Why Not All-Female Combat Units?

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Staff Sgt. Shane Hamann / U.S. Army

Female U.S. soldiers secure an Afghan compound March 3 in the Spin Boldak district of Kandahar province.

The question isn’t should women be in combat — it’s how.

As a male combat veteran of two tours in Iraq with infantry units, the view from here is that women should have their own, separate, combat units.

I fully support the concept of officially allowing women to serve in combat. In fact, after years of fighting insurgencies in which female service members deployed to combat zones and were routinely exposed to enemy fire and engaged the enemy in return, the question of whether to ‘allow’ women in combat or whether they can fight seems almost ludicrous—they are in combat and of course women are perfectly capable of killing other human beings.

The real issue is the dynamic of how males and females interact with each other while in a combat environment and the resulting problems.

A combat unit isn’t a civilian company where a bad intra-office romance causes hurt feelings. Divisiveness in a combat or combat support unit can cause friction in a finely-tuned killing machine, and ultimately cost lives.

I believe units comprised entirely of women integrated with their male counterparts at command levels would significantly reduce the issues related to sexual tension and generally increase military readiness.

Gender-based segregation currently exists in the U.S. military and it works exceedingly well; the Marine Corps has an entirely separate recruit training battalion for women. The reason? The Marine Corps does not want its recruits sexually distracted or disrupting training due to sexual interaction among recruits or criminal conduct by instructors who sexually assault recruits. These are issues the Army, Navy and Air Force co-ed recruit training units must routinely deal with, weakening the effectiveness of training and therefore overall military readiness.

In the Marine Corps, recruit training is designed to mimic, in many ways, the stress encountered in combat. Recruits are physically and mentally exhausted for 12 weeks straight. To the Marine Corps, then, it makes sense to remove sexual distraction entirely. How, then, does it make sense to integrate the genders in units actually engaged in combat?

I have heard the argument, “When you’re fighting for your life in a filthy environment no one is thinking about sex.”

I spent more than 40 months in the Middle East and Central Asia between 2002 and 2011, as both a Marine and a civilian, and I can tell you with utter confidence that line of argument is entirely ignorant of human nature. While deployed, young American women and men have and will continue to seek each other out to engage in sexual relations in bunkers in the dirt, in the backs of trucks, in port-a-johns — anywhere with a little privacy.

I don’t intend to portray military servicemen and women as sex-crazed, but when you put thousands of young men and women (most in their late-teens or early 20s) in close quarters, thousands of miles from home and under extreme stress, human nature happens. Men compete for female attention, and women, in turn, compete for male attention. And, just as in recruit training, the resulting pregnancies, jealousy, distrust, arguments, physical altercations and disciplinary actions make for less effective units.

Worse than the problems caused by consensual sex is sexual assault and harassment. According to the 2012 documentary, The Invisible War, “Last year, 3,192 sexual assaults, from unwanted sexual touching to rape, were reported across all branches of the military. Based on anonymous surveys of active-duty service members conducted in 2010, however, the Department of Defense says the number of incidents was closer to 19,000.”

And although awareness is growing regarding male-on-female sexual assault in the military, there is little acknowledgement of female-on-male sexual harassment and false accusations of assault. There are women who want revenge for real or perceived slights, or simply to advance their careers, and they use false accusations as a means of doing so.

The question of whether or not gender-based segregation is analogous to racial segregation is simple. I do not believe they are.

Differences in race are social constructs, differences between male and female biology are not. Our society routinely segregates based on gender, men and women do not share locker rooms, public showers or bathrooms. These are areas of interaction we as a society have deemed too personal to share side-by-side due to fundamental sexual differences. I believe the battlefield is another such area.

The Pentagon has begun the process of integrating women into combat units. However, men and women side-by-side in the same infantry units will almost certainly lead to more problems and a weaker military.

Since modern warfare inevitably puts women into combat, I believe those units should be gender-segregated. That would give the nation the best of both worlds: allowing women full access to opportunities afforded to men, while preserving military readiness.

J.E. McCollough served in the Marine Corps from 1996 to 2005. He is a combat veteran of two tours in Iraq as a counter-intelligence specialist, where he earned a Purple Heart and a Navy and Marine Corps Commendation Medal with ‘V’ Combat Distinguishing Device. He lives in Portland, Oregon. 

19 comments
glennra3
glennra3

Why are people still talking about the issue of women serving with men in combat situations as if it were some theoretical, unproven situation?


Pick up a book about the Great Patriotic War (that is what the Russians called World War II) and you will see that 800,000 women served in the Soviet military during the war. Women were snipers, tank crew members, fighter pilots, bomber pilots, machine gunners, and partisans. Women made up the majority of the anti-aircraft batteries at the Battle of Stalingrad (the bloodiest battle of the war with a combined 2 million casualties).  


Look up the 46th Taman Guards Night Bombers, who flew over 24,000 sorties against the Germans, or read about fighter ace Lilya Litvyak, who had 12 confirmed solo victories. Google search Lyudmila Pavlichenko, a Soviet sniper credited with 309 kills. Valeriya Gnarovskaya killed 28 Germans in one battle and saved the lives of 70 wounded men in another by throwing herself under a Tiger tank with a satchel of anti-tank grenades, destroying the tank.


Do you really think late night booty calls were at the top of any of these soldier's list of priorities?


During World War II nearly 200,000 Soviet combat women received decorations, with 89 awarded the Hero of the Soviet Union, Russia's highest decoration.  


This issue was laid to rest decades ago. Perhaps it is time someone informed the American military.



DelTanainer
DelTanainer

"In the Marine Corps, recruit training is designed to mimic, in many ways, the stress encountered in combat. Recruits are physically and mentally exhausted for 12 weeks straight."

////

When I went to OSUT at Ft Benning (1982) we were 'physically and mentally exhausted' for 13 weeks straight. 

From sleep deprivation, to extreme physical training, to hours of boring classes where the punishment for dozing off was more extreme physical training, the recruits in the US Army are no less capable than those of any other branch of the US military, because 'In the United States Army, recruit training is designed to mimic, in many ways, the stress encountered in combat,' apparently for a longer duration than other branches.


That said, the inclusion of females into combat infantry / Special Operations units is, I believe, a mistake, for the same reasons that gays can be a problem.

Distraction.



quifor
quifor

Great article, Mr. McCollough. 

@mtngoatjoe

Of course kids should grow up. They do, mostly, given enough time. But wishing that 18 year olds will not have sex with other 18 year olds is completely futile.  Especially when you consider that the 18 year olds in question are in combat and have the very real expectation that they might die the next day. Under those conditions, expecting them to wait to have sex until they get back to the U.S. is worse than futile, it is an unforgivable willful denial of reality.

Please leave your dream world and join us here, where people will act like people, not robots, and where vague wishes that people will act differently than people act have no place. 


william.treseder
william.treseder

Thanks for this great piece, Joel. You're on the right track - I hope Congress gives up its Quixotic quest to feed the political beast. 

Don_Bacon
Don_Bacon

Okay, as long as they all wear the same color nail polish.

mtngoatjoe
mtngoatjoe

I'm sorry, but everyone simply needs to grow up, infantry soldiers included.

Sexual assault isn't the issue. Combat sex isn't the issue. Pregnancies aren't the issue (though access to long lasting, reversible birth control might be an issue).

The issue is that people get horny and think that gives them an excuse to be stupid.

Spouses don't cheat on their significant others because they're forced to live with people of the opposite sex. They cheat because they lack dedication to their spouses.

judoknighterrant
judoknighterrant

@glennra3 One notices that you didn't mention the casualty count among Soviet women soldiers, three times that of men.  Even the Nazis weren't low enough to commit women to combat - only (except the U.S.A.) an insane monster like Josef Stalin would do anything that despicable.

NickMorales
NickMorales

@glennra3 The Soviets were under direct attack. If the US were being invaded I'm sure every able bodied man and woman would fight. This is not the same as a volunteer force.

glennra3
glennra3

@DelTanainer 

Did you ever stop to think maybe the problem is straight men?  I mean, they are so distracted by women, by gay men...perhaps they just aren't mentally fit to serve.

mtngoatjoe
mtngoatjoe

@quifor Had you read my post you would notice that I said sex isn't the issue. 18 year olds having sex is pretty natural in my book. And I certainly never said that I expect them to wait to get home. BUT, that is not an excuse to do something stupid, like sexually assault someone.

I don't care how bad your day is, there is no excuse for making a decision like that.

All soldiers, 18 year olds (and generals) need to grow up. No means no.

glennra3
glennra3

@Don_Bacon


280,000 women have been deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan since 2001.  More than 150 women have been killed and more than 800 wounded in those two wars.


Your comment disrespects American women who gave the last full measure of devotion to their country.


What have you given, except cheap sarcasm?

rwilx1
rwilx1

@mtngoatjoe The issue is, Infantry and Special Operations units are extremely physical and require a high degree of physical strength.  Unless women are given special considerations by lowering the standards, they cannot make it.  Every time the Military has opened up an occupation for women, they have lowered the physical fitness standards to accommodate them (a perfect example is Airborne school).  

However, in combat, the Infantryman's load can reach or exceed 100lbs.  When a member of the unit cannot carry their load (usually over long distances), the weight gets temporarily redistributed to the others and that person will be disciplined and/or reassigned to a different MOS.  When women cannot carry the load, due to political reasons, they will not be reassigned but the Male soldiers will be tasked with picking up the slack. 


The issue at hand is about two things: getting women to the highest levels of command (Joint Chiefs) and eradicating the natural and biological gender differences in order to create a more fair (faux) society.  But there is an old saying, "it is not nice to mess with mother nature." 

glennra3
glennra3

@judoknighterrant @glennra3  


The Soviets did not keep casualty rates by gender, so unless you have solid documentation for your fictitious figures you are going to have to find another way to support your position.

mtngoatjoe
mtngoatjoe

@rwilx1 @mtngoatjoe One of the hardest things for a leader in the military to do is take a group of soldiers and use each one of them to their fullest potential. And for some leaders, it's even harder to realize that just because something has been done one way for as long as anyone can remember, that doesn't mean there isn't a better way to do it.

I did the job with the soldiers I had, not some mythical platoon of perfect robots.

Can women hack it in Special Operations? My guess is that the percentage will be very low. But that doesn't mean they don't have something to offer. Is every male soldier that can meet all the physical demands a good fit for Special Operations? No. Physical fitness is just one aspect. You need intelligence, commitment, and the ability to work under a high level of stress. You can't tell me there aren't any women in this country that don't have what it takes to excel in Special Operations. You can't honestly believe that there aren't at least a few women that would add more to the team than they take away.

mtngoatjoe
mtngoatjoe

@NickMorales @glennra3 @DelTanainer True, but straight guys are easily distracted. Also, when a was a platoon sergeant, all the problems I had all kinds of problems I had to help my soldiers deal. And the vast majority of my time solving problems was spent on straight men. Just saying.