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Giving Women a Fair Fight in the US Military

When it comes to women in the military, people don’t think twice about exclusion.

It’s unfathomable to think that in 2014 half the global population will be prevented from a full range of occupations because of their gender. This kind of prejudice is broadly seen as a throwback to a distant and unenlightened era—which is why the findings of a recent study of the best U.S. colleges was surprising to many. The study found that women were dissuaded from attending graduate school because of institutional and cultural biases.

Yet when it comes to women in the military, people don’t think twice about exclusion. Even in the Israeli military, where service is mandatory for all citizens, women are still only allowed to serve in 88 percent of occupations. In the U.S., 95 percent of military occupations are open to women, including serving in combat (33,000 new military jobs were made available last April). But this inclusion is part of a Department of Defense “assessment phase” which may lead to complete integration and which allows certain units to claim exemption from hiring women. Currently, women are restricted from jobs in Special Operations Forces, Ranger School, and the Marine Infantry, among others. These exclusions are not due to cultural bias, as in the case of academia—it’s the law. In other countries laws preventing women from a full range of military occupations are even stricter.

Why are people so uncomfortable with the idea of equality in the military?

Various pundits suggest that it’s because society is uncomfortable with, or unaccustomed to, the idea of women being killed or exposed to violence—that people can’t tolerate the idea of women being tortured or raped. This is an absurd argument. There are few crimes society is more accustomed to than women being violently killed or raped. Violence against women is in the media every day. In the U.S., three women a day are murdered by intimate partners, statistics show. In fact, these are crimes that form the narrative and aesthetic foundations for television, film, video games, literature, and even advertising. The killing of women may be viewed as titillating, or just part of the landscape, but it has never been seen as shocking.

Another common reason given—quite often by conservative media—for combat exclusion is that it will cause men to risk their own lives to save women in battle.

Putting aside the unsubstantiated ignorant idea that women are inherently less competent than men—a contention that is supported neither by science nor by women’s current military records (which tell of growing reputations for being better fighter pilots and marksmen), this is an unusual complaint. Men risking their lives for their fellow soldiers is part of battle and is considered heroic. It seems unlikely that this kind of heroic altruism would increase simply because women are serving beside men. As a U.S. Army report on women in combat by Major Seneca Peña-Collazo concluded:

“With technology making warfare increasingly a remote task the belief that women are unable to effectively perform in direct combat roles is becoming an obsolete paradigm that will fade into obsolescence.”

Combat exclusion wouldn’t be the first time the military reinforced prejudice and ignored facts. There was a time when military hospitals segregated blood for transfusions so wounded white soldiers wouldn’t accidentally receive a black soldier’s blood. Imagine the time and lives wasted over such an endeavor. History is filled with stories such as these. And, one by one, these laws and protocols—supposedly based in science—have fallen away or been overturned. Gender equality in military service is no exception.

In order to understand why it still exists, we have to be honest: It’s not that people are uncomfortable with the idea of women dying—it’s that they’re uncomfortable with the idea of women killing, with women being aggressive, powerful, or equal.

Part of the reason, as I wrote recently in The New York Times, is because fiction has not yet caught up with fact. One way that outdated modes of thinking and prejudice continue to seep in to the culture is through depictions in literature, film, art.

The story of men in combat is taught globally, examined broadly, celebrated and vilified in fiction, exploited by either side of the aisle in politics. Male soldiers’ experiences make up the foundation of art and literature—the first stories passed down were epics that recounted battles and wars. War writing creates an instruction for the culture at the core of which is compassion, understanding, and respect. Recent studies have also shown that reading fiction in general can help people develop empathy.

Men and their relationship to violence, loss, and war in all its moral complexity is fully expressed through art. For women, it’s a different story, one in which we read of victimhood, but rarely of their actual military experiences, their accomplishments, resilience, and, yes, killing.

These stories are worth telling, as full of idealism, loss of faith, blood, and bravery as the Red Badge of Courage.

The coming years will bring more of these stories to the fore, and it’s all for the better. Women in the military are here to stay, and when art is used to negate human experience, render people invisible, everyone loses.