Military drafts are a contentious subject. Should people be forced to serve their country, to leave their homes and risk their lives?
The South Vietnamese government struggled with this very question during the Vietnam War. They were not focused on whether they should draft their men, but rather what they should do with their women.
After the Tet Offensive of 1968, South Vietnam considered a draft for women to help recuperate against losses from the major North Vietnam attack. The bill was, however, sunk by conservatives–conservatives who wished, possibly, to distance themselves from their Northern relatives who readily used women in combat positions.
This isn’t surprising. A draft for women is still a highly debated subject in most countries around the world today. Though it’s clear the consideration of this draft was out of necessity, rather than a move towards equality, even its possibility was astounding and had long-lasting effects on gender roles in Vietnam.
In a war-era booklet published by the Vietnam Council on Foreign Relations titled “South Vietnam’s Women in Uniform,” the author, Phuong Thi Hanh, wrote, “Traditionally, the role of the Asian woman is a passive one . . . Kept in the background, girls are raised to be feminine and dependent, to stay at home caring for husband and family. Twenty years ago, the idea of a female soldier was even more farfetched than that of a woman doctor or lawyer. But years of war have brought women into a man’s world, partly by necessity, partly by choice.”
The ideas that a woman should not be armed or could not help militarily were losing traction. Women were able to take up arms by receiving weapon and military tactics training with a local People’s Self-Defense Force unit. Hahn estimated that one million women would serve in these units by 1970–over 100,000 in combat roles.
Even with advanced training and experience in combat roles, women were still ineligible for combat positions in the military. Hanh was told by Nguyen Hong Nguyet, the commissioner of a Saigon self-defense unit, that women were best suited for support roles. By 1967, there were more than 2,700 women in an all-female unit fulfilling these roles in the Women’s Armed Forces Corps, helping the families whose men had left to fight.
Women in the W.A.F.C. worked administratively, in intelligence, and in medicine and social work positions. When interviewed by Hanh, women were motivated to join the war effort for the same reasons that men were, and they had to complete a similar, difficult training.
To become an officer in the corps, women had to have 11 years of completed school and five years of formal school. Women in the W.A.F.C. were even trained in Airborne School programs, parachuting out of planes. Hanh called these women “daredevil girls”, though she made sure to point out they wouldn’t ever be jumping into combat.
The role of women in the Vietnam war was large but mostly forgotten. It’s important to remember the way women are involved in every war, even if it isn’t in combat. While all war must involve combat, there is so much more to war than fighting.
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