Politics & Policy

Israeli Women in Fatigues

Learning from experience.

There’s nobody quite like Elaine Donnelly. For many years, she has led the fight to resist the political correctness that constantly threatens to engulf the uniformed military and destroy its integrity. In her NRO piece of Jan 7, “The Army’s Gender War,” she improved on my earlier NR article on the same topic: “GI Janes, By Stealth.” How could she not? Although I have been writing on the topic of women in combat for at least a decade, it was her research that formed the foundation of that piece.

It turns out that my article generated a large number of e-mails. Most were positive, but a couple of writers not so favorably disposed to my argument suggested that the Israeli experience disproved my contention that women in combat undermine unit cohesion and thereby generate Clausewitzian friction. Nothing could be farther from the truth.

In fact, the Israeli experience, contrary to the assertions of my correspondents, constitutes the closest thing we have to a laboratory experiment for testing the claims of those who would expand the role of women as the Army is trying to do.

Contrary to common contention, Israel does not currently allow women in combat–they’ve been banned since 1948. But they have a history of integrated fighting there that we can learn from.

During the period of the British Mandate for Palestine, Palestinian Jews formed an elite, semi-clandestine, volunteer youth organization called Palmach. During Israel’s War of Independence, Palmach served as the core of Haganah, the forerunner of the Israel Defense Force (IDF).

The ideology of Palmach was egalitarian socialism, and according to the Israeli military historian Marin Van Creveld, the organization “was sexually integrated to an extent rarely attained by any armed force before or since.” Van Creveld writes that before Israeli independence, Palmach women accompanied men on missions, especially “undercover missions that involved obtaining intelligence, transmitting messages, smuggling arms, and the like.”

Despite Palmach’s ideological commitment to radical equality for women, the practical experience of the 1948 war–which involved coordinated, combined arms-offensive actions–convinced the leaders of Israel and the IDF that the dangers of women in combat outweighed the benefits–including commitment to an abstract concept of equality between the sexes. For one thing, according to the late Israeli Defense Minister Moshe Dayan, women reduced the combat effectiveness of Haganah units because men took steps to protect them out of “fear of what the Arabs would do to [the] women if they captured them.”

The Israeli case demonstrates that, at least in the past, when confronted by great danger, reasonable people can sacrifice ideology to the dictates of nature. In other words, nature trumps attempts at human engineering.

Mackubin Thomas Owens is an associate dean of academics and professor of national-security affairs at the Naval War College in Newport, R.I. He led a Marine rifle platoon in Vietnam in 1968-69.

Mackubin Thomas Owens is senior national security fellow of the Foreign Policy Research Institute (FPRI) in Philadelphia, editing its journal Orbis from 2008 to 2020. A Marine Corps infantry veteran of the Vietnam War, he was a professor of national-security affairs at the U.S. Naval War College from 1987 to 2015. He is the author of US Civil–Military Relations after 9/11: Renegotiating the Civil-Military Bargain.

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