An exceptional woman (National Post, May 24, 2006)

When news broke of Canada's first female combat death last week -- that of Captain Nichola Goddard in an Afghanistan firefight -- Canadians greeted the news in a gender-neutral way. It was not a female soldier we mourned per se, but simply a soldier. The Department of National Defence's chief historian applauded this as "a reflection, really, on society saying we have accepted the implications of gender integration."

I don't think that's true. Canadians accepted Captain Goddard's death without ambivalence because she was a career soldier, on a necessary, well-executed mission, who had willingly undertaken the risk of combat duty. She left no children behind. Her death could not be imputed to lesser physical strength or other female handicaps. Most importantly, she died instantly, and with dignity. Had she been captured (like American PFC Jessica Lynch in Iraq in 2003) and raped or tortured, Canadians would have experienced anguish of a very gender-specific kind.

Captain Goddard's courage and impeccable service record do not indicate a wider trend for women in the military. She was a "manly" soldier -- I say that with great admiration and no irony -- and the exception to a general rule. Women do not, and have never sought, military careers in more than token numbers. Moreover, even combat-trained women rarely opt for combat.

Over the past 15 years, a vast amount of money and good will has been expended in developed countries to support the PC value of gender integration in combat training. Amongst other accommodations here and in the United States, we've witnessed lowered combat training standards for some women, rigorous harassment codes and the enlargement of aircraft carrier bathroom facilities.

Nevertheless, in 30 or so wars currently in progress, most uniformed women are still choosing the traditional (and honourable) path of their non-uniformed historical sisters -- providing logistical, administrative and medical support to the men who kill and get killed. As competent and professional as Captain Goddard was, her attitude was unusual. There are about 8,000 women in the Canadian Forces (CF), of whom 225 actually occupy the "combat arms" trades. What have we spent to recruit, train and service women in order to deploy this low number? Don't ask (because they won't tell).

Israeli military historian Martin Van Creveld recently unpacked many of the myths promoted to sustain the illusion that men and women are equally keen to face combat.

A case in point: After a November, 2005, column on the folly of integrated combat training, I received indignant e-mails from female CF members who mentioned, amongst other examples supporting their received wisdom, the heroism of servicewomen in the Second World War. Where did they get this idea? Van Creveld illustrates the collusion of liberal media with feminist theory by citing a 1985 Life magazine WWII commemorative issue that grossly misleads the reader by featuring portraits of war heroes: 10 male soldiers alongside seven female soldiers. The reality, according to Van Creveld? From 1941-45, 15 million American men were conscripted. Of those, half went overseas where 300,000 died. During the entire war, 470 servicewomen died of all causes, 12 from enemy fire.

In 1997, General Maurice Baril predicted that by 2009 women would comprise 28% of the CF (currently 14%) and a full 25% of front-line infantry troops (currently 0.6%). Nothing in the experience of our military -- or any other Western force -- supported such a projection. The fact that the DND was seriously entertaining such a fantastic delusion speaks to a willed disregard for optimal institutional strength in the interests of political correctness.

The government does not promote gender equity in nursing, teaching, library science or childcare, because these are all intrinsically female professional bastions. Intrinsically male bastions, however, are regarded as fertile ground for cultural "re-education," and now even military spokesmen docilely toe the feminist line as expressed by one retired woman lieutenant: "In this modern era of equality of the sexes, [soldiering] has no gender."

A pretty notion, but a falsehood nonetheless. The Forces need women in most occupations, but for combat purposes most women are inferior to men in both body and spirit; and most uniformed women self-select out of combat, just as most civilian women self-select out of other male-dominated high-risk professions.

By all accounts, Captain Nichola Goddard was a great combat soldier who defied such generalizations. But our recruiters and policy-makers would be well-served to understand just how exceptional this woman was.

© National Post 2006