National Post

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Saturday, December 04, 1999

Looking, desperately, for a few good women
In the Canadian army, female recruits are encouraged to fight alongside men. But almost none of them can, or care to
Donna Laframboise
National Post



Women's recruitment poster for the Canadian Armed Forces.

When an impressive panel of speakers debated the role of women in the military last month, few Canadians read about it in their newspapers. But this discussion, which took place in Ottawa and was broadcast on the parliamentary cable channel, should be ringing alarm bells across the nation.

Ten billion of our tax dollars are spent on the Armed Forces each year -- presumably because we believe a well-trained, able military is important. Yet according to three of the six panelists, current attempts to integrate women into combat positions are undermining the effectiveness of our Armed Forces and jeopardizing national security.

In 1989, a Canadian Human Rights tribunal declared all Armed Forces positions (except for submariner) open to both genders. In contrast, a full decade later, land-based combat positions are still closed to women in the American, British and French armies. Germany doesn't permit women to join the military at all, except for the medical corps.

Brian Mulroney's federal government declined to appeal the human rights ruling at the time, and no government has intervened since. In the words of panelist Colonel James. H. Allan (retired), this has left the military with a "nonsensical policy ... of trying to recruit women to the combat arms where most of them don't want to be." More to the point, the military finds itself in the unenviable position of attempting to stream women into jobs they may be physically incapable of performing.

It's tempting to sit back in our armchairs and insist that, these days, war is about pushing buttons rather than brute force. As I naively asked Major Howard Michitsch, one of the panelists, in an interview, "How much strength does it take to drive a tank, anyway?"

Major Michitsch, who spent 22 years in the Canadian infantry before retiring recently, didn't miss a beat. "It's not just doing that," he replied. "It's maintaining it. If the track is broken, you need to split it and repair it. One link weighs 110 pounds. A tank shell weighs something like 80 pounds, and you've got to manhandle it inside the turret; you've got to load that turret. The tank takes something like 1,000 litres of diesel fuel, and many times it's fuelled by jerry cans. You've got to carry the cans, lift them up on top of the vehicle, pour them in. And do this a couple hundred times."

Most jobs in the Canadian military do not involve long periods of grinding physical labour (which is perhaps why most were open to women prior to the human rights ruling). Moreover, nearly everyone admits that some women may be capable of holding their own alongside men in the jobs that do. But the experience of the Canadian military is that these women are rare.

According to Jane's Defence Weekly, 400 women volunteered for the combat arms last year. Of those, only 90 made it through the early stages, and only about half of that number will graduate. No woman who has served a full term in the Canadian infantry has ever signed up for a second one.

Professional and Olympic sports tend not to be co-ed because athletics is the one area of human endeavour where the top-ranking female achievers can't seriously compete with the top-ranking males. International track and field competitions include a decathlon (consisting of 10 events) for males, but only a heptathlon (consisting of seven) for females. The world record for the pole vault is 20 feet for men but only 15 for women, while the javelin throw is 323 feet for men but only 262 feet for women.

Despite the fact the costs associated with a faulty gender integration policy would be much lower, the Canadian Human Rights Commission hasn't ordered organizations such as the National Hockey League or the National Basketball Association to integrate women into every position. Yet where the defence of our lives and liberty is concerned, it has mandated not merely that women be allowed to try out, but that they be added to the team.

Thus, the Canadian military -- which owns not a single aircraft carrier and now possesses only a third as many tanks as it did in the late '60s -- has devoted significant time and money in the past decade attempting to boost the number of female recruits. (Who, admittedly, are frequently superior to their male counterparts with respect to IQ and education levels.) But these recruiting campaigns have led to accusations that impressionable young people are being misled as to what they're actually signing up for.

Critics say the ads, which emphasize travel and adventure rather than the rigours of boot camp, aren't realistic. "They showed a woman from the army," says Scott Taylor, a former infantryman who now edits Esprit de Corps magazine. "She's standing there wearing blush and lipstick. We wore make-up in the field. It was green paint, two colours of it. That stuff gave you the zits. You had to wear it all the time. It was filthy. And here they have this picture of this woman and she looks like she's ready for a day at the office, and they're saying she can be in the infantry."

Regarding a television ad that depicted women jumping out of planes, Mr. Taylor continues: "We don't have any female paratroopers. They don't exist yet. The whole thing was fiction. And the fact is, women can't do it. Most men can't do it."

Despite the lack of gender parity among garbage collectors, sewer cleaners, auto mechanics and construction workers in the non-military world, no one wants to hear that women are likely to remain rare in unpleasant, physically demanding military jobs for the simple reason that few of them want such work.

While equality of opportunity should never be confused with equality of result, that is exactly what has happened in the Canadian military. In an Armed Forces in which effectiveness is of the highest priority, everyone would have the opportunity to try out for combat roles. Whoever passes would get in, whoever fails would not, and we wouldn't expect the army to be any more concerned about its gender and racial mix than a pro sports team.

But our military leaders are government employees who, concerned with covering their own backsides, have begun to behave as though the battlefields of the world will consist of a female killing zone over here, a male killing zone over there, and a racial minority killing zone somewhere else.

In 1997-98, the Canadian forces became subject to the Employment Equity Act. As a result, Lieutenant General William Leach, Commander of the Army, sent a shocking letter to senior officers in late 1996 declaring the army's intention to "become truly representative of the society we serve." Not only will the army be making greater efforts to recruit and retain women, wrote Lt. Gen. Leach, but "we will increase our representation of aboriginal people and visible minorities [in combat training] to 3% and 7% respectively, levels that roughly correspond to national workforce representation."

An Armed Forces in which senior brass are expected to meet gender and skin colour quotas is one in which standards and morale are guaranteed to plummet.

Art Hanger, Reform MP for Calgary Northeast, and the official Opposition's defence critic, says this is exactly what has occurred. Through a series of Access to Information requests, Hanger's office has collected documents that show training standards have fallen sharply. In 1984, a fully trained female recruit aged 34 or younger needed to be able to complete 30 sit-ups, while a male recruit was required to complete 33. By 1996, those requirements had dropped to 15 and 19 sit-ups respectively.

In order to pass the basic infantryman course in 1986, a soldier had to achieve a "minimum of one hit on a stationary target" 150 to 200 metres away with a short-range anti-armour weapon. A decade later, a soldier merely had to fire two rounds with the gun. The 1996 course manual explicitly declares that missing the target doesn't mean the soldier fails.

In 1986, a soldier had to be able to hit a six-metre target 20 metres away with at least one of two grenades. By 1996, he or she only had to throw the grenades. Where they land is apparently irrelevant since the manual once again says that "missing the target does not constitute a PO [performance objective] failure."

"There have been women who meet high standards," says Hanger, "and they shouldn't be excluded. But the resentment starts building where there is a lowering of standards in order to accommodate more women. To maintain the integrity of those operational functions, there should be one standard, and it should be high."

Indeed, a 1998 gender integration study prepared for the army found widespread cynicism among male soldiers whose chief concern, "without exception," is women's ability to measure up. "Male focus group participants at all rank levels consistently identify physical strength and stamina as the most difficult barrier which women face in the combat arms," reads the report.

Elsewhere, it declares: "Women and men indicate that male leaders do not push women to achieve physical standards because they are afraid of being accused of harassment." In the view of the report's authors, combat instructors "as a whole, convey a negative attitude toward women, in part because they have seen so many come through who are not successful in training or who do not remain in the combat arms environment for an extended period."

Despite the best of intentions, attempts to integrate women into land combat positions have been an unmitigated disaster. Canada's national security depends on our willingness to acknowledge the central role sheer physical strength plays in certain Armed Forces positions. It demands that the military be exempted from employment equity legislation.

"Everybody knows what's going on," says Mr. Taylor, whose magazine has vociferously denounced the negative effects gender integration has had on the combat arms. "It doesn't make you confident. And let's not forget that, at the end of the day, these people are going to be in battle. That's what we're training them for."

You don't need to be a military genius to recognize that, when life and liberty hang in the balance, we need the biggest, strongest, toughest soldiers we've got on our front lines. Anything less is a disservice to us all.

Copyright Southam Inc.