacity, and muscular strength and endurance, and will replace the current two tests that apply different standards for women and men.
Some, like Neil James of the ADA, have expressed the fear that standards will be lowered to accommodate women so that politicians can point to results. He says this has happened in the police and fire services. Lieutenant Colonel Conroy says he is responsible for dispelling such myths, internally and externally: “People will settle down a bit when they understand these PES,” he says. “They will raise the overall fitness standards of the army.”
“We believe that women currently serving will have a higher chance of success,” says Conroy. “They are already physically conditioned and used to operating in a male-dominated environment and so will be better able to deal with real or perceived barriers.”
He thinks that women will be most interested in commanding tank and ASLAV (Australian Service Light Armoured Vehicle) troops and becoming combat engineers, rather than joining the infantry. The intention is “to identify a critical mass of women to avoid female isolation” and develop a leadership group. “Once we have built the leadership and have women at corporal-and-below level then we will be able to recruit women off the street into ab initio training,” he says.
No woman will make it to senior levels of the ADF, let alone to a service chief or chief of defence position, without having combat service. It is a prerequisite to gaining the experience necessary to be a military leader, and the respect of those you will command. Unlike in politics or even corporate life where women are scarce but hardly non-existent, the most senior woman in the ADF, Margaret Staib, is of two-star rank: Air Vice-Marshal and Commander Joint Logistics. A high-ranking former ADF member tells me it could be 20 years before a woman heads one of the services.
With bipartisan support and the military leadership onside, nothing should go wrong. But that would underestimate the emotional dimension of sending women into combat. And the entrenched resistance from a range of military interests. It’s the social conservatives and veterans of the Vietnam War era who are most enraged by the changes, says Neil James. “There are some in the boys’ club of combat who will complain,” confirms Peter Leahy.
Some of the boys’ club of combat who fought in Vietnam recalled after Stephen Smith’s announcement that they used to get a whiff of female Viet Cong: “The enemy will smell women frontline soldiers when they menstruate,” Kathryn Spurling reported some of them saying. (And who won that war?)
Some women choose to suppress their periods while on deployment by using the contraceptive pill; others just deal. Major Harris says she challenges anyone to distinguish men from women after an extended time out in the field: “Men have hygiene issues too,” she says. “The key thing is you don’t want to be smelling anyone out there. It comes down to maturity and professionalism. I know what I need to do to keep myself fit and healthy in a field environment.”
A far bigger issue is the risk of being killed or sexually assaulted. So far no Australian women have died on the battlefield so we don’t know how the public would react. “Hysterical comments about pink body bags need to be dealt with robustly,” says Peter Leahy. “A dead or wounded soldier should not be judged on the basis of their sex but on their service and sacrifice on behalf of the nation.”
Women themselves are pragmatic: “If you join the military you know the risks,” said Matina Jewell, who was seriously injured while serving with the United Nations in Lebanon during the 2006 war; four of her comrades were killed.
The risk of sexual harassment includes assault from colleagues, as ongoing scandals on board ships and at the defence academy have made clear. Sexual assault at the hands of the enemy is far rarer, but still a real possibility.
In October an Australian female soldier was sexually assaulted at the Tarin Kowt base in Afghanistan. It was not disclosed whether her assailant was military or civilian but the response of Neil James, who is not fully in favour of women in combat, was salutary, and a sign that within the military this is increasingly seen as an issue to be managed rather than a rationale for not deploying women. “Given the size of Tarin Kowt, look at it in terms of criminal activity,” he said.
This is also the argument of Major Rhonda Cornum, an American medic who was captured by Iraqi forces during the First Gulf War in 1991 after her helicopter was shot down. She was sexually assaulted and unable to defend herself – or fight back – because she had two broken arms and a bullet in her back. After her release, she told Time magazine: “You’re supposed to look at this as a fate worse than death,” she said. “Having faced both, I can tell you it’s not.” She also said: “Every 15 seconds in America, some woman is assaulted. Why are they worried about a woman getting assaulted once every 10 years in a war overseas?” She pointed out that while her superiors asked her if she had been raped, no male POWs are ever asked the same question.
Matina Jewell was assaulted twice while in Lebanon. Once in broad daylight in the city of Tyre two men pinned her down. She was able to escape. Then, at the UN base where she was stationed, a civilian leeringly masturbated in front of her. “Sexual assault can happen in any work environment,” Jewell told me. She is critical of the lack of support she received from her superiors. Her Australian commander “confirmed to me that he did not believe that the incidents were significant enough to report”.
Before 1985, when women’s separate military services (for which women were trained differently and paid less) were abolished, women in the military for the most part did not have children. Today’s women ADF members are more likely to want to combine career and family. “The ADF have made it easy with flexible working arrangements, maternity leave and now paternity leave,” says Major Harris. Despite the assistance, the 2007 Defence Census showed that serving women were only two-thirds as likely as their male colleagues to have a dependent child living with them.
But if women are still comparatively rare in today’s military, they seem like a critical mass compared with other groups whom we might reasonably expect to find fighting for their country. Anglo–Celts make up 76% of the Australian population but 92% of the defence force, while Asian-born citizens make up 6% of our population and only 1% of our defence force.
All of which makes Corporal Ayse Anderson unique. She is a woman, a mother and one of just 85 Muslims – of whom only five are women – in the ADF. Anderson migrated from Turkey with her parents in 1983 when she was 19. She had to learn English and to requalify as a nurse. In 1998 she joined the Royal Australian Air Force. Ten years later, she was one of two medics to undertake the first ever long-haul aerial medical evacuation in the new C-17 Globemaster heavy transport aircraft when, with just six hours notice, she scrambled to pick up five wounded SAS soldiers from Kuwait.
Anderson is an observant although not a hardline Muslim. She does not wear a headscarf when off duty and while overseas she abstained from her daily prayers. “It was Ramadan season while we were deployed,” she told me. “I would have had to get up in the middle of the night, and would have distracted my colleagues.” Although the ADF allows Muslims to interrupt their duties to pray, and Anderson says she follows her religion “as much as I can”, she decided that operational requirements overrode religious ones.
No one is predicting a huge surge of women into the services, and it is not expected that many women will want to join the infantry. Lieutenant Colonel Conroy thinks that opening up the infantry and armoured corps, which represent 29% of all army positions, will expand women’s opportunities and that their overall representation will increase. At present, women make up only 9.7% of the army (compared with 17.8% of the air force and 18.4% of the navy).
“I am really excited for the future generation of women coming in who will have lots more options,” says Major Harris. “I love being an engineer and am unlikely to change corps, but I do believe there are women currently serving who are interested in these expanded roles.”
Shadow Minister David Johnston agrees: “There will be a slow but steady ascension to most roles in the ADF. Only time will tell how many, but there should be no barrier based on gender. Physical and intellectual capability is the only requirement. If we stick to that template I don’t think we can go wrong.”
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