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Why not women in combat?

by Collie Collier
August 2005 Firestarter column

I was recently in a discussion with some interesting people regarding that tired old chestnut about how women shouldn't be in combat. I think it's important to air out old cultural beliefs every once in a while to be sure they're actually correct -- and more importantly, to dispose of those which don't hold up to reality any more.

What's sauce for the goose...

Amazons in myth &

Let me be very clear up front on one part of this discussion: I'm not a fan of wars, or of the draft. What I emphatically favor is allowing people to make their own choices, and for everyone to be able to choose from the same set of options -- regardless of their skin color, religion, sexual preference, gender, age, or whatever. To do otherwise is unfair, and wrong for a truly democratic society.

I understand if one cannot physically fulfill the qualifications for a job, they should not get the job. However, I also believe a relatively large number of qualifications are actually more culturally influenced, rather than simply being what is strictly necessary for fulfilling the job. We need to fix those, because in a truly democratic society we all have a right to the same set of options to choose from.

For example, I would regard with an extremely jaundiced eye any job qualifications list which insisted the job applicant must have white skin; or be married to someone of the opposite gender; or that it was for a desk job, but all applicants needed to be able to lift 150 lbs. with upper body strength only. So-called "job qualifications" such as these are more restrictions put in place by a potential employer who wishes to hire a particular type of person -- rather than whomever is most qualified for the job. They are, in fact, concrete examples of prejudice.

I also feel this societal right to choose from the same set of options should extend all the way from, say, women choosing to work in combat positions, to men choosing to wear makeup or stay at home raising the kids if they want. I may not like individual people's choices, but as long as they understand they have to live by the consequences of their actions (i.e. the woman may get killed, and the man may get stared at and gossiped about), I will strongly defend their right to make their own choices. I may wish our culture was a bit more tolerant, but that's a long, slow process, and this is how I try to help it along.

So let's address this cliché regarding women in combat and see if, in the process of airing out old cultural assumptions, we can maybe make a slightly better and more egalitarian society. I think it's high time more people were accurately informed about the potential capabilities of women, and I also believe prejudices (such as this one) are detrimental to us as a society.

Assume: making an ass out of you & me

The belief seems to run as follows: on average, men are larger and stronger than women, therefore they're better fighters than women, therefore women shouldn't be allowed in combat. Often there's also an implied conviction that "women are smaller than men, therefore they're also not as aggressive" in the stated belief. Sometimes this is followed up with an "appeal to authority" argument -- the infamous military study which supposedly clearly demonstrated the inadvisability of women in combat.

It appears we have five assumptions here:

  1. Men really are better fighters,

  2. Men are usually larger and stronger than women,

  3. Fighters only need size and strength, and...

  4. "The military" has done a conclusive study which shows women can't fight.

Are any of these assumptions actually true? Well, no, not really. Let's pick each one apart and see what actual facts apply, as opposed to religious beliefs or cultural anecdotes.

Are men better fighters than women?

This usually is coupled with the assumption that men are better fighters because women aren't as aggressive as men. I'm always appalled when I hear this, both because it so clearly demonstrates favoring religious or cultural bias over fact, and because it's sad there are folks who still believe such oft-disproven nonsense.

If men actually always were better in fights than women, several millennia of battles should have conclusively proven this. We should have no stories of brilliant female commanders or warriors, and we should have no stories of females killing males in battle. All our stories should be similar to the Greeks myths about the Amazons, which pretty much describe them being repeatedly defeated and raped by the male Greek soldiers.

The operative word there is "should," however. The reality is we do not actually have such data. Instead we have a huge amount of evidence, both historical and modern-day, of women and men both being trained to be effective fighters and commanders. It's a shame the only stories we teach in schools and military training are about male warriors and leaders. Do you ever wonder why that is? I do.

Queen Myrene: builder of the Amazon empire

Just off the top of my head I can think of several women commanders and warriors. There was the great, pre-bronze-age Amazon Queen Myrene. She built the original Amazon empire, conquering major parts of Syria, Egypt, Phrygia, and the Mediterranean, and also founding several famous cities, including Smyrna. We can thank her, it seems, for figuring out how to make war from horseback -- the earliest record of mounted combat is attributed to her leading 30,000 cavalrywomen into battle in North Africa.

Empress Jingo of Japan

Then there's the legendary Japanese Empress Jingo, or Jingu, who not only led her navy in the successful conquest of Korea in the second century ADE, but did so while pregnant! She was using clamshell-style layered armor, and just kept adding new layers as she got larger. Also noteworthy was her profitable refusal to allow raping and pillaging of conquered cities. She returned home in triumph from the conquest after three years of war, then ruled for over 70 years. At her peaceful death her son assumed the throne of a realm renown for its prosperity and lack of rebellion.

Queen Artemisia I: warrior & tactician

There's also the tactically brilliant Queen Artemisia I, ruler of the Greek city-state of Halicarnassus and Cos, and advisor to Xerxes, ruler of the Persian Empire. Around 480 BCE, as naval commander of five of her own warships, she accompanied Xerxes to the disastrous battle of Salamis. History records her as warning Xerxes of the inadvisability of advancing his more numerous fleet through a bottleneck towards the Greek navy.

Unfortunately for Xerxes, he chose to listen to his male advisors, who derided Artemisia's excellent tactics as female cowardice. As a consequence the Greeks in their lighter ships bottled up the heavier Persian fleet, slaughtering them in waves. Xerxes, watching the whole horrible battle from the shore, is historically remembered as noting Artemisia (who rammed and destroyed nine Athenian triremes) was the only general to show any useful bravery, "My female general has become a man, and my male generals all become women."

Interestingly, the warrior queen swapped sides towards the end of the battle, ramming and sinking the ship of one of her former allies. History attributes this to her desire to not be captured and ransomed by the Athenians, but there's a part of me which amusedly wonders if the sunken ship actually belonged to Mardonius -- the loudest and most insulting of Xerxes' male advisors.

Mu-Lan: gender-bending warrior

Mu-Lan was recently made famous by Disney, but the cute little animated movie fictionalized most of the details. It didn't mention, for example, that she actually served for twelve years, and remained in the army even after discovery of her true sex. She became a brilliant and acclaimed officer, although I don't know what rank she ascended to. She was so valued as a warrior by her commander that, before her sex was discovered, he offered his daughter to her in marriage. The Chinese are historically a calmly pragmatic people, it would seem.

The legendary Joan of Arc

Equally famous, although for different reasons, is the peasant girl Jehanne la Pucelle, better known by us today as Joan of Arc. She led the army of the Dauphin of France in reclaiming Orleans from the invading English, so the Dauphin could be properly crowned king at Riems. Legend still swirls around her, of course -- she does not need my writings to further illuminate her brilliance.

That's just a handful of women war leaders who were also warriors of renown, that I know off the top of my head. There are many, many more women leaders and warriors, both remembered and forgotten. I highly recommend taking a moment to read up on them -- the smear campaign women warriors have suffered under for the last few centuries has no basis in either truth or integrity. Further, I strongly believe bravery and courage deserve honor, regardless of sex.

Are men on average larger and stronger than women?

Put plainly, the above statement is not accurate. It is not precisely wrong, but it is incomplete. Here's why:

Evolutionarily speaking, there is a very limited range of physical variability options for women -- if they're too slender-hipped, too small, or too physically different, they will die when trying to have babies. That's definitely evolution in action.

Males, on the other hand, got dealt nature's genetic wild card. Not only are they evolutionary accidents off the initial female XX genes, but they also don't have the pressures of child-bearing to physically normalize them. Therefore men statistically are indeed larger than women -- but equally importantly, there are just as many men who are also statistically smaller than women.

And what about strength? Interestingly, men are only "stronger" than women when you define strength as something only men have. For example, if you define strength as the ability to pick up large pieces of furniture, then most of the time men will indeed be stronger than women. However, if you define strength as surviving extreme physical hardship and tests of endurance -- then on the whole women are stronger than men.

So if we believe fighters only need size and the ability to pick up heavy things, and that therefore women are not large or strong enough to be fighters... then we must also logically conclude somewhere between half and a third of all men are also incapable of fighting -- and that fighting has nothing to do with physical hardship and endurance.

I know it's petty of me, but I admit to a certain snarky amusement at the prospect of throwing this in the face of some puffed-up, self-righteous Senator pontificating on the "impracticality" of women being physically able to handle combat. Alas, unlikely to happen... but I can dream!

Do fighters only need size and strength?

Any good commander, armorer, weapons-master, logistician, sharp-shooter, martial artist, archer, driver, horseback rider, spear caster, javelineer, and so on, can tell you there's more to being a fighter than simply size and strength. Intelligence, endurance, determination, dexterity, training, dedication, hand-eye coordination, training, etc., ad nauseum -- all these things are part of being a good fighter.

Indeed, we have a long history of cultural myths where the small-but-clever fighter outsmarts the larger, better armed, or stronger bully. David & Goliath, Odysseus & the Cyclops, and Bugs Bunny & Elmer Fudd are but a few that spring immediately to mind.

It appears to be a mostly 20th century fallacy that a critical part of being a soldier is the ability to hump around heavy objects with only upper body strength. Like the old story of the scientist who determined a grasshopper's ears must be located on its legs because the grasshoppers didn't startle once their legs were cut off, 20th century Western culture emphasized an oft-found-in-males characteristic, trained their women to behave in a dependent fashion, then decided that meant it was only the male characteristics which were absolutely necessary for fighting.

Unsurprisingly, modern studies have clearly demonstrated women would be physically better than men at being fighter pilots, where upper body strength is not an issue. As mentioned above, women are not only statistically smaller than some men, but also have better overall endurance than most men, leading to better female resistance to G forces. These are all helpful when piloting a modern fighter jet.

Less well known is a particular hand-eye-coordination movement which women do better than men -- a movement which I've read would benefit pilots in jet cockpits. That's also the reason most Japanese noblewomen were historically trained in martial use of the naginata (which takes advantage of that particular "twitch" movement), from what I've been told.

Finally, there's apparently a study which demonstrated conclusively the best color to paint a jet, so it would easily 'fade' out of sight in the sky. The color was (perhaps surprisingly) not a light blue, but rather... pink!

Will we be seeing pink jets any time soon? Gracious no! According to the brass, it would "destroy morale." My thought is: what about saving the lives of more of our pilots? Wouldn't that be a bigger boost to morale than non-pink jets?

So no, I'm not holding my breath that the Air Force will suddenly see reason.

What about the military study about women in combat?

Ah, yes, the infamous women-in-combat study. Supposedly there is an Israeli study which clearly shows women in combat cause higher casualties and is a Bad Idea[TM]. Curiously, I've never found anyone who's actually read this study. If you know where to find a copy, please let me know!

However, I have a theory as to why this study is so hard to find -- if it actually occurred, that is. I suspect the data spells out in painful clarity the real reason for the higher casualties: the male soldiers tried to "protect" the female soldiers. This is supported by the little I've been told about the study, which I still cannot verify: apparently a group of female soldiers were pinned down by enemy fire and radioed back for backup. As the story goes, the more hysterical the women got, the more the men broke cover and tried to "rescue" the women, in what amounted to suicide charges.

The men were not commanded to do so -- they did it themselves, repeatedly, despite seeing their companions mowed down each time this was tried. We can only speculate as to their reasoning, but my guess is it was due to a misguided sense of machismo, and poor cultural or military training.

Frankly, this is not convincing data against women in combat. First, the story always emphasizes the female soldiers getting hysterical -- but I find it hard to believe there's never been a hysterical all-male combat group pinned down by enemy fire. So why might such emphasis be put on this behavior, when discussing female soldiers? My thought is perhaps it was an attempt to lessen the impact of reading about the extraordinarily silly behavior of the male soldiers?

Think about this logically: the men acted like idiots and got themselves killed. However, it appears we blame the women for the irrational behavior of the male soldiers. Why?! If stupid behavior on the part of men is going to be the responsibility of women, then basic good management techniques dictates we must give the women corresponding power to enforce good male behavior. Right, like that's ever going to happen.

Why not just train the men to treat the women as peers, so the whole pathetic, stupid, pointlessly sexist issue would be eliminated? Sadly, this sort of groundless military machismo and "male avoidance of responsibility for their own mistakes" is now part and parcel of our current cultural interactions. It is my hope that exposing this nonsense for what it is will help to dispel it.

Honoring courage

As I've noted before, it's important to give credit where credit is due -- regardless of the sex of the people so honored. Therefore, let us take a moment to salute the courage of members of the Kentucky National Guard's 617th Military Police Company. One of those individuals is Sgt. Leigh Ann Hester, a 23-year-old retail store manager.

On 2005 June 16th Sgt. Hester and several other members of her squad were awarded medals for valor in combat in defeating an attempted ambush. Six Bronze Stars were awarded, and two Silver Stars -- one of those to Sgt. Hester.

While it's worth noting Sgt. Hester is the first woman since World War II to win the Silver Star, what's really important isn't her gender -- it's why she won the medal: for "skillfully leading her team of military police soldiers in a counterattack after about 50 insurgents ambushed a supply convoy they were guarding near Salman Pak on March 20." Read the description of the attack if you get a chance -- it's just amazing.

In the end, we have to face facts: this is just the most recent publicly-acclaimed case of female valor in combat which I know of. It's not a question any more of whether women should be in combat -- they already are in combat. It's a question of crediting the bravery of those who fight, and making sure all our troops have the best training and equipment we can give them.

Reader comments

(and my replies)

07.26.05: Jonathan's thoughts

One shouldn't forget the remarkable case of the Trung sisters, who successfully led the Yueh people -- the area now known as Vietnam -- in rebellion against the Chinese empire in the first century AD.

Oh, yes, the Trung sisters! Fooie, I forgot about them. That's what I get for just grabbing names off the top of my head. Sorry about that. ;)

Part of the requirements for upper body strength is the fact that the soldier's kit has grown larger and heavier over the past 50 years. I think it was said that the WWII soldier carried a pack of 40 pounds of gear, and the modern soldier carries 80 pounds.

I may be wrong about the numbers, but the fact remains that the soldier's kit has grown considerably in size. This, plus body armor, and heavier/ higher-powered weaponry, has made raw body strength more important. Which is odd, considering that the modern military emphasizes mobility over static formations!

I suspect the armed forces would do well to do some review of their assumptions about kit and weight distribution, as well as their assumptions regarding women in combat. Frankly, you've put your finger on the crux of the issue already, noting the kit is being used as a gender-excluding excuse even when the modern military emphasizes mobility, not static formations. As far as I can tell, it's just another incorrect justification of entrenched prejudice.

There is one other concern that I've heard voiced regarding women in combat, and this is a bit of a delicate subject; unfortunately there's no way to be very polite about it, so I'll have to be rather blunt about it.

The concern is that women who are captured by an enemy would be raped, or would run the immense risk of being raped. The concern is greater when the military is deployed in areas which have been typically very misogynistic. On a less politely-worded note, even US soldiers have shown themselves capable of maltreatment of prisoners, c.f. Abu Garib.

Should this be a valid argument against women serving in combat roles? I'm not sure. I think that reports of female POWs being raped would polarize the homefront into those who want to nuke everything in sight in retaliation -- a reaction that I can't entirely fault them for, I admit -- to those who see it as a clear reason to withdraw troops from the theater. This isn't even counting the uproar about females in combat positions.

However, as you say, women ARE in combat now. And I remember quite clearly the after-action report regarding that MP unit. A HUGE part of why that unit did so well was the rigorous training that the officers -- male and female -- put all their personnel -- male and female -- through. But there was one rather chilling coda to that incident: The MP unit was responding to an attack on a food convoy, and the insurgents attacking that convoy were doing it to draw a military response. Several of the insurgents were carrying handcuffs and restraints; their goal was the capture of personnel.

The territory I am about to tread on is highly controversial. Many if not most Islamic cultures have a history of misogyny. Nations such as Saudi Arabia have been repeatedly cited as womens' rights violators, and northeast African nations that have strong Islamic cultures are pits filled with horror stories. In addition, Taliban Afghanistan underlined the harsh conditions that women living under a strict Moslem regime must suffer through.

We do not yet know what treatment female soldiers captured by Iraqi insurgents (or insurgents in any other Islamic country that the US may or may not decide to invade in the near future) will go through. They may be treated much as male soldiers are (which isn't saying much) or they may be treated better; or, as most opponents to women in combat positions fear the most when bringing this point up, they may be treated worse.

I am not saying that we should bar women from combat positions based on this point. I am curious about your reactions to it. For myself, the defense of the homeland, friends, and family from the invader bent on domination and destruction would require there to be no distinction between gender, genotype, or faith.

You make a good point, Jonathan, regarding rape being a concern in the military. However, I don't think you take it far enough. Rape in war-time is an atrocity regardless of whether it is done to a woman or to a man. Why is it, therefore, we don't seem to care when it happens to a man? Also, surely you're not suggesting rape is worse than being killed?

Furthermore, to keep a particular social group out of combat due to a generalized fear for their safety is to infantilize them, i.e. "don't do that -- you might get hurt!" Unless we as a society can absolutely, positively guarantee the safety of that social group, we do not have the right to refuse them responsibility for their actions.

Also, to desist from courageous action due to a vague fear of potential personal harm is not the behavior of the mature, self-responsible adult. Indeed, an argument could be made that this is precisely the sort of action the current crop of world terrorists are attempting to inspire in us -- that we must back down or we might get hurt.

Finally, it could be said this situation -- i.e. the danger of rape -- is a case where the US could take a courageous stand, and lead the world in something truly ennobling -- by making rape a truly unacceptable form of crime. Currently there's a vaguely permissive attitude towards rape -- it's nasty, so we don't want to talk about it, but hey, it only happens to bad women, right? So if you're female, you just have to live in a little bit of fear, and hope men will protect you, and not wear anything too nice, and not go anyplace you're not permitted to go, and somehow magically everything will be all right.

Except... that doesn't work, and never has. We all know over 90% of the rapes committed in the US are done by men whom the women victims actually
know and trust. Which means there's an ugly truth most people don't really want to think about: most rapists are "just regular guys" -- one of your male co-workers, or the guy next door, or your sister's classmate, or your ex-boyfriend.

What does this say about us and our society? It says that men feel powerless in this society -- the same society which says they're the ones who are supposed to be in control. And due to the frustration and rage caused by such conflicting social demands, men take it out on the only cultural group they can currently attack without effective social retribution -- women.

As I noted above, women have been trying for decades -- for millennia! -to police
themselves so they don't get raped. The simple truth is this: it's not working. Women alone cannot change this culture's tacit acceptance of rape. It takes men to help.

When men are disgusted by other men who brag about showing their wife who's boss, or who laugh about women never knowing what they really want, or who cheerfully report she said no but she really meant yes, or who declare she was just asking for it or she really wanted it or whatever their inane excuse is... when that sort of rape-tolerant behavior is considered not just risque, but downright stomach-wrenchingly revolting... then we'll have created a society which allows for true sexual equality.

And when that happens, it will affect our military too, because they are drawn from the society. I've already mentioned the Empress Jingo, who did not permit her armies to rape those they conquered. Wouldn't it be nice if we, who are supposed to be so civilized and advanced, could behave with at least as much decency as a pre-medieval army?

Regarding the "Israeli report," I too have heard it often cited but never directly quoted, nor have I actually seen it. As near as I can tell, though, people who have read it have told me that it does indeed say that the problem is not so much female soldiers fighting as it was male soldiers' reactions to female soldiers in combat.

There is also the concern with fraternization, and I am not entirely certain we as a society will be able to get over that hurdle unless we have some better education and weed out all the 'good ole boys' who try to turn a blind eye to things like Tailhook. Being in the military means stress, and one can understand that when one works hard, one will play hard, but that does not give the go-ahead to sexual misconduct.

In some ways I think that this particular issue can be delt with by encouraging social contact with the community the military unit is nominally stationed in, rather than encouraging an isolationist, 'We're the military, they're the civilians' mentality. Hmm... this gives some writing interesting ideas to me. *scribbles them down*

I'd be interested in seeing what you come up with. Thanks for the feedback! ;)

07.26.05: Chandra's thoughts

I've never heard of this mythical study. It seems rather bizarre for it to have come from the Israeli army, too, since as far as I know the Israeli army does have women in at least certain kinds of combat positions. The only study that I've ever heard of, which is probably equally mythical, was one showing that women were actually more vicious in combat. That's actually quite insidious, since the rumor came with the implication that "more" should be read as "too."

Really?! Wow... I'd like to see that report too. They both sound fascinating, although I suspect it's more because of what the reactions to the studies tell us about our culture -- rather than what the studies themselves report.

As for the events which supposedly occurred in the study you mention, I can think of a couple ways of looking at it:

1) How many soldiers have died trying to rescue their buddies? I can't imagine what listening to your friends begging you to save them must be like. It might be easier to try, and die, than have to listen and do nothing. I have a sneaking suspicion that the events were, sadly, not unusual, and that the all-female group was mostly coincidence.

On this I quite agree. From what I've read, however, there is apparently an emotional/psychological threshold of some sort where combat fatigue has you, and nothing really matters any more.

Please keep in mind, however, I am just noting this -- I am emphatically not suggesting that level of indifference or combat fatigue is a good thing!

2) Even if you assume that the sex of the group under fire made a difference, what to do about it is still an open question. Sex makes people do stupid things, absolutely, but should you try to treat the stupid or the sex?

LOL! I love the way you phrase this. ;)

Given that we're dealing with a culture that created the concept of "attractive nuisance" and that the armed forces generally have to make do with whomever they can get, it's not surprising that they've opted to treat the sex. I'll get back to this in a bit, though.

3) In a volunteer armed forces, we're also dealing with a group of people who are largely self-selected for macho, which carries certain baggage of overinflated maleness and the idea that women should be protected. I think this really belongs under "stupid" in part 2.

I agree.

As somebody said many years ago, in the era of the Meese Report, paraphrased: "The Danes legalized porn and their incidence of rape went down. What the hell is wrong with Americans that looking at porn should make us sex offenders?"

Similarly, if the Israeli army is making a go of women in combat positions (which I think it is, but I don't actually know for sure), then why can't we? Well, in this case, I can actually think of a few stumbling blocks. The main one is that military service is compulsory in Israel. Their armed forces get everybody. Our armed forces get a smattering of those who feel a duty to serve the country, plus a lot of the macho or jingoistic, or those who just need work and don't have the qualifications to get anything else.

In addition, the mission of the Israeli armed forces is about national preservation, whereas at least currently our missions are about national pride -- macho squared. These factors are bound to produce different military cultures, and the Israeli culture sounds like it would be far more friendly to women in combat.

Sounds reasonable to me.

I'm not trying to excuse our military here, just diagnose the problem. Fixing it is a whole nother can of worms.

Yup. I figure getting folks talking about it, and understanding the unfairness of blaming one group for the irresponsibility of another, is a good start on fixing it culturally. Traditionally in this country, if we can change the culture or the laws, the military will follow.

I'd like to see a little more justice here all around, which is why I bring it up. Sounds like you have somewhat similar thoughts. Thanks for commenting! ;)

07.31.05: Don's thoughts

Let me start off by stating that this is inevitably going to sound paternalistic, maybe even condescending, but that the views held are garnered from experience, direct and indirect, and are sincerely held. Though I haven't been in direct combat myself, I served 3 years in the US army and received extensive combat training. In addition, I lived with and had in-depth conversations with dozens of combat veterans.

No worries regarding it sounding paternalistic -- you are my father, after all. Further, your beliefs certainly aren't a surprise to me, and I don't have problems with sincerely held opinions. I'll refuse to try reasoning with the deliberately rude and the arrogant who will/can not change their minds, but that's about it. ;)

Also, the nice thing about combat vets is they're as widely variant in their opinions as the US itself is. Several of the more thoughtful influences on this article, in fact, are current and former military, including female veterans of combat.

When talking about life in the military, one cannot view it from a theoretical, intellectual stance. You simply have to have been there to be qualified to judge. There are situations in training and in combat where the veneer of civilization is stripped away and raw animal emotions rule. There's no polite way to describe this. Combat training is the art of channeling the animal instincts lying under the surface of every soldier's pyche toward a goal predetermined by that soldier's superior officers. To achieve that goal most efficiently (ie, with minimal personnel loss), GI's must operate as a coordinated unit under sometimes highly adverse circumstances, like extreme heat, heavy enemy fire, personal wounds, misdirected friendly fire, etc. Few ex-GI's question women's intelligence, dedication, willingness to sacrifice for the group, patriotism, you name it. But at crunch time, every unit member wants a buddy who can physically do their share, be this heavy lifting, scaling barriers, carrying wounded comrades.

A clarification again about the so-called 90 pound packs GI's have to heft around. That's just personal gear carried into a combat zone, most of which gets left on base or in a rear storage area. When troops go into actual combat, they're carrying far less weight. But even so, if you're operating in 120 degree heat, have on your helmet, protective vest, boots, goggles, canteen, etc. and are hefting an automatic rifle or rocket launcher and have a full complement of ammunition, and you're attacking a position halfway up a steep hill a half mile above you, you better be strong and very healthy. There are women who can do all this, but statistically fewer than men.

Now you would ask, why not let these qualified women serve in ground combat units, and here we get into a whole new area, biology. Especially if the woman in the unit is attractive, there will develop rivalries among the men for her attention. This isn't sociological, it's biological, and remember, we're now in a combat environment. This will create divisiveness in the unit and it will cease to function efficiently to fulfill its primary goal, to destroy the enemy. Also, rape is a fact of life in the combat zone, either by one's fellow soldiers or in the event of capture, by one's captors.

Actually it's not biological either; it's previous training. For example, there are instances throughout history where attractive women have passed as young men in order to join the military. The men serving with them did not compete for the attentions of these attractive "boys" -- because that simply was not done.

There are also recorded instances of women serving along with men and being treated like people, not like women who must be competed for. Again, this occurred because that's the way the men were expected to be. Read up on the fascinating manuscripts concerning Joan of Arc's armies and how they saw her as their leader -- not as a woman to be competed over.

Check out the Soviet troops during World War II -- a lot of information coming out in the past few years has caused many to drastically re-think their views on women in combat. And yes, this all comes from very recently opened archives, from Moscow itself.

The Soviets were desperate then -- they accepted whomever would fight. Many, many women were in their troops, and not in female-only groups. They fought just as bravely side-by-side with their men in the defense of Moscow and Leningrad, and in particular they were critically important in the defense of Stalingrad. Also, there were a huge number of female pilots, to the extent that most of the support air craft (scout, reconnaissance, etc.) were being flown by women.

The common perception over the years has been that the WWII Soviet women were there in the factories helping out their men by building war materials. Interestingly, that turns out not to be the case -- the Soviet women were right there in the front lines. Further, this is not just a case of "they had to." The fact is the women did this -- and it worked. When push came to shove, women and men fought side by side -- and they won.

Regarding rape, it is a fact of life only because it is unfortunately accepted as such by our culture. Frankly, that's sick, and it's high time our society grew up concerning this issue. If entire pre-medieval armies can keep from acting like irresponsible children, I see no reason we can't start expecting the men of this culture to do the same -- and the US armed forces draw their members from the US culture. Change the culture, change the armed forces which come from the culture.

Finally, it would be nice if our armed forces had simple goals such as "destroy the enemy," but unfortunately that is no longer the case -- as Iraq clearly demonstrates. Our armed forces are as much peacekeepers as warriors now. I'm not sure this is a good thing, but it's the way things are. We need to face reality, and adapt... or die.

Remember, the veneer of civilization doesn't exist out there in no-man's-land, just raw animal instincts. If this sounds crude and harsh, we must deal with reality.

See my comment above. Also, I'm not sure this assertion is completely true. If instinct truly trumped training, we'd have difficulty getting soldiers to attack entrenched machine gun nests! Also, the most respected, renown troops in history are those which think before they act. The highly trained, disciplined, prepared Roman Legions, for example, always beat the snot out of the wild, animalistic barbarians.

As I said in the beginning, serving in the military is something you have to have experienced before you can comment on it. One of my deep regrets is the abolition of the draft, with its resultant creation of a separate military-oriented society, but that's another subject.

I must respectfully disagree, or alternatively suggest you have not taken this concept far enough. If one must have served in the military in order to comment on the military, then surely one must have been in actual combat in order to comment on combat?

Let's try this from another angle as well -- is one not allowed to speak on politics until one has served as a politician? Why not take this to its logical conclusion? Just as rich people may not speak on the experience of being poor, so should we prohibit poor people from commenting on wealth. Indeed, perhaps we should prohibit men from speaking on what women may and may not do, as well? ;)

Regarding the draft, I'd be happy to see it re-instated -- but only if it is
truly re-instated. No exceptions should be allowed for either gender or the wealth and political influence of your parents! The armed forces should not be a convenient means to dispose of the offspring of the poor -- which, horribly, is a large part of what it is currently doing.

Many thanks for your thought-provoking article. Just because I don't agree doesn't detract from your healthy intellectual curiosity and your willingness to express your point of view. You challenge us old fogeys to re-examine and update our beliefs.

I do try. ;)

07.31.05: Gin's thoughts

Oh, God, women in combat. We can't be in combat because if we have a CIC who hasn't been, both he and his cabinet will feel inadequate and so much guiltier about gutting women's rights.

Why are they so concerned about the treatment of female POWs? As it stands now, you have little chance of getting captured and a very good chance of getting raped by your fellow soldiers.

Heh... I suspected this one would catch your eye. If you check it out, you'll see you're credited, by the way. Your input had quite an influence on the article; thank you.

07.31.05: Cyn's thoughts

Hmm ... Boadicea?

For some reason I think of the fact that it's still considered inherently comedic in anime for women to defend themselves in any meaningful way. (The idea of a woman slapping a man for being "fresh" is one of the primary comic engines -- all by itself, absolutely hysterical.) Female warriors in anime comedies are painted as mannish, unlikeable, unattractive and hypersensitive to insult (Ranma 1/2, Love Hina).

The exceptions generally only occur when the entire cast is made up of such female warriors, and even then they are either shown to be manlike (Dirty Pair) or physically inept, drawing their power from True Love, Endurance, or Infinite Compassion, acceptable female strengths (Sailormoon).

There are of course exceptions (such as Trigun, with its perfectly competent female gunslingers) but I note that even in Japanese fantasy video games women make lousy warriors (and men make lousy mages).

Oh, Boadicea! I can't believe I forgot her, considering the English slant on history I received as a kid. Yes, she definitely counts too, along with her fierce daughters. ;)

Re anime, I quite agree -- some of the stories really make me grit my teeth. OTOH, some of the US media is no better. A (horrified male) friend of mine sent me an article link reviewing the TV show Wanted, which apparently glorifies stupid, thoughtless male action as long as it's for "righteous" revenge. I'll see if I can find the link again for you.

07.31.05: David W.'s thoughts

Collie, I'm surprized at you hauling this Liberal chestnut out for a Firestarter.

Why? Asking questions -- even the ones we may think have been satisfactorily answered for years -- is part of good science. Just because soft science doesn't do the numbers as well as hard science doesn't mean we shouldn't expect it too to submit to criteria such as repeatability and constant questioning. To do otherwise is to allow folks like Bellisiles to change history to suit their opinions.

Real historical writers probe factual uncertainties, but they do not invent convenient facts and they do not ignore inconvenient facts. People are entitled to their own opinions, but not to their own facts."
-- William Kelleher Storey
, "Writing History"

The issue is not "Can women fight?" because we know they can and have done through history. The issue isn't even "Can women be integrated into the existing Army structure, in combat, and not screw everything else up?" Because we know that exceptional women can do damn near anything men can do that doesn't involve writing one's name in the snow. Olympic performance numbers show women's performance as short of men's but so far above the average Joe that its embarrassing to us manly types.

The real question is, can the average teenage American female be integrated into the existing Army and not screw it up? In combat roles?

Because let us not forget, the US military has not been allowed to take the women they want. They have been forced by a variety of special interests to have two sets of criteria. The usual hard one for the boys, and a considerably less taxing one for the girls. Reason being hardly any of the girls can meet the boy's standards.

Why? Because the boys are bigger, stronger, mentally tougher and most important, they like to fight. On average. Also:

  • The average young man will neglect boring duties to schmoozing with the chicks every time, and this is documented in all branches of the service.

  • In the Navy women on ships have an alarming tendency to become suddenly pregnant and therefore hors de combat on the eve of battle.

  • Superior officers and non-coms have a marked tendency to take sexual advantage of female subordinates, something which is very rare in all male units.

Et cetera, ad nauseam. Bottom line, including females in expeditionary forces is messy, distracting, potentially dangerous and most of all, EXPENSIVE. It costs more than twice as much for a mixed unit than a male only unit of the same capability.

Heh... you do realize all your reasons to not have women in combat fall directly under what another correspondent referred to as the "men act stooopid!" category, right? As I noted previously, why penalize women for men's stupidity?

So, no women in combat. Impractical.

Ooh! Hey, you're someone who does the research -- do you have any flippin' idea where to find this damn quasi-legendary Israeli report?!

Flame on girls. ~:D

Sorry, not in my web space; no flaming allowed. I expect everyone to play nice here, and recognize we all have the right to our own stupid opinions, as Mark Twain so cheerfully put it. ;)

07.31.05: Hilary's thoughts

Your article on women in combat reminds me of one my oldest bête noires: Applying group trends inflexibly to individual people. As in, most members of group XYZ like widgets, so if you're an XYZ you must like them too! You can substitute any physical or behavioral trait for "XYZ." My mother mailed me Natalie Angier's book Woman, and it made me feel more accepting of my other X chromosome. :p I agree with you that there should be some standards for who can or cannot fight in combat, and that gender alone is NOT an acceptable barrier.

I also think we're probably on the same wavelength as far as believing that all people should be free to do what they want, provided it isn't detrimental to other people, and it doesn't matter if they wildly defy or conform to "traditional" roles or life choices.

Oh, grrr -- I hate that! Thoughtless stereotypes really bother me.

Re Angier's book: wasn't that fascinating?! Very enjoyable and enlightening -- I love learning nifty new things.

Re choice: hear, hear!

08.30.05: Dave B.'s thoughts

Not conclusive, but...

While browsing eBay I stumbled across a photo that is germane to a discussion we were having a few weeks (months?) ago about women in the military. The photo, taken on 10 April 1944 in Odessa, shows part of the 62nd Stalingrad Army marching through the streets of Odessa. Note the second and fourth soldiers in the front row of the picture. I cannot state it conclusively, but they sure look like women soldiers to me. At least they appear to be wearing skirts rather than pants as part of their uniforms. It could be a fluke of the camera angle, but I think those are women soldiers, right there amongst all those men. Oh, the scandal. :-)

So, you can examine the scan a bit yourself and file it wherever you think appropriate. :-)


This is very cool, Dave -- thank you so much!

To everyone else, click on the thumbnail and a new window will open with the full-size graphic in it. Enjoy!

10.31.05: Greg's thoughts

Now that was a fascinating read! The comments as well as the original article, particularly Jon's and Chandra's.

Thank you very much! I admit I was surprised at the heat and number of responses. I would have thought my Firestarters on religion and the pope would be far more inflammatory... but no, apparently women in combat are what really got folks commenting. Weird. ;)

I'm not sure what else I could contribute to this topic, except to add that many of the situations describe, it is cultural indoctrination that fuels more of these issues.

Yep. Most folks don't want to see that, though. Cultural beliefs aren't recognized as such -- instead they become mentally privileged as "reality" or "natural" or "just the way things are," with no consideration for the arbitrary and changing thought which created them so.

I'm not sure that the women (in this alleged Israeli report) are being blamed for the inane actions of men, rather than it being a wryly accurate assessment that, in regards to how men perceive women, they are more likely to this course of action. And ergo, they don't want the presence of women being a factor. Sadly, this is not an issue that can be put to rest unless the culture changes, which is not very likely.

I would not be surprised to discover the original report did not blame women at all, but simply reported non-optimal male reactive behavior.

Unfortunately that is not how newspapers, crotchety old military men, and other societal institutions report the study. It's like the story of Eve in the Garden: if you read the original text as closely as possible, you find a morality story about freedom of choice, rather than a diatribe about how women destroyed male perfection.

It's the same with the Israeli report: regardless of what it originally said, it has become justification for why women theoretically suck at combat. What do they think the women are
doing -- stealing their manhood or somesuch nonsense?! Frankly, I find that level of blaming others to be a pathetic form of emotional cowardice.

No, Collie, tell us what you
really think... ;-j

And on the issue of rape, it seems to me that there should be a concern there: while I'm not trying to suggest that rape is inexcusable, whether it's to a man or a woman, it's more likely for a woman to be raped than a man. IMHO, It takes a certain kind of mentality for men to rape other men.

It takes a certain damaged mentality for anyone to rape. Let's not gloss it over.

Of course, the irony is that I think women in the military are in as just as much danger from their co-workers as they are from the enemy, as current events and popular fiction have pointed out. What it comes down to for me is that while I support the right of anyone to do whatever they want, if I had a daughter, I would likely try to encourage her to do anything but join the army, based just on its treatment of women alone!

But if she insisted, would you let her join? That's the critical point to me: whether women and men are being allowed to make their own choices, instead of being forced to fulfill outdated and stifling gender roles.

What it comes down to is that, just like most things, the treatment of women as soldiers is based on cultural mores, which, as already highlighted by you and many others, are pretty damn screwed up.