Thursday, July 30, 2009

Women in "combat"

I was reading this interesting article the other day about the Marine Corps' use of female Military Police for intelligence gathering in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Although technically it is against US law to send women into "combat" it is not against the law for them to be deployed in an active theatre. The fact that asymmetric warfare effectively means all deployed personnel are in a combat zone is not a legalism that the Marines seem too bothered about.

For New Zealand forces there does not appear to be any reason in either the Defence Act or the Defence Regulations, nor yet in the Armed Forces Discipline Act or Regulations why women should not be deployed in the same manner as the Marine Corps' Lioness units. Indeed the Regulation requiring that searches be carried out by a person of the same sex strongly suggests that the lack of women in a theatre involved in asymmetric warfare would be a major tacticl deficiency.

The New Zealand Defence Force does have a reasonable number of women in the regular force. Some 14% of the regular army (666), 17% of the airforce (425) and 23% of the Navy (464) are women. Not surprisingly women, however remain a minority in the Defence Force, and appear to be accepted more on the basis that they keep up with the men rather than any gender-specific tactical advantages they may have to offer.

This is once again where the whole configuration of the Defence Force looks so rooted in the Cold War/World War Two paradigm. The idea of defence remains stuck on the notion that the enemy is an national army, and yet in our biggest overseas deployments: Afghanistan; Timor and the Solomons there is no enemy army. Indeed when people don't make it easy (by shooting at you) it is hard to tell the enemy from civilians form friendlies.

New Zealand male soldiers have always been far better than American male soldiers at getting on with locals. This is cultural, as the Americans tend to take American ideas and values with them wherever they go and impose them whether the locals like it or not. New Zealanders would never dream of doing that. The difference means that New Zealanders are better at counter-infiltration because they are prepared to try and out-local the locals if need be.

But what the Marines are showing is that there is a gender dimension to assymetric warfare that should not be overlooked. Young men tend to be fighters. As I noted reviewing Ross Kemp's snuff advertising for the British Army there isn't often much difference between teenage regular force troops and the 'insurgents' except that the insurgents have a better idea of what they are fighting for. Women are usually not so keen on war. If a foreign force is able to engage with the women in the clinics and the market-places it has a far better chance of getting the whole community to try politics without guns, instead of politics with guns. Women soldiers clearly have an important role to play in achieving this.

Ultimately we have to come to accept that the idea of a defence force is redundant. New Zealand is not threatened so it hardly needs defending. What we need is a Peacemaking Force, which is capable of using violent as well as non-violent methods to resolve conflict. Recognising the advantages women bring to conflict resolution is different to letting them take part in an essentially male war-making business. This is not to suggest that the Defence Force should lose any of its edge. Women soldiers must be soldiers, and women officers must be good officers first, not promoted just because of their gender. But their organisation and deployment should reflect the benefits that female teams, sections or even whole platoons could bring to asymmetric conflict environments.