By Wendy John
As ISIS take over yet other Syrian city, 20 Australian women are training to serve in military combat roles for the first time. It’s a notion that makes Joan Fisher, 95, who served as a nurse during World War II, “horrified”.
Mrs Fisher did her training at Sydney Hospital before being deployed to the Australian hospital ship ‘Oranje’ in the Asia-Pacific area. She says she is shocked by the removal of gender restrictions on combat roles. “A woman could be a nurse or work behind the scenes in the offices. I just cannot understand the female mind wanting to kill. It makes me shudder.”
It’s only two years since the Australian Defence Force lifted restrictions on the 17 per cent of jobs previously excluded to women. Women may apply from 2016 but currently all female trainees have transferred from existing military roles. And Defence is guarding the trainees’ privacy from the media “to ensure they have an equitable environment in which to succeed and to avoid placing them under additional pressure”, according to a Defence spokesperson.
However, the pressures and risks of war are not unfamiliar to Australian servicewomen. Mrs Fisher recalls the ‘Oranje’ “zigzagging to avoid the submarines”. And she speaks with great sorrow when remembering when the hospital ship ‘Centaur’ was sunk off Queensland in 1943. “The ship had gone down with all hands and it was shocking, shocking.”
Currently, around 258 Australian servicewomen are deployed on overseas operations, where combat duties may be required of them regardless of their designated roles.
Dr John Blaxland, Senior Fellow at the Strategic and Defence Studies Centre at the Australian National University, gives an example.
“You’re in a non-combat logistics troop being ambushed and you have to engage in a counter ambush response and fire machine guns. That infantry function is conducted by people who aren’t nominally combat troops,” he says. “Besides, the idea of a frontline is a completely anachronistic concept. In Afghanistan or Iraq,the lines are very blurred.”
As part of the Top Gun and Braveheart movie generation, all Warrant Officer Stefanie Cyr wanted to do was to be a soldier. However, when she imagined a soldier, it was as an infantryman carrying a rifle going to the front. “I couldn’t picture anything else,” she says.
Warrant Officer Cyr has served for 18 years in the Canadian Army where, since 1989, no gender restrictions have applied. “I am very proud to be in a country that allows us to do whatever role we wish. I don’t get a lot of flack about being a soldier. People are like ’Oh Cool’. We’re so used to having women in the combat arms that it’s not so much of a big deal,” she says.
With two deployments in Afghanistan and two in Bosnia, she has been under fire many times, and she doesn’t see gender making a difference to the behaviour of her soldiers. “There’s nobody worrying about me if I’m getting shot at more than they are worrying about their other team mates. If I had a female soldier getting hurt, I would do the same thing as if I saw a male soldier being hurt. It’s the same drill. A soldier is a soldier.”
The North Atlantic Treaty Organisation sees increasing the number of women in the military as critical to implementing the United Nations Resolution 1325. The Resolution, passed unanimously 14 years ago, seeks to increase female participation in military decision-making in conflict management and resolution, a perspective that has been criticised by some as assuming that all women are natural agents for peace rather than conflict.
However, both Mrs Fisher and Dr Blaxland suggest that women do bring something unique to the fray.
Mrs Fisher says, “I think women are there to try and steady down what the men are thinking of doing and give them a bit of common sense.” But Dr Blaxland sees value in women being more active in conflict zones, such as Iraq, where the distinction between civilian and enemy soldier is uncertain.
“You have to ask ‘What’s the objective here?’ It’s not to blow things up; it’s usually to persuade a population to do something. Some of the most effective soldiers of recent years have been women simply because they have been able to access locations and information that male soldiers haven’t been able to,” he says.
And while Mrs Fisher and Warrant Officer Stefanie Cyr have different perspectives on women in combat roles, one thing connects them.
It seemed the natural thing to me, to be helpful in some way during the war,” Mrs Fisher says. “To be a soldier was to help my country and help people in need in other countries,” Warrant Officer Cyr says.