The Magazine

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: 

 

It was evident that stress and muscular deterioration was affecting everyone regardless of gender; however, the rate of my deterioration was noticeably faster than that of male Marines and further compounded by gender-specific medical conditions. At the end of the 7-month deployment .  .  . I had lost 17 pounds and was diagnosed with polycystic ovarian syndrome (which personally resulted in infertility, but is not a genetic trend in my family), which was brought on by the chemical and physical changes endured during deployment. Regardless of my deteriorating physical stature, I was extremely successful during both of my combat tours, serving beside my infantry brethren and gaining the respect of every unit I supported. Regardless, I can say with 100 percent assurance that despite my accomplishments, there is no way I could endure the physical demands of the infantrymen whom I worked beside as their combat load and constant deployment cycle would leave me facing medical separation long before the option of retirement. I understand that everyone is affected differently; however, I am confident that should the Marine Corps attempt to fully integrate women into the infantry, we as an institution are going to experience a colossal increase in crippling and career-ending medical conditions for females.

 

Men and Women 

The key to success on the battlefield is unit cohesion, which all research has shown to be critically important. Advocates of opening combat specialties to women have tried to change the definition of cohesion over the years, but the best remains that of the 1992 report of the Presidential Commission on the Assignment of Women in the Armed Forces: “the relationship that develops in a unit or group where (1) members share common values and experiences; (2) individuals in the group conform to group norms and behavior in order to ensure group survival and goals; (3) members lose their identity in favor of a group identity; (4) members focus on group activities and goals; (5) unit members become totally dependent on each other for the completion of their mission or survival; and (6) group members .  .  . meet all the standards of performance and behavior in order not to threaten group survival.” 

The glue of unit cohesion is what the Greeks called philia—friendship, comradeship, or brotherly love. In The Warriors: Reflections on Men in Battle, J. Glenn Gray described the importance of philia: “Numberless soldiers have died, more or less willingly, not for country or honor or religious faith or for any other abstract good, but because they realized that by fleeing their post and rescuing themselves, they would expose their companions to greater danger. Such loyalty to the group is the essence of fighting morale. .  .  . Comrades are loyal to each other spontaneously and without any need for reasons.” 

The Greeks identified another form of love: eros. Unlike philia, eros is individual and exclusive. Eros manifests itself as sexual competition, protectiveness, and favoritism. The presence of women in the close confines of a combat unit unleashes eros at the expense of philia. As the late Charles Moskos, the great military sociologist, once commented, “when you put men and women together in a confined environment and shake vigorously, don’t be surprised if sex occurs. When the military says there can be no sex between a superior and a subordinate, that just flies in the face of reality. You can’t make a principle based on a falsehood.” Mixing the sexes and thereby introducing eros into an environment based on philia creates a dangerous form of friction in the military.

The destructive effect on unit cohesion of amorous relationships can be denied only by ideologues. Does a superior order his or her beloved into danger? If he or she demonstrates favoritism, what are the consequences for unit morale and discipline? What happens when jealousy rears its head? These are questions of life and death. 

Feminists contend that these manifestations of eros are the result only of a lack of education and insensitivity to women, and can be eradicated through indoctrination. But all the social engineering in the world cannot change the fact that men treat women differently than they treat other men. 

 

Double Standards

The physical differences between men and women have, unfortunately, all too often caused the military to, in effect, discard the very essence of philia: fairness and the absence of favoritism. This is the crux of the problem. As Webb has observed, “In [the military] environment, fairness is not only crucial, it is the coin of the realm.” The military ethos is dependent on the understanding that the criteria for allocating danger and recognition, both positive and negative, are essentially objective.

Favoritism and double standards are deadly to philia and the associated phenomena—cohesion, morale, discipline—that are critical to the success of a military organization. Not surprisingly, double standards generate resentment on the part of military men, which in turn leads to cynicism about military women in general, including those who have not benefited from a double standard and who perform their duties with distinction. 

The military has created two types of double standards. The first is the tendency to allow women, but not men, to take advantage of sexual differences. For instance, morale, trust, and cohesion have suffered from the perception among military men that women can use pregnancy to avoid duty or deployments. A very contentious debate over favoritism arose some years ago over the claim that some women had been permitted to advance in flight training with performances that would have caused a man to wash out. 

The second type of double standard is based on differing physical requirements. Last week, after Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta announced that the ban on women in combat would be lifted, my good friend, retired Air Force general Charlie Dunlap, a former JAG and the director of Duke Law School’s Center on Law, Ethics and National Security, weighed in: “Secretary Panetta’s decision to lift the ban on women serving in certain combat roles makes sense so long as there is no lowering of the physical or other standards required for the new positions.” 

The trouble is that the desire for equal opportunity is, in practice, usually translated into a demand for equal results. Consequently, there has been a watering down of standards to accommodate the generally lower physical capabilities of women. This has had two consequences. 

First, standards have been reduced so much that, in many cases, service members no longer are being prepared for the strenuous challenges they will face in the fleet or field. Second—and even more destructive of morale and trust—is the fact that when the requirement can’t be changed and the test cannot be eliminated, scores are “gender normed” to conceal the differences between men and women. All the services have lower physical standards for women than for men. Two decades ago, the U.S. Military Academy identified 120 physical differences between men and women, not to mention psychological ones, that resulted in a less rigorous overall program of physical training at West Point in order to accommodate female cadets. 

For instance, the “USMA Report on the Integration and Performance of Women at West Point,” prepared for the Defense Advisory Committee on Women in the Services in February 1992, revealed that scores for physically demanding events were gender normed at the academy: A woman could receive an A for the same performance that would earn a man a D. Navy women can achieve the minimum score on the physical readiness test by performing 11 percent fewer sit-ups and 53 percent fewer push-ups and by running 1.5 miles 27 percent more slowly than men. There is immense political pressure to prevent women from failing to meet even these reduced standards. 

 

To argue against women in combat is not to deny the significant contributions women have made to the nation’s defense. For the last century, women have served honorably, competently, and bravely during this country’s wars. It is my experience that the vast majority of women in today’s armed forces are extremely professional and want nothing to do with the two extremes of feminism that Jean Bethke Elshtain described several years ago in Real Politics: At the Center of Everyday Life and that the military spends time and effort trying to appease: the “feminist victimization wing” and the “repressive androgynists.”

I doubt that there is a huge push on the part of female soldiers and Marines to join the infantry. Captain Petronio makes the same point. The impetus comes instead from professional feminists still living in the 1970s and a small number of female officers who believe that serving in the infantry will increase the likelihood that they will become generals. But the Pentagon itself points out that military women are already promoted at rates equal to or faster than men. 

In short, there is no reason for this change. It doesn’t make the military stronger, and risks making it weaker by undermining the factors crucial for combat effectiveness. 

Mackubin Thomas Owens is editor of Orbis, the journal of the Foreign Policy Research Institute, and a Marine infantry veteran of Vietnam.

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