Politics & Policy

Putting Women in Combat Is an Even Worse Idea Than You’d Think

On the rifle range at Fort Jackson, S.C. (Photo: US Army)

No bastard ever won a war by dying for his country. He won it by making the other poor dumb bastard die for his country. — General George S. Patton

What may be Old Blood and Guts’ most famous line is more than just colorful, it’s a great working definition of a warrior’s duty: killing the enemy and surviving to fight another day.

That truth is particularly relevant in light of the recent failure of all 45 hand-picked, highly fit women to complete Ranger training and Marine-officer combat training. The 45 women were part of an effort to meet a 2016 deadline mandating that all combat roles, including special forces, be opened up to women — an ideologically driven, reality-challenged initiative.

Putting women into close combat roles isn’t fair to the men who will be relying on them, and isn’t fair to the women who will find themselves continuously at a deadly disadvantage. When we send our soldiers into combat we should be giving them the best possible chance of succeeding and surviving. While women are equal to or better than men at many tasks, they simply aren’t when it comes to combat. Substituting men with far less combat-capable women is profoundly unfair, immoral, and utterly unnecessary.

A recent study, for instance, by Britain’s Tri-Service Review found that mixed-gender combat units have “lower survivability,” a “reduced lethality rate” and reduced deployability. This study, along with countless others done over the last 40 years, demonstrate that combat capabilities are so heavily weighted toward men that the gap cannot be closed. As Marine Corps captain Lauren Serrano put it in a September 2014 article in the Marine Gazette: “Acknowledging that women are different (not just physically) than men is a hard truth that plays an enormous role in this discussion.”

Consider the three major arguments for putting women into combat — none of them hold up.

Before looking at the facts surrounding the hard truth referred to by Captain Serrano, consider the three major arguments for putting women into combat.

The first and most commonly used argument goes something like this: “Not sure if it’s a good idea, but if women can meet the same standards as men, then I guess it would only be fair to allow them into combat.”

But the last 40 years of aggressive integration efforts by the U.S. military have shown that women cannot meet the same rigorous standards as men — and the answer has been to implement different standards for women, while lowering the standards for men, too. A 2011 study on physical requirements necessary for specific occupations in the military conducted by Dr. William Gregor for the U.S. Army’s School of Advanced Military Studies concludes:

The Services, especially the Army, have expanded the military occupational specialties (MOS) open to women purely as a part of the social concern for equality and have only paid lip service to combat readiness. . . . The Army’s own research indicates that the vast majority of women do not possess the lean mass necessary to meet the strength requirements for very heavy and heavy physical MOS’s.

The Army assigns women to these specialties anyway.

What loads do women have trouble bearing? “Women soldiers are challenged by some field combat duties — carrying five-gallon cans of fuel and water, changing armor vehicle track and heavy truck tires, carrying 100-plus-pound loads of ammunition and fighting gear on extended dismounted operations, carrying stretchers of wounded soldiers, and the brute labor required to dig in fighting positions,” retired general Barry McCaffrey explains. (Another detailed, generously footnoted 2007 study published in the Duke Law Journal, “Constructing the COED Military,” by Elaine Donnelly, gives an overview of our military’s misguided gender-integration efforts and details how double standards, quotas, and preferential treatment are damaging our military.)

For proof that integrating women into combat will mean lower standards for men and women, just ask the current chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, General Martin Dempsey, who said in 2013, “If we do decide that a particular standard is so high that a woman couldn’t make it, the burden is now on the service to come back and explain to the secretary: Why is it that high? Does it really have to be that high?” Given the current political environment and the lack of moral courage from our political and military leaders, there’s no doubt these standards will be reevaluated and less-rigorous ones adopted.

This problem is exacerbated by the fact that the military’s physical and psychological toughness standards for men have also declined. The military as whole — even in basic training — has become kinder and gentler, partly in order to accommodate women. In one of the more ridiculous examples of this, Army drill instructors were required to wear “empathy bellies” and fake breasts to better empathize with pregnant women. Today’s drill instructors are nicer than they used to be, but the speed at which we are discarding time-proven methods for training soldiers is breathtaking and reckless.

A willingness to die for one’s country is a noble and a necessary condition for effective combat soldiers, but it is far from sufficient.

Another common argument is that women are already dying in combat zones, so it’s only fair to formalize what they are doing. But this debate is not about the supreme sacrifice that 144 servicewomen have made in combat zones since 9/11, but how effective women can be in doing a different job — projecting combat power, killing the enemy, and surviving to fight another day. The women who have died in service to their country need to be honored, but they should not be honored by increasing the chances that other servicemen and women will die as well. As former Marine Jude Eden writes in the April 2015 edition of Military Review, “Being in the combat zone, dangerous as it is, is still worlds away from the door-kicking offensive missions of our combat units.” Being killed in a crash or by an IED is not the same as surviving physically demanding combat patrols carrying combat loads of 60 to 140 pounds, which challenge even men’s superior endurance and strength. A willingness to die for one’s country is a noble and a necessary condition for effective combat soldiers, but it is far from sufficient.

The third argument: In other cultures and times, women have performed as well in combat as men. In particular, modern-day Israel is often cited as an example of women successfully fulfilling combat roles. But Israel’s military position is almost nothing like that of the United States: It’s surrounded by hostile nations that collectively outnumber its population by over 20 to 1. Even so, for many of the reasons discussed, women no longer participate in front-line IDF combat units. While it is true that countries such as Israel and Russia in the past, and the Kurdish military today, have been forced by dire circumstances to rely on women to literally defend their own persons, their children, and their house against savage invaders, thankfully we are in no such position.

So why do men and women perform so differently in combat-related tasks? First, physiologically and psychologically, women and men are significantly different. Men are not simply bigger women with different plumbing. Men’s blood carries 10 to 12 percent more oxygen per liter than does a women’s; and men’s VO2 max, a measure of the top rate of oxygen consumption, is 40 to 60 percent greater than that of women. An average fit man will weigh about 23 percent more, have 50 percent more muscle mass, and carry 10 percent less body fat than an average fit woman. Pound for pound, men have thicker skulls, bigger, stronger necks, hearts that are 17 percent larger, and bones that are both bigger and denser. Despite being much heavier, men’s vertical leap is nearly 50 percent greater than that of women.

In terms of reflexes and reaction times, men significantly outperform women. When confronted with immediate danger, studies suggest men are “more likely than women to take action.” Women are far more likely to experience motion sickness and vertigo. In the Navy women go on sick call 60 to 70 percent more frequently. For the kind of violent events and situations found on the battlefield, women are far more likely to develop post-traumatic stress disorder and experience the symptoms for a longer duration than men. Despite the gender-specific ability to handle the pain of childbirth, “study after study” conclusively shows that men have a much higher overall tolerance for pain than women.

Individually, any one of above differences could make the difference between life and death. In the combat environment, the differences between men and women in speed, strength, endurance, agility, physical resiliency, and psychological resiliency represents an unbridgeable gap — and the impact on the battlefield is dramatic.

Mixed-gender units will be both slower in getting to the fight and slower when beating a tactical retreat.

Mixed-gender units will be both slower in getting to the fight and slower when beating a tactical retreat. They are more likely to be crippled by physical injuries or PTSD. Men will put themselves in harm’s way to assist women in getting over obstacles that men can easily negotiate unassisted. Blows to the head or other concussive events that a man can shrug off will stun or render a woman unconscious, reducing her unit’s chances of survival, especially in hand-to-hand combat. Units will have to deal with feminine-hygiene issues that significantly reduce unit effectiveness.

This is not merely theory: One Army study focusing on Operation Iraqi Freedom found women are almost twice as likely to suffer from non-combat related disease and injuries and are twice as likely to be medevac’d out of the theater of operations. Historical non-deployment rates for women are three to four times than that of men. Women suffer many times the rate of stress fractures and ACL injuries. All of this hurts combat readiness and increases costs. That we will still be able to defeat vastly inferior opponents is beside the point — more of our soldiers will die and our combat units will be less capable.

The military has been trying to devise programs that will close these gaps for decades, and hasn’t succeeded. A Royal Society of Medicine study on the British military found that that injuries skyrocketed for women “when they undertake the same arduous training as male recruits.” The end result was that women were eight times more likely to be discharged with back pain, tendon injuries, and stress fractures than their male counterparts. Indeed, many studies show that rigorous training only widens the gap between men and women.

This is all before we get to unit cohesion. If you have been around more than a couple of decades, you know that men and women working together in tight quarters will develop infatuations and relationships that will affect unit discipline and morale. Even mature, highly disciplined men and women are susceptible. The U.S. military is already awash in discipline and morale problems coming out of female–male interactions. Captain Serrano notes that “platoon commanders in co-ed units already deal with a tremendous amount of drama, pregnancies, and sex in the co-ed unit barracks.” The unavoidable disruption means units that are less lethal and less survivable.

The push to put women into combat is driven by an extreme, reality-challenged form of feminism. Unfortunately, its influence in the media, the entertainment industry, our universities, and politics has given it a tremendous base of political power that extends into the heart of the military. Jude Eden notes: “In my experience, feminism and political correctness are so prevalent in the military that men trip over themselves trying to ensure they do not offend. Military leaders cannot afford to even think the truth: Women are not as strong and athletic as strong, athletic men are.” Officers in the military understand that speaking honestly about the problems of women in combat can be a career-ender, while putting gender-diversity goals ahead of everything else can be a career-accelerator.

What we have is a modern-day case of the emperor’s new clothes. But over the decades, so many compromises to the truth have been made and careers advanced by hiding or glossing over gender-integration issues in the military that it will take more than one small voice standing athwart the road yelling “stop!” It will take concerted opposition from a range of politicians who have the courage to look beyond the latest headline in the New York Times or on CNN.

“That our Congress is accepting this change without any debate isn’t progress,” Washington Post columnist Kathleen Parker has written. “It is a dereliction of duty and, one is tempted to say, suggestive of cowardice.” The silence on this issue by the Republican-controlled Congress is deafening.

Mountains of evidence exists, providing an excellent basis for congressional hearings about this misguided crusade. Undoubtedly, these hearings will inflame the media and academia, but not holding these hearings, not speaking out on this issue, puts politics before the lives of our young women and men.

— Mike Fredenburg is a past contributor to National Review, the California Political Review, and the San Diego Union Tribune, and was the founding president of the Adam Smith Institute of San Diego, a conservative think tank and PAC.

Mike Fredenburg Mike Fredenburg is the founding president of the Adam Smith Institute of San Diego.

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