Weighing the Wisdom of Women in Combat

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A female Marine training at Parris Island, S.C.

CLERMONT-FERRAND, France – The debate on whether women should be allowed in front-line combat has, if anything, one enlightening quality: it says a lot about the so-called civilian-military divide.

A number of combat-arms units continue to see themselves as all-male preserves immune from the changes of society as a whole, thinking that war belongs to those who fight it, i.e. the men.

Unsurprisingly, the discussion has done little to dispense of the shibboleths of infantry talk about primal male instincts. It has produced interesting pieces like this one, once again suggesting — if only inadvertently — that women would better be left to their kitchens while men do the fighting.

In addition to leaving us once again stranded in this hackneyed Mars and Venus dichotomy, this hardly brings new ideas to the fight.

While a number of commentators have kept fueling the unrest on how far equal opportunities should extend into the last bastions of masculinity, the hunt into sexual assault in the ranks continues to rage unabated. A coincidence?

Probably not.

I don’t feel qualified to adjudicate on the perks and drawbacks of women serving in frontline combat units.

Yet, I can clearly see the soft underbelly of arguments against it, namely the fact they rarely seem supported by unbiased statistical or scientific evidence. And as happens all too often in such emotional issues, defenders of the status quo would like us to think the moon is made of green cheese.

The whole issue has been consistently fudged by mixed assertions, ranging from military effectiveness to ideology about gender roles. While some of them have occasionally indulged in bouts of classical misogyny, most seem to deal with confused and muddled definitions of manhood – or womanhood, for that matter.

They all harbor lingering fears about unit cohesion if women were given ground combat billets. But seriously, what kind of long term experience have we on the subject?

And they all warn about the risk of defeat in battle if the percentage of such billets reached a certain threshold, on which no agreement seems to exist either. Is it 10%, 15%, 25% of women in the ranks?

But the argument scarcely holds water.

Let’s put it bluntly:

Some wars have already been lost in spite of being fought by all-male frontline infantry units, including the last two in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Ground combat, as it is described by the tenants of military masculinity is a ludic fallacy, depicting a characteristic of war that has clearly receded, if not vanished.

We don’t want to see modern warfare for what it is: constantly smudging the line between combatants and non-combatants, between destruction and reconstruction, between local constabulary surgery and massive remote firepower. Close combat might certainly be part of it, but it is no longer a central feature of modern conflicts.

So far, no one has been able to marshal convincing evidence against women in ground combat. We’ve heard countless appraisals based on anecdotal tales and personal experiences, some of them undoubtedly illuminating, but most of them partial, fragmentary and merely throwing some non sequitur into the debate.

None of the traditional arguments withstands scrutiny. Tedious concerns about aggressiveness, physical strength, sexual promiscuity or complex gender dynamics do not constitute, in my view, insuperable obstacles to the inclusion of women in frontline infantry units.

And they won’t.

A lot of issues have already emerged from the deployments of mixed-gender contingents. They will continue to be addressed over a number of practical difficulties as they arise. And they will hopefully settle. Sexual assault is one of them.

There is undoubtedly a deliberate effort from the Senate to address such a serious problem, which is more crucial to unit cohesion than a theoretical “womanization” of frontline infantry.

The nation’s military leaders have been duly grilled to extract unconvincing and somewhat perfunctory answers about their respective policies on sexual misconduct.

A lot was heard about the purges going on in the ranks; a lot less about what those same leaders intended to do to improve the climate between genders.

But there is one thing for sure: civil society will only feel increasingly alienated from the military if the latter refuses to follow the former’s democratic aspirations, no matter how misplaced and “unmilitary” they may seem.

Some male officers say it eventually boils down to the kind of infantry we want. But I don’t think it is a good way of framing the question.

Common people don’t reflect about the future of infantry. But they certainly do about the place of women in society. And the military would gain nothing by pitting their operational requirements against the wider demands of the public opinion; lest they be insincere about narrowing the civilian-military gap.

We are too often left with the disturbing impression that male officers are desperately scrambling around for arguments against what merely amounts to a democratic choice.

Armed forces only reflect what society is and where it wants to go. Officers cannot complain about their growing disconnect from civilians on the one hand, and staunchly refuse to accommodate their preferences on the other.

This is not the way democracy works. People want their military to remain a true and fair emanation of the society they live in. It is not as if they were two separate entities.

Don’t be mistaken: I am not trying to pretend this couldn’t be detrimental to military efficiency. But being socially regressive will do a lot more harm to the armed forces than endorsing women as capable frontline combatants. Besides, it will only make society and the military drift further apart.

If democratic societies – authoritarian ones have no such qualms – are imbued with social progress and want women in the infantry, then fair enough, let them try, so long as they meet the required standards.

And for those among you who think this may be reason enough to discourage them, remind yourselves of New York politician and PR guru Grover Whalen’s wise advice: a pessimist is a woman who thinks she can’t park her car in a tiny space. An optimist is a man who thinks she won’t try.

Julien Mathonniere writes from central France on defense and foreign policy for journals in France, Britain and the U.S., as well as on his Crosstalks blog.

9 comments
TXMan
TXMan

Why are you taking a stance on women in combat when you said this. "I don’t feel qualified to adjudicate on the perks and drawbacks of women serving in front line combat units." If you have such a strong urge to have an opinion enlist in the military and then you have my permission to have an opinion. 



Cbty23
Cbty23

Women and men are NOT BUILT THE SAME. Don’t like it? Go get a sex change! The statistics are all there for you to see. We already know the differences, it’s very well established. The military has separate standards for men and women when it comes to physical requirements. And yet, just as sure as the sun sets, dishonest, angry feminists can’t handle this and we have to suffer for it by being forced to pretend that there are no issues whenever the sexes are mixed in some situations. We have to have an insane feminist vision shoved down our throats in the name of “progress”.
The argument for placing women in combat units alongside men is nonsensical and can very easily be dismantled if examined seriously, topic by topic instead of sweeping the facts under the rug in the name of your own personal self interest.
The top 5 to 10% of women are able to compete with the bottom 5 to 10% of men in boot camp and despite this fact of life, we have to be forced into rationalizing the benefits of mixing the sexes in the last place on earth they belong together. It would be like the President getting up and saying “Hey everyone! I’ve got some great news for you. We’re going to be adding some new combatants into our military forces, the best of whom can compete with the lowest 5 to 10% of our current forces and, they bring sexual tension with them! Isn’t that great!?!” That’s really going to make our combat forces better.
There is NOTHING good about this idea at all. I will never serve with women in combat units.

dm8471
dm8471

"And the military would gain nothing by pitting their operational requirements against the wider demands of the public opinion; lest they be insincere about narrowing the civilian-military gap."

This statement is indicative of everything that is wrong with this debate and the pending policy change. Militaries exist to safeguard a country's people (in the best case) and their government (for better or worse), be it a democracy or a totalitarian regime. They do not exist to promote social equality (what organization with a rank structure and COC would?), practice democracy (again with the whole rank and COC thing), or compete in popularity contests, as you so eloquently suggested. On a serious note, in very literally terms they have everything to gain from, "pitting their operational requirements against the wider demands of the public opinion". What they have to gain is victory, achieving of which, as mentioned before; is the sole purpose of a military's existence. Operational requirements are determined by what is need to SUCCESSFULLY accomplish mission objectives. They are practical. Not political. Fail to meet those requirements and you have failed your mission. In the military and combat, mission failure often means you just wasted a lot of lives.


"So far, no one has been able to marshal convincing evidence against women in ground combat. We’ve heard countless appraisals based on anecdotal tales and personal experiences, some of them undoubtedly illuminating, but most of them partial, fragmentary and merely throwing some non sequitur into the debate."


That evidence is out there. You and others who advocate for this decision just choose not to acknowledge it. The arbitrary cherry-picking statistics and information as well as the sweeping under the rug of data from vetted sources and peer reviewed studies is very telling. The spread of misinformation shows that having an honest debate is not possible with those who aligned their viewpoints with yourself.

-Presidential Commission on the Assignment of Women in the Armed Forces dated November 15, 1992

This one's a little outdated, but given historical statistical averages at major training centers, it holds plenty true:

"After a study was conducted at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, one expert testified that:
- using the standard Army Physical Fitness Test, the upper quintile (top 20%) of women at West point achieved scores on the test equivalent to the bottom quintile (bottom 20%) of men.
- only 21 women out of the initial 623 (3.4%) achieved a score equal to the male mean score of 260.
- on the push-up test, only 7% of women can meet a score of 60, while 78% of men exceed it.
- adopting a male standard of fitness at West Point would mean 70% of the women he studied would be separated as failures at the end of their junior year, only 3% would be eligible for the Recondo badge, and not one would receive the Army Physical Fitness badge."

Finding a full government copy of the U.S. Navy Spartan Study is difficult but, you can find most of it in: "
Dirty Little Secrets of the Vietnam War”.

It would be interesting to file some FOIA's and get more studies on the subject that were conducted by the Pentagon. There are more. I know for a fact there were a few done at Aberdeen and Natick (maybe Bragg, there also might have been others). RUMINT dictates they have been swept under the rug for the reason that they would be considered abject failures politically for those advocating this position as well as for commanders who know they will have to cozy up to to politicians like Carter, Clinton, and Obama. I'd like to find out for sure though...


"I don’t feel qualified to adjudicate on the perks and drawbacks of women serving in frontline combat units."

It shows Julien, it shows...

Medic5392
Medic5392

"Ground combat, as it is described by the tenants of military masculinity is a ludic fallacy, depicting a characteristic of war that has clearly receded, if not vanished."-This comment alone should illustrate just how ignorant and poorly read the author is on the topic. The combat in Afghanistan has been largely small unit ground combat. The combat in Iraq was as well. The author is either intentionally leaving out the information or extremely obtuse.

"So far, no one has been able to marshal convincing evidence against women in ground combat. We’ve heard countless appraisals based on anecdotal tales and personal experiences, some of them undoubtedly illuminating, but most of them partial, fragmentary and merely throwing some non sequitur into the debate."-You mean out side the more than double rates of orthopedic injuries, pregnancy, frat, lower physical ability (science. biology back that up) and being more susceptible to PTSD? Yup, all those "stoopid" studies showing that are obviously just bunk. Go read the Presidential Commission on Women in the Armed Services, Co-Ed Combat, The UK Ministry of Defense Study that was completed in 2002' reviews in 2010' and stands and of course LTC. Gregor's writing on the topic. Don't let knowledge pass you by on your road to ignorance, actually read up on the topic.

"I don’t feel qualified to adjudicate on the perks and drawbacks of women serving in frontline combat units."-Yet, you do and do not make a valid argument or even an informed one. TIME continues it's habit of poorly researched, written and posted articles on this topic.

mtngoatjoe
mtngoatjoe

The wars were "lost" be politicians before the fighting actually started. Neither war had a reasonable plan before we sent troops in harms way. The soldiers on the ground won the fights they fought. But soldiers don't determine policy, politicians do. And it's the politicians that failed.

CollinAgee
CollinAgee

There are some interesting points in this article relevant to the continuing debate on women in combat, but I strongly object to one line:

"Some wars have already been lost in spite of being fought by all-male frontline infantry units, including the last two in Iraq and Afghanistan."

1.  It's a questionable premise to say that these wars were lost.  In both cases, regime change was accomplished in short order, before we got bogged down in Phase IV.  We could ask Saddam if he thinks that he won--except that he's dead.

2.  These wars most definitely were not fought exclusively by men.  In fact, the author proceeds to make that very point.

3.  The ridiculous implication that success or failure in war is determined by gender.  I think there may be other variables. . .

dm8471
dm8471

SPARTAN* study; it's an acronym.

CrossTalksUK
CrossTalksUK

@dm8471

Dear dm8471,

Thank you for your comment. And thank you for the references too.

I gave you a stick to beat me with so I suppose it is fair game you use it.

But I think you’ve misunderstood my point.

I am neither supporting nor defending women in combat. My stance is a rather neutral one with, I admit, a few understatements for those who can read between the lines.

What I essentially say is that:

1)Democracies are far too besotted with social progress to give up promoting women in combat billets, not matter how this may go against common wisdom, military efficiency or whatever reason you may fancy.

2)However remote social engineering might be from the army’s raison d’être (and I agree with you on this point), you won’t stop that from happening because, as I point out in my piece, the military cannot stay immune from the changes of society at large (like accommodating gay rights, allowing women in frontline combat positions…etc.).

3)Whether doing otherwise would leave us with a more efficient army is debatable. But such an army would soon become socially irrelevant for failing to mirror the (professional) aspirations of the wider civilian society. And by any measure, this would entail far more fatal problems such as decreasing support, less people willing to join, even less people willing to stay, etc.

4)Traditional arguments and statistical evidence on the fact that men are fitter and stronger than women, or that women are inherently more susceptible to injury, less aggressive, etc. is often based on dubious medical diagnosis. As one observer put it, it is a case for stringently enforced fitness criteria – not for gender-based discrimination. Besides, most of the studies you mention were carried out by the military… What about neutrality, objectivity, vested interests?

5)For all the influence that anti-feminist advocates such as Martin Van Creveld or Brian Mitchell might have on us (at least on me), I still think they’re biased by masculine prejudice. We lack hindsight on the subject of women in frontline combat roles, precisely because they are not permitted to serve in these jobs. Moreover, appraisals are based on co-ed experiments which are still in their early stages.

I hope this brings more clarity to my point.

Thanks very much for taking the time to comment anyway.

J. Mathonniere

Medic5392
Medic5392

@CrossTalksUK @dm8471 

Mrs. Mathonnier, most of your reply post is simply not true.

Your answers in #4 and #5 are simply incorrect: The evidence is not hard to find on any of this, while the military may have conducted the studies they also continue to pay attention to them. If they said that yes, we have had the SPARTAN Study (Damage Control in the US Navy) the West Point Study and even the more recent UK Ministry of Defense Study and they all show that women should not be in combat and that yes they cannot compete then we would not have the silliness we have currently.

Not once in admissions, in jobs within the military or in career paths have women been made to meet the same standards and there is a lot to back up why, to include the studies you dismiss due to them being done by that same military. What about he huge rise in orthopedic injuries? pregnancy? Are all of these too ignored because they were done within the military and yet that same military does not seem to let it influence their choices for jobs, quotas, etc....

Also, the co-ed studies have over three decades behind them. Not sure what you consider "early stages" though.

The other poster you are responding too pretty much cut and paste another frequent poster on this topic, Eric Stratton III, I do the same thing, just easier to cut and paste then re-write. You will find loads of information to counter your assertions, please do some reading on the topic.