2016 / Sunday

Fighting for a band of brothers – and sisters


Aidan Wondracz

Dr Megan Mackenzie

Dr Megan Mackenzie

Megan Mackenzie, a leading expert on gender, security, and women in combat, explores the beliefs that perpetuate gender patriarchy within the military and prevent women from actively serving their country, beliefs that are proven superficial, erroneous and even facetious if compared to the facts of reality. So the question remains: why do these beliefs about women continue to be circulated despite the evidence? Dr Mackenzie, an academic at the University of Sydney and author of Beyond the Band of Brothers, stepped up to the stage at the Sydney Writers’ Festival to explain at her session, Do Women Belong On The Frontline?.

“If you remember the war film, G.I. Jane, then you will recall the soldier as being exceptional,” Dr Mackenzie paused, “for a woman.” Although a woman, the protagonist exhibits more characteristics of a man: brutish, arrogant, and shaved headed. The message is delivered: a woman can only do what a man does if she acts like a man. The notion that men are stronger, therefore better at combat dissuades women from joining the armed forces. “They’re discouraged from even trying because of what they look like,” Dr Mackenzie said.

The United States Army Ranger School hosts the toughest combat leadership course in the world that last 61 days. Dr Mackenzie said 60 per cent of the recruits don’t progress further than the first stage and 22 have even died attempting the course. In 2015, 19 women were allowed to participate. Three graduated. “One of those women is a mother of two, and thirty-seven years old,” she said said. “The evidence speaks for itself that women are just as strong as men.”

However, proving one’s physical strength is just the first battle. The next is cohesion: whether women can effectively fight alongside men. In 2012, a U.S. commander prohibited a female squad member from carrying tampons. They regarded as potentially endangering the health of the other soldiers. “Men can’t work with women simply because they don’t understand them,” Dr Mackenzie said.

Further problems arise, she said. Seventy per cent of women in the U.S. military have reported experiences of sexual abuse. Closer to home, 50 per cent of alleged sexual offenders continue to serve in the Australian Defence Forces. “Men are distracted by women just being women,” Dr Mackenzie said. Unfortunately, inadequate support services have been provided which further deters women from entering the military. However, she said there is strength in numbers.  “ The more women who enrol, the more protected they’d feel.”

In a world of violence, brutality, and death, women are regarded as out of place, especially a woman who is a mother. “A lot of men question a woman’s emotional stability if she falls pregnant. They fear she may become a burden to the military, physically and economically.” However Dr MacKenzie noted that women use only one-tenth of the time for maternity leave as a male soldier uses undergoing rehabilitation for drug addiction.

All these factors are symptomatic of a much larger belief — perhaps the most encompassing — that women have no place amongst “the band of brothers”.  Dr Mackenzie said an idealised, glorified, and exulted version of war is solely reserved for men. The inviolable bond between male soldiers is often portrayed in popular war films. They push through squalid conditions, and pull each other out of adversity.

In 2011, Amy Santiago, an American soldier, was flown into Afghanistan. “Afghan men were unable to search women without violating their cultural norms,” Dr Mackenzie said. It was a fact the military exploited; under the guise of “support role” Miss Santiago was placed in special forces. At the end of her tour, Ms Santiago displayed signs of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. However, her condition was never professionally diagnosed. The reason: psychologists couldn’t admit Ms Santiago had actively fought in a war, because at the time of her tour, women were not legally allowed to fight.

Despite the physical prejudice, the high-risk of sexual assault, and the lack of understanding of her sex, Ms Santiago succeeded in serving in the military. Now the greatest problem she faces is dealing with her PTSD alone.

“Removing the combat exclusions women face is not the silver bullet,” Dr Mackenzie said. “You must reshape the perceptions of male dominance in the military.”