Women in the Military: Ready to Fight?

Just last week, Australia (whose forces make up the largest non-NATO contingent in Afghanistan) announced that women in the military will now be allowed to fight in combat unit, including participation in both special forces and frontline combat units. While some say this move is purely symbolic, as it will take as many as five years to implement, on the face it marks some interesting gains in women's equality.

Historically, Australian women have been included in a wide range of combat-support arms units and excluded from the fighting sub-units of combat-maneuver arms units. Generally speaking, I am a pretty ardent supporter of liberalizing women's roles, but in this particular circumstance, I find myself asking some questions raised earlier this year in the Small Wars Journal:

1) Will these women be truly "equal" to men in that they'll be forced to serve in combat operations against their will, just as men must? Or will they be given the option to join combat missions?

2) If women are given the option to turn down combat missions, will men also be given the same liberties? And if not, is the military planning some way to address this issue with military families? Surely it seems a bit unfair that given two combat ready soldiers--one woman and one man, both equal in physical and psychological preparedness for battle--one is mandated to fight, while the other has the option to abstain.

3) While some technologies, such as self-propelled guns with automated loading systems, can help neutralize the physiological differences between men and women in combat, should governments be required to invest in more expensive equipments if it means achieving gender neutral objectives, but not necessarily improving operational capabilities?

I think it is wonderful that women who would like to serve their country are able. However, it is fundamentally important that this not turn into a gender-equality issue, whereby concessions are made to increase women's participation in combat units. Rather, women must be held to the same physical and phycological standards as their male counterparts, not only for their own safety, but for the safety and security of the entire unit.

Furthermore, one must recognize that the restrictions placed upon women come not from the military, which tends to be characterized as chauvinistic and misogynistic in culture, but from the government, which has an unquestionable duty to do all within its means to protect the very people willing to risk their life for the preservation of the nation. Too often we make rash judgements when hearing that women are excluded from certain roles, when we should be asking questions such as, "Will including women in combat roles increase the operational capability of her force?" or "Will including women in roles will a high probability of hand-to-hand combat increase the risk of casualties?"

It's a difficult issue without clear answers. Surely equality isn't giving women the right to choose to engage in combat missions while denying their male counterparts the same choice. What do you think?