Infantry: What Women Hate


January 7, 2016: In December 2015 the American military was ordered to accept women in all jobs, including infantry and special operations. This decision involves about 220,000 jobs and about 20,000 of these are for special operations personnel, commonly known as commandos. While the politicians who pushed for this policy now consider the issue settled and done with, the officers and troops in infantry and special operations units are not pleased and concerned about how to deal with it. Senior officers are bracing for more retirements or troops simply walking away when their current term of service is done. Recruiting for these strenuous and dangerous jobs is seen as even more difficult. In other words opinion surveys indicate that many experienced combat troops are ready to vote with their feet and will be impossible to replace.

All that may happen, then again if you look at the experience other nations have had with allowing women in the infantry you will see that reality is quite different than the worst fears. For example Canada has allowed women in combat jobs for over a decade. Even though Canada dropped most physical standards to make that possible (something commanders are still complaining about) fewer than one in 200 Canadian infantry or combat engineers are women. From the beginning there have been few volunteers (the Canadian military is all volunteer). Even tank crews are less than three percent female. Israel tried allowing women as part of tank crews but backed off when it discovered there were too many problems with physical strength (a lot of muscle is required to care for and operate a tank) and crew members getting along. Male and female Israeli officers both report that it is not a good idea to put men and women together in observation posts or other isolated situations that require sustained concentration and alertness. This is nothing new, as NCOs and officers learned when more women were recruited for more different jobs after 1972 (when the U.S. dropped conscription). Officers and NCOs who were managers in their civilian jobs had fewer problems as most had been managing men and women on the job for years. But for the military it required a decade or so to adapt all the civilian experience to the military.

Speaking of physical standards, this has become a problem for European countries now seeking women for the infantry because it is a known and accepted fact that women suffer more injuries in physically stressful activities. Proponents of women in combat (none of them combat veterans) dismiss these issues as minor and easily fixed but offer no tangible or proven solutions. By European law allowing women in jobs that leads to more injuries than men would suffer is illegal. No one has gone to court over this yet but it is only a matter of time. First you have to wait for enough women to join to get a statistically valid number of injured female infantry.

Because the risk of injury and many other reasons, most countries found that over 90 percent of women in uniform did not want to serve in any combat unit, especially the infantry. Those women (almost all of them officers) who did apply discovered what female athletes and epidemiologists (doctors who study medical statistics) have long known; women are ten times more likely (than men) to suffer bone injuries and nearly as likely to suffer muscular injuries while engaged in stressful sports (like basketball) or infantry operations. Mental stress is another issue and most women who volunteered to try infantry training dropped out within days because of the combination of mental and physical stress. This is all a matter of sturdiness because men have more muscle and thicker bones. This makes men much less likely to suffer stress fractures or musculoskeletal injuries than women. Modern infantry combat is intensely physical, and most women remain at a disadvantage here. There are some exceptions for specialist tasks that do not involve sturdiness or strength, like sniping. Then there is the hormonal angle. Men generate a lot more testosterone, a hormone that makes men more decisive and faster to act in combat. Moreover testosterone does not, as the popular myth goes, make you more aggressive, it does make you more aware and decisive. That makes a difference in combat.

Israel has, for decades, been the leader in allowing women in combat jobs. Yet only 1.6 percent of Israeli combat jobs are filled by women. The army wants to make that two percent and to that end is staffing the new Iron Dome anti-missile units with women. Israeli law forbids sending women into combat but does allow for giving them jobs that might lead to combat situations. Despite all this in the last few years fewer women have volunteered for combat jobs. So the military is experimenting with new screening and training methods, to address common complaints among women inclined to volunteer for these jobs. So far these efforts have led to a 15 percent increase in volunteers but more are needed. Israel has, over the last few decades, expanded the number of combat jobs women can volunteer for. Israel conscripts men (for three years) and women (for two years). But women have more exemptions (especially marriage). Women who volunteer for combat duty are hard core because not only will they have to undergo some strenuous training but will have to serve three years on active duty, plus several years as reservists. This is necessary to justify the longer training required. Like many other countries, Israeli military police units contain men and women. Same with dog handlers, border guards, artillery units, and some search and rescue units. Women have long served as flight instructors, as well as trainers for tank crews. There is also a largely female infantry unit, the Caracal Battalion. Part of the 512th Brigade in Southern Command, the battalion was formed in 2000, to provide a place for women who wanted to be in the infantry. It's a light (not mechanized) infantry unit that mainly serves along the Jordanian or Egyptian borders. The battalion took part in safeguarding Israeli civilians and troops during the 2005 evacuation of Gaza. Initially, about half the troops in Caracal were female, as were most of the officers, NCOs, and, usually, the commander. Now about 70 percent of the Caracal members are women, although it was 90 percent three years ago. While many troops see Caracal as a publicity stunt and a sop to the feminists, the unit has performed well and has a reputation as a no-nonsense and reliable outfit. But fewer and fewer men are willing to serve in the battalion.

During their independence war in 1948, Israel had female infantry units but these were withdrawn. Not because the women couldn't fight but because Arab units facing them became more fanatical, and less likely to surrender, when they realized they were fighting women. There has long been pressure from conservative Jewish clergy in Israel who want women to be barred from combat jobs, while Arab radicals are urging more women to get involved in terrorism operations, including suicide bombings.

During World War II over five million women served in the military worldwide. Although they suffered fewer losses than the men, several hundred thousand did die. These women were often exposed to combat, especially when fighting as guerillas or operating anti-aircraft guns and early warning systems in Russia, Germany, and Britain. Russia also used women as traffic cops near the front line, as snipers, and as combat pilots. They (especially the Russians) tried using them as tank crews and regular infantry, but that didn’t work out, a historical lesson lost on current proponents. Women were most frequently employed in medical and other support jobs. The few who served as snipers or pilots were very good at it.

Most of the women who served in combat did so in guerilla units, especially in the Balkans and Russia. The women could not haul as heavy a load as the men but this was often not crucial, as many guerillas were only part-time fighters, living as civilians most of the time. Full time guerilla units often imposed the death penalty for pregnancy, although the women sometimes would not name the father. That said, guerilla organizations often imposed the death penalty for a number of offenses. The guerillas had few places to keep prisoners and sloppiness could get a lot of guerillas killed. The women tended to be more disciplined than the men and just as resolute in combat.

In the last century there have been several attempts to use women in ground combat units, and all have failed. When given a choice, far fewer women will choose combat jobs (infantry, armor, artillery). But duty as MPs does attract a lot of women, as do jobs like fighter, bomber, helicopter pilots and crews, and aboard warships. That works.

Under the new conditions more women are killed or wounded in combat. Meanwhile the casualty rate for women in Iraq was over ten times what it was in World War II, Vietnam, and the 1991 Gulf War (where 30,000 women served). A lot of the combat operations experienced by women in Iraq involved base security or guard duty. Female troops performed well in that. These were jobs that required alertness, attention to detail, and ability to quickly use your weapons when needed. Carrying a heavy load was not required. In convoy operations women have also done well, especially when it comes to spotting, and dealing with, IEDs (roadside bombs and ambushes). Going into the 21st century, warfare is becoming more automated and less dependent on muscle and testosterone. That gives women an edge, and they exploit it, just as they have done in so many other fields. What women continue to avoid is traditional infantry jobs, which are less needed but not going away.


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