Women in Combat Arms?

In the 1990’s, a frequent topic of discussion was the inclusion of women in the combat arms branches of the military. Proponents of integration argued that women could not rise to the highest posts without experience in combat arms (true), and this would inevitably further the masculine-bias of the U.S. military. The argument reached a crescendo during the Clinton presidency, and seemed to taper a bit with the start of the Bush administration. I had hoped that the issue had finally been put to bed after the start of hostilities in Iraq and Afghanistan, thinking that its proponents would see the physical demands of combat in Tora Bora or Fallujah, and give up their misguided quest to prove that women can perform as well as men in such strenuous environments.

Imagine my dismay to see in this week’s issue of the Marine Times that it is once again rearing its head. (You must have a subscription to one of the Military Times publications to use the link.)

“If Congress lifted the gender restriction on combat-arms service, the Army would be able to progress even further toward work-force diversity by boosting both the number of women officers and the number of black officers (both men and women), particularly in the senior ranks,” Col Anthony Reyes wrote in “Strategic Options for Managing Diversity in the U.S. Army.”

It’s interesting to note that Col Reyes is pushing this as a way to increase the number of black senior officers. While I doubt anyone in this day and age will argue that racial and ethnic diversity in the ranks is a good thing, I fail to see why integrating women into the combat arms is an acceptable means to achieve that end.

The article tells of LTC Bert Ges of the Joint IED Defeat Organization, who commanded a military police platoon (?) in Kandahar, Afghanistan. While, on the face of it, that makes no sense to me (A LTC in charge of a platoon?), that can be addressed another time. LTC Ges mentions that he had to send female soldiers on infantry tasks.

“Everyone downrange is fighting the enemy – regardless of race or sex.”

While I certainly won’t argue that there are women who have performed various tasks that traditionally fall to infantrymen, this still falls short of justifying the integration of women, in my opinion. The tasks that these female Soldiers and Marines are performing fall, more correctly, under security operations than “infantry tasks”. There have been very few of the high-intensity offensive operations that characterize true infantry combat. Operations Anaconda (2002) and Al Fajr (2004) were two notable occasions that saw infantrymen performing a more traditional role. And one only needs to talk to a veteran of either of these two operations to find out that our traditional role is physically intense.

The goal of gender equality in all things might seem admirable, but it flies in the face of physical reality. Physiological differences between men and women are numerous, and many of them have a direct impact on the suitability of women to ground combat roles. For instance, maximal oxygen consumption (or VO2 max), which is an important ingredient of a man or woman’s performance in aerobic endurance events. The average, “untrained” female’s VO2 max is only 57% of a comparable male’s. Additionally, women have roughly 60% of the skeletal muscle mass of a man of the same age and body mass index, and their widened pelvic structure decreases mechanical efficiency on long movements. In short, the male body is just better equipped for the harsh world of locating, closing with, and destroying the enemy.

Why do we insist on ignoring basic physical realities in the hopes of creating “equalities” where they don’t exist?


  1. John says:

    Good post. Our old boxing instructor Colonel Caulkins brought this up at VMI while they were planning for the assimilation of females.

    And I think that your status as a member of the first integrated class at VMI lends you extra credibilty here…

  2. RTO Trainer says:

    As long as standards are not lowered, nor are separate female standards set, and any individual who wants to do it can meet those standards, then why not?

  3. Paul says:

    “Strategic Options for Managing Diversity in the U.S. Army.” A Great example of the tail wagging the dog. As senior leadership focuses on managing diversity, mission management becomes a byproduct, the warrior class becomes even more disenfranchised, and our enemies become bolder. The USMC remains the sole warrior/mission centric service. If they cave we're doomed.

  4. Joel says:

    Inasmuch as I may not like it, this is something that was bound to eventually happen.

    Like the all-male VMI, all good things must come to an end.

    Hopefully the armed forces simply make the best of it that they can.

  5. Pau says:

    Want a great metaphoric read highlighting the 21st century burdens of the US Military??? Read "Thidwick the Big-Hearted Moose". The book also offers a great solution that would get our military back on track. Who ever thought Dr. Seuss could be the genius behind Transformation in the US Military !

  6. chris says:

    Beyond the physical arguments, there are psychological and mental arguments against women in combat arms. Quickly adressing the physical, I have no doubt there are women who could perform the physical requirements of infantry or artillery. Just as there are fat, sloppy males in these MOSes, there are women who are in top shape who could do it. Having said that, the main reason for not integrating females into combat arms is sexual in nature. It is human nature to want to procreate, that is why God put us on Earth with reproductive organs and drives. How else would the human race survive? When you put young, virile men and women together in any environment, let alone combat, some will naturally be attracted to each other and inevitably consumate the relationship. I don't put the blame on 'whorish' women or 'skirt-chasing' men, I put it on human nature. I have some credibility on this because a young Marine in my battery impregnated a female in another battery during our recent deployment in Iraq. It came as a complete surprise because he performed his job well at all times, as apparently she did as well. The problem with this is that she was sent home, depleting the combat power of that already undermanned (yes, please take offense that I used underMANNED and not understrength) unit. That battery was not performing a combat mission but they were directly supporting combat operations in a vital mission area. Two good Marines, one pregnant female and less combat power. Doesn't add up.

  7. Lightning says:

    Joel, I don't think the comparison between integrating VMI and the infantry holds water. The physical demands of service in the infantry far surpass anything experienced by the average cadet at VMI. We are talking about the ability to excel in close quarters, "smashmouth" infantry combat – not the Ratline. I have seen physically fit 18-21 year old men broken by a three-year stint in an infantry battalion. Lower back and joint problems are chronic among career infantrymen. Guess where women experience another physiological weakness? The lower back and joints.

    There are women who are athletic enough to keep up in the infantry, but they are too few in number to make an appreciable impact on diversity. Bear in mind that most men do not require the same level of "athleticism" to keep up.

    It's time to accept that there are roles to which women are not suited, just as there are roles to which they are better suited. In some places, the integration of women has been more beneficial than harmful. The infantry is not one of them.

    I will let members of the other combat arms branches speak for their respective communities.

  8. Joel says:

    Lightning, I completely agree. I simply made the comment that… well, all good things come to an end.

    Society at large has taken the concept of a civilian-controlled military and used it to create an organization reflective of the society it serves. Unfortunately, all-male bastions (be they VMI or combat arms) are not part of the equation.

    I don't doubt that this will lower the quality of our combat formations or even further erode the warrior ethos (which is pretty eroded already). But, I don't doubt the inevitability of women in combat arms… Army and Marine.

    It's going to happen… eventually. So, how does it get implemented when it does happen?

    Hey, on a lighter note, maybe we can get that VMI cheerleader in the infantry… :)

  9. Lawrence says:

    It depends on how we define "acceptable means to achieve".

    What is our end goal?

    To have soldiers that meet the highest objective level of mental and physical standards?

    Or to have soldiers that meet the highest subjective level of social equivalence?

    What we are doing, effectively, is instituting an element of anarchy within the structure of the military. Anarchy, wherein the individual needs (individual freedoms) of the soldier outweigh the needs of the group. And wherein the self esteem of the individual soldier is prioritized far ahead of the requirements for getting the job done correctly.

    Either an individual meets the standards, or not. But what we have now are different standards designed to accommodate special classes of soldiers, in which case we modify the standards of the organization to suit special individual needs.

    Gender alone does not dictate who will survive or win in combat. I know any number of women who make better soldiers than many male soldiers. Many of these women maintain a higher level of mental and physical standards than many male soldiers. However, do these women (and those men) meet the standards necessary to win a tough combat action?

    Furthermore, mixing hormonal driven young men and women in a high-stress situations such as combat is a well know and well documented recipe for internal conflict and disaster. Unless there is an incredible, almost unrealistic, level of personal discipline within the ranks. Having a solid religious and moral underpinning of structure and discipline helps, but we are taking that out of the military also.

  10. MrsBlackSix says:

    I could not agree with you more and we have had this very conversation several times in our household. Being female, I suppose I might be in the minority with my views, but I concur and I say that you have said it better than I could have.

  11. Anthony says:

    This is indicative of a larger problem. Why are we worried about diversity when we should be worried about warfighting? I had hoped we'd leave this nonsense behind when the Clinton administration exited stage left.

    In the same issue of Army Times in which this article was found, another article about GEN (ret) Barry McCaffrey addresses the inanity of ideas such as this. GEN McCaffrey says, "when you tell me that enlisting a 42 year old grandmother is the right thing to do, then you don't understand what we're doing."

    Are women functioning in combat? Yes, some are doing quite well such as Sgt. Leigh Ann Hester of the KYARNG who received the Silver Star and then there are others such as PFC Lynch who froze when ambushed. Why do we need an office or position paper to examine this? AARs speak louder than a Diversity Office.

    The bottom line is, we've got bigger problems to worry about. In the meantime, COL Reyes and his people need to stop watching "Starship Troopers" and get out of the five sided funhouse and get some mud on their boots.

  12. Doug says:

    This proposal has nothing to do with combat efficiency. It's all about this:

    …the Army would be able to progress even further toward work-force diversity…

    All levels of government are geared toward diversity and this mentally has finally made it to the combat arms of the Army and Marines. To many nothing is more important then diversity, they don't care if being diverse has a negative impact because diversity is good in and of itself.

    Most of my friends are cops. You ask them how much fun it is subduing a 6 foot tall 200 pound man whacked out on meth with a 5 foot 5-inch 125 pound female partner? Guess who gets to do all the fighting and pins the guy and who slaps on the cuffs and makes the radio call.?

    The only thing that will stop this type of thinking is when a male soldier or Marine is killed because his unit was to diverse. The ensuing lawsuit brought by the male's family might change the government's mind.

  13. AFVet says:

    Perhaps the answer is that the Army needs to change their way of doing business. If it's known that there are fewer higher ranking women officers because you need combat arms experience to get there and women aren't employed in this nature, then the Army needs to restructure their career advancement ladder.

    I don't necessarily know what's required to be a high ranking officer in the Air Force either but I can surmise that you probably don't need combat arms experience. This hasn't kept the Air Force from having the same problem as the Army, however.

    Women are lacking in higher ranks because their life patterns are simply different than their male counterparts. Again, change the career advancement structure and you might find more women in those higher positions.

  14. LtCol P says:

    Here’s another way to look at it. I view it as an issue of resources expended and value added to the force. It takes additional resources to recruit, train and maintain females in the military. Why? Because they require certain separate facilities and medical care. From a strict funding aspect, this is inefficient because not only are they more expensive, they offer no value added as a general rule. By that, I mean that the military jobs most females are assigned to can be done by men but the reverse is not always true. (This is especially so in the Marine Corps, where an admin guy is expected to be a rifleman.) That we have to recruit and retain a certain number of females for it to be a viable proposition probably complicates it further.

    However, it is also very true that there are some jobs that females are uniquely suited for, and that cannot be done by men very well or even at all. Among them would be searching, questioning or otherwise dealing with women in Iraq and Afghanistan. Having that capability is critically important and therefore immeasurably value-added. What I don’t think is important or wise is shoe-horning females wholesale into combat arms MOSs when, as Lightning and Chris have pointed out, it’s a losing proposition. Which is better for the services—having a relatively small number of females in selected positions well suited for them and forming therefore something of an exclusive force, or the politically acceptable course of a larger number in positions where their particular abilities are not being maximized?

  15. Lawrence says:

    Again, change the career advancement structure and you might find more women in those higher positions.

    AFVet · November 28, 2006 10:46 AM

    Unfortunately, this is exactly the problem. When we change our structure we effecively change our standards. It is having different objective standards for different subjective classes of soldiers that is causing the problem.

  16. Lawrence says:


    The purpose of the Military is to win wars.

    The fact that many people can make a career out of being in the military is a great benefit, but it is not the primary purpose of the military.

    The purpose of the Military is not to provide women a career path. It is not to provide any any special minority class of people a career path. And it is not to provide men a career path.

    LtColP has it right:

    "Which is better for the services—having a relatively small number of females in selected positions well suited for them and forming therefore something of an exclusive force,…

    Placing volunteers soldiers (of any class or category) into jobs that best suite the needs of the greater military objective is the right choice. Anything else is mere politically correct nonsense.

  17. And remember as well that women comprise a small percentage of the military. I'm Air Force and I know that in my service it's about 20% female. I'm not sure what the other services are but I know that the USMC must be significantly lower. That being said, women should hold high ranking offices in proportion to how many of them there are in that service. If they earn it. And the answer is not opening up combat career fields to them, but rather viewing their career history objectively when compared to anyone else, male or female. Some will earn it, some won't.

  18. GH says:

    Let's start simple.

    The mission of the military is to fight and win wars. When there isn't a war, they prepare to fight and win wars.

    The mission of the Combat Arms is to close with and destroy the enemy.

    I have served as an Infantry Officer and a Special Forces Officer. I think I can reasonably claim that I have some experience in the Combat Arms.

    The Combat Arms requires a very high level of physical fitness. A level that is the equivilant of an athlete. For the Infantry, it requires the strength and stamina of a linebacker, not for combat, but for the movement to combat (closing with the enemy). Body armor, LBE, weapons, ammo, water, grenades, NVGs, etc. make for a load that must be carried all the time.

    The Combat Arms also requires a very high level of teamwork, of bonding, of focus on the mission. This is not simply a matter of mission accomplishment, this is a matter of life and death.

    Now, on to females in the Combat Arms.

    A bit over 30 years ago, the United States Basic Airborne Course at FT Benning, GA was opened to females. The same claims were made then as I see in some of the posts above. "Same standards". And the same standards were applied… for a very short time. The graduation rate of females from BAC with the same standards applied was very, very low. Around 15%. But the promise of same standards had been made. So the standards were kept the same… they were dropped for all. To the point that Airborne is no longer a very challenging school for any reasonably fit young male. Now, the graduation rates for women (still lower than men) are satisfactory to Congress and Command. Does anyone really think the same thing wouldn't happen in the Combat Arms?

    At OCS, the military has long kept records of injuries to Officer Candidates. Females have a much higher injury rate, and those injuries are heavily pelvic and lower body injuries. The very areas (as already mentioned) that Infantrymen suffer extensive injuries.

    A few years ago, someone did a study that found that with a 6 month training program, females could be brought up to the physical ability level of the lowest 20% of males that serve in the Combat Arms.

    The mission of the military is to fight and win wars. Not to be a social experiment. Not to give anyone a leg up. To fight and win wars.

    To do that, the US Military has a limited budget, currently at one of the lowest percentages of GDP in history.

    So, who pays for the extra training programs? Who pays for the extra dropouts (because every failure costs the military money)?

    In the end, it would be the Soldiers at the sharp end of the spear, because the money to do these things would come from some other program, depriving them of body armor or ammunition or replacement weapons or new armored vehicles.

    When women are competing on equal terms in the Olympics, in the NBA, MLB, or the NFL… then we should seriously look at the integration of women into the Combat Arms. Until then, it's just a waste of time, money and very probably lives.

  19. AFVet says:

    Lawrence – That's just it – promotion standards for officers in the military are extremely subjective. I think by changing those subjective standards to objective standards that BOTH sexes can reasonably meet would help to resolve this "glass ceiling".

  20. Tom P says:

    Do those seeking to open the combat arms to women address what would likely happen to those captured in the field? And by a particularly misogynistic opponent like your average Taliban or Jihadist?

    That said, I can't help but think that an all-female infantry unit going after Islamic militants would have a great disheartening effect in our favor. A 'you got your ass kicked by a girl' ripple could toppled Arab society as we know it.

  21. Danny Muj says:

    Very edifying read!

    Perhaps I can offer a unique perspective, that of a Marine Corps Sergeant. I am the recruiting NCO for the 0211 field (Counterintelligence/Human Intelligence) in Okinawa, Japan.

    This integration fight is being fought at levels much higher than mine, so I have no credibility in the political realm. I do, however, operate at the operational and tactical level, and this is how it's playing out.

    Marine Corps EOD (Explosive Ordinance Disposal) is open to females. The standards are the same as they are for the male applicants. So far so good. But when a female is assigned to a team, she becomes an immediate liability. She cannot go outside the wire on most operations. She can never be employed in a raid. She cannot perform in any capacity that knowingly puts her in combat. So where does this leave the team?

    The team is now one body short. The female is digruntled because she is relegated to an office position at HQ, and what unit cohesion was built (or not) during training workups is now destroyed.

    On paper, the integration of females looks terrific. But practically speaking, it artificially boosts the unit's required strength, while leaving the unit "undermanned" (thanks Chris).

  22. opvpmoo says:
  23. sabrina says:

    I understand that women in large numbers are at a disadvantage compared to men. I understand that real combat and training exercises are two completely different obstacles to overcome. But I believe some omen are capable physically and mentally. Lightning you mentioned the pelvic structure and how it plays a role on women physically. But is that any different form a man with a physical difformity but is still able and willing to successful complete the job and still give 100%. A retired Marine tank commander once told me that he believed women could do the job, he just didn't think the American people are ready to see female soliders come home in body bags. Women in combat arms is inevitable.In my eyes I sense we are on a countdown to a time where isn't a position in the military women can't and won't occupy.

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