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Coed Combat Units

A bad idea on all counts

Feb 4, 2013, Vol. 18, No. 20 • By MACKUBIN THOMAS OWENS
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For over two decades, I have been arguing against the idea of placing American women in combat or in support positions associated with direct ground combat. I base my position on three factors. First, there are substantial physical differences between men and women that place the latter at a distinct disadvantage when it comes to ground combat. Second, men treat women differently than they treat other men. This can undermine the comradeship upon which the unit cohesion necessary to success on the battlefield depends. Finally, the presence of women leads to double standards that seriously erode morale and performance. In other words, men and women are not interchangeable.

A woman in combat

Russell Lee, U.S. Army


Physical Differences

The average female soldier, sailor, airman, and Marine is about five inches shorter than her male counterpart and has half the upper body strength, lower aerobic capacity (at her physical peak between the ages of 20 and 30, the average woman has the aerobic capacity of a 50-year-old male), and 37 percent less muscle mass. She has a lighter skeleton, which means that the physical strain on her body from carrying the heavy loads that are the lot of the infantryman may cause permanent damage. 

But can’t these differences be reduced? In the past, gender politics has made it difficult—if not impossible—to ascertain exactly what can be done to improve the performance of women, because advocates of gender equity understand that the establishment of objective strength criteria would have a deleterious effect on their demand to open the infantry to women. Several years ago, the Army attempted to establish such strength standards and pretests for each military occupational specialty, but those efforts were abandoned when studies showed that not enough women would meet the standards proposed for many Army jobs. Funding subsequently was denied for a study about remedial strength training for women. 

Anatomical differences between men and women are as important as strength differences. A woman cannot urinate standing up. Most important, she tends, particularly if she is under the age of 30 (as are 60 percent of female military personnel) to become pregnant. 

Indeed, each year, somewhere between 10 and 17 percent of servicewomen become pregnant. In certain locales, the figure is even higher. Former senator James Webb noted that when he was secretary of the Navy in 1988, 51 percent of single Air Force and 48 percent of single Navy women stationed in Iceland were pregnant. During pregnancy (if she remains in the service at all), a woman must be exempted from progressively more routine duties, such as marching, field training, and swim tests. After the baby is born, there are more problems, as exemplified by the many thousand uniformed-service mothers, none of whom fairly could be called a frontline soldier. 

Women also suffer a higher rate of attrition than men from physical ailments, and because of the turnover, are a more costly investment. Women are four times more likely to report ill, and the percentage of women being medically nonavailable at any time is twice that of men. If a woman can’t do her job, someone else must do it for her. 

If one doesn’t believe me, perhaps one should look at an article by a Marine officer, Captain Katie Petronio, in the Marine Corps Gazette, the Corps’s professional journal (“Get Over It! We Are Not All Created Equal”). She noted the physical deterioration she suffered during her deployment to Afghanistan as a combat engineer officer: 


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