The “Real” Truth About Women in Combat

Since I’ve been on the issue of military, let’s jump right to another point, women in combat roles. Interesting the argument is loudest from those who appear to know the least. A recent commentary by David Frum claims to be the “Truth About Women in Combat” While Frum makes some good points and has done a fair amount of homework verses espousing all the same age old lines. But he is still off target.

Mainly he cites a book done in 2007 by Kingsley Brown[e]: Co-ed Combat: The New Evidence That Women Shouldn’t Fight the Nation’s Wars

 “The case presented by Browne won’t come as news to any military decision-maker. But it will and should jolt those who have relied on too credulous media sources for their information about what soldiers do and how they do it.”

Well I’m not a media source but a retired US Air Force Combat Veteran who has served on the ground as well as having trained thousands of men and women over my career to do the same. While Frum claims this issue is one of “liberals being blinded by ideology” he seems pretty hung up on conservative ideology and myths himself. Here’s where he (and Browne) have it wrong:

Frum uses the EP-3 example as to how the pilot had to use “all his strength” to save the craft and crew. May be true but we must consider just because a method (sheer strength in this case) worked does not make it the only possible solution; besides women have been successfully piloting naval aircraft since 1974, the US Air force since 1976. So while he makes it in dramatic fashion and lives were saved due to that person’s strength he doesn’t delve into what that level of strength is nor how many male fliers have it or not, or female fliers have it or not. I know all troops are not able to do the same number of pushups now regardless of sex. His example reads well but lacks data to support his position. If a male was flying who did not have the same strength as Shane Osborn would they have survived? In essence his argument is about strength but he makes it about gender, i.e. a false argument.

He does move to the question of the military (not) supporting gender neutral standards. This is true and there are clearly jobs that by general consensus need to have gender neutral standards, primarily those few that have not yet been open to women. Equally true just as the E-3 example, what exactly is that level of strength required? What deserves to be watched is where the threshold is set as these options become open to women. Many of these career paths/cultures are pretty small and tribal in nature with the ritual being one of “I had to do it this way so everyone coming in has to too”. For over two years I ran the toughest school for combatants (Pararescue) in the US Air Force, and it is difficult to distill a standard down to exactly what is necessary. Sometimes it is simply based on keeping it as demanding as possible yet still able to maintain a pass rate which produces just enough in numbers to meet the services mission needs. My concern is will the standard move in directions and areas so the old boys can keep the females out, pushups over sit-ups for example? My experience tells me it does bear close watching.

To highlight the point that we are already not of the same strength nor need to be, let’s consider an airborne assault. There is a limit to how much strain the parachute and static line can take when unloading troops on an airdrop. Yet commanders need/want as much gear on the drop as physically possible. I don’t know what the limit is today but it was around 310 pounds when I was involved in the Air Mobility Battle-lab. So if Billy weighed in at 225 and Johnny at 140, Billy was going out the door with pretty much just his body armor, his M5, his pack, and part of his basic load of ammo in spite of the fact he can do a couple hundred pushups and sit-ups without breathing hard. Johnny on the other hand has all that plus; all of his own ammo, the rest of Billy’s ammo, a couple AT-4 rockets, mines and anything else that can be strapped to him until he was at the max 310 pounds. There were times when the troop couldn’t even waddle to the door so his squad (stick) members partially carry him to and out the door to keep the jump formation tight.

I get really concerned with the rest of Frum’s arguments. While not touching on each and every one, in general I read them as; in my words “cultural hurdles which are difficult to leap” He is correct in his identification of significant challenges. He talks of men accepting women as leaders in battle, the sex’s different reaction to threats and several others. Kind of reminds me of voting rights laws. Yes we know it hasn’t been this way before and people will have a tough time figuring it out, accepting it, and making it work. But that will never change just as accepting women and blacks voting did(n’t), until it becomes the rule backed with enforcement making the old boys walk the line…like it or not. Women are accepted equally by the men in leadership roles when the leadership above has created the expectation and the man or woman is competent; leaders are leaders and the rest are not. When the battle starts, no one cares. It’s pretty basic us against them.

What the author(s) forget, or perhaps don’t know as I haven’t seen any record of service, is that good small tactical teams are made of great diversity. The very best teams are not a lot of cookie cutter produced troops in replication. They are a group of individuals with different skills, thoughts, talents, capabilities, flexibilities and yes, strengths. To make all the individuals the same makes a team extremely weak and far less able to adapt to the rapidly evolving, never the same, not very easily understood situations on and today often well behind the battlefront. It is far more about the collective or aggregate pool of capability than of each individual. It is not like WWII with trenches and lines and standard set pieces, missions and tasks. Our most elite teams (those few where women have not yet tread) are built on many tenants well beyond strength. Knowledge, judgment, ability to adapt quickly, often without leadership, and to find your way in/out of places and situations where the textbook and those who taught you all they knew, did not go.

The critical point to me. Warfare has changed. Frum uses the “push button” example and discredits it to a degree. But he does not go to the next iteration. That being after just day one and often right from the beginning it is no longer a linear battlefield, but one where the enemy may be anywhere or anyone. Knowledge, trust and intuition become the most important attributes (detecting the enemy) next becomes understanding the situation before the opponent does and lastly is the action or combat. See first, understand first, act first is the decision model. It doesn’t all come to combat if this is done faster and more accurately than those around you. But my point is that without a linear front, this is already happening, and daily. There are already a lot of women in combat zones and just as much in combat as if they were in an official “combatant” unit. Contrary to Frum’s assertion, they are already proven capable.

During my time doing combat missions in Iraq, there were women on my teams. They were equally important as the men. Some of them were stronger than some of my men, some were not. Nobody cared because  teams were built on individual contributions making the team the most capable as a whole instead of 13 cookies all from the same mold. Had absolutely nothing to do with gender, everything to do with skills and leadership. In the end the leadership, follower-ship, Purple Hearts and Combat Action Badges, all engagement and consequence based fell in relative equal distribution, male or female, black, white, Hispanic, Japanese and several others of which if we go back far enough in history, were thought less capable.

Frum is dead wrong on this. He sees just ideology involved but it is simply about getting the right troops in the right places and offering opportunities equally for everyone who meets the requirements, gender aside. Of course we will have to break a few Paradigms which he points to with very real examples, but it needs to be done. It will take just as long to effect the change whether we start this year or wait a couple more before taking the first steps. Already way past time

2 thoughts on “The “Real” Truth About Women in Combat

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *