Seven Myths About “Women in Combat”

Written by G.S. Newbold, Lieutenant General, USMC (Ret.)

Myth #1“It’s about women in combat.”

No, it’s not. Women are already in combat, and are serving well and professionally. The issue should be more clearly entitled, “Women in the infantry.” And this is a decidedly different proposition.

Myth #2“Combat has changed” (often accompanied by “There are no front lines anymore”).

This convenient misconception requires several counters. First, any serious study of military history will reveal numerous historical examples about how successive generations (over millennia) believed that warfare had changed forever, only to find that technology may change platforms, but not its harsh essence. To hope that conflicts over the last 20 years are models of a new, antiseptic form of warfare is delusional.

The second point is that the enemy gets a vote – time, place, and style. For example, war on the Korean Peninsula would be a brutal, costly, no-holds-barred nightmare of mayhem in close combat with casualties in a week that could surpass the annual total of recent conflict.

The final point on this myth reinforces the Korea example and it bears examination — Fallujah, Iraq in 2004, where warfare was reduced to a horrific, costly, and exhausting scrap in a destroyed city between two foes that fought to the death.

The standard for ground combat unit composition should be whether social experimentation would have amplified our opportunity for success in that crucible, or diminished it. We gamble with our future security when we set standards for warfare based on the best case, instead of the harshest one.

Myth #3“If they pass the physical standards, why not?”

Physical standards are important, but not nearly all of the story. Napoleon – “The moral (spirit) is to the physical as three is to one.”

Unit cohesion is the essence of combat power, and while it may be convenient to dismiss human nature for political expediency, the facts are that sexual dynamics will exist and can affect morale. That may be manageable in other environments, but not in close combat.

Any study of sexual harassment statistics in this age cohort – in the military, academia, or the civilian workplace — are evidence enough that despite best efforts to by sincere leaders to control the issue, human instincts remain strong. Perceptions of favoritism or harassment will be corrosive, and cohesion will be the victim.

Myth #4“Standards won’t be lowered.”

This is the cruelest myth of all. The statements of the current chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff are telling.

They essentially declare “guilty until proven innocent” on anyone attempting to maintain the standards which produced the finest fighting force in the world. There are already accommodations (note that unit cohesion won’t be a metric), there will be many more, and we will pay a bloody price for it someday.

Pity the truthful leader who attempts to hold to standards based on realistic combat factors, and tells truth to power. Most won’t, and the others won’t survive.

Myth #5“Opening the infantry will provide a better pathway to senior rank for the talented women.”

Not so. What will happen is that we will take very talented females with unlimited potential and change their peer norm when we inject them into the infantry.

Those who might meet the infantry physical standard will find that their peers are expected, as leaders, to far exceed it (and most of their subordinates will, as well).

So instead of advancing to a level appropriate to their potential, they may well be left out.

Myth #6“It’s a civil rights issue, much like the integration of the armed forces and allowing gays to serve openly.”

Those who parrot this either hope to scare honest and frank discussion, or confuse national security with utopian ideas.

In the process, they demean initiatives that were to provide equally skilled individuals the opportunity to contribute equally. In each of the other issues, lowered standards were not the consequence.

Myth #7“It’s just fair.”

Allow me two points.

First, this is ground warfare we’re discussing, so realism is important.

“Fair” is not part of the direct ground combat lexicon.

Direct ground combat, such as experienced in the frozen tundra of Korea, the rubble of Stalingrad, or the endless 30-day jungle patrols against a grim foe in Viet Nam, is the harshest meritocracy — with the greatest consequences — there is.

And psychology in warfare is germane – the force that is respected (and, yes, feared) has a distinct advantage.

Will women in our infantry enhance a psychological advantage, or hinder it?

Second, if it’s about fairness, why do women get a choice of whether to serve in the infantry (when men do not), and why aren’t they required to register for the draft (as men are)?

It may be that we live in a society in which honest discussion of this issue, relying on facts instead of volume, is not possible. If so, our national security will fall victim to hope instead of reality. And myths be damned.

Gregory S. Newbold served 32 years as a Marine Infantry Officer, commanding units from Platoon Level to the entire 1st Marine Division. His final assignment before retiring was as director of operations for the Pentagon’s Joint Staff.

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10 comments

  1. Thank you so much for this post! Feminists would have no problem with forcing women into the infantry and drafting women into combat roles; some fairly recent polls showed (if I remember correctly) that most Americans have no problem with drafting women into combat roles. After all, if the powers that be say it’s ok, then it must be, right? If the unfairness of our current system is pointed out, lots of people-maybe most people-will just say, fine, let’s treat women exactly the same way we treat men.

    If it were suggested that standards should be lowered in the NFL to allow women to play alongside men, most people would scoff. But those same people are willing to unnecessarily endanger the lives of both male and female soldiers by putting women in combat. It boggles the mind.

    Liked by 1 person

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    Like

  3. LG Newbold’s essay is the single most thoughtful and comprehensive comment I have read regarding the issue of women in combat. I agree with him wholeheartedly. Sadly, he had to be on retired status to express himself frankly. Meanwhile the general officers (and most of their civilian counterparts) still on active duty cannot express themselves honestly on this vital topic, because to do so will destroy their careers.

    No sensible person believes women are not the equals of men in physical and moral courage. Nor is anyone knowledgeable denying that women are routinely exposed to lethal danger in the course of their military service. Universally, however, those experienced in ground combat (as I am) believe women have no place in the Infantry, Rangers, or Special Forces — for the reasons so eloquently stated. Disregard of General Newbold’s warning will result in a catastrophic degradation of American combat effectiveness in service of some crazy utopian fantasy.

    Graduate of the Virginia Military Institute (1964)
    Captain, USAR
    Viet Nam Veteran (First Cavalry Division) — 1968/1969

    Liked by 1 person

  4. I have written a couple of research papers on this exact issue recently for my University classes. The LG makes many of the same points.

    Banning Females from the Infantry

    ENG2102
    August 14, 2014


    Abstract
    Women have increased their roles in the military in recent decades. They are capable of conducting many difficult and challenging jobs, even combat. However, some activist and movement groups have been pushing to integrate women into the military’s infantry elements. There are several reasons this should not be implemented as a course of policy and practice. These are outlined in the following paper. It is hoped that the reader, after digesting the information, will understand the rigors of combat and the difficulties in intergrading women into infantry units. It is also hoped that some reader’s opinions and attitudes toward allowing women into infantry units will be changed.

    Claim
    The rigors of combat do not change. Combat is a constant variable. Physical ability is paramount when faced with ever-changing and fluid combat actions. One’s ability to rapidly move, shoot, and communicate while conducting operations is a must in order to enhance the mission; not hamper it. The practice of disallowing women in infantry units should continue.
    Support
    Infantry units have been the backbone of Armies since the dawn of time. The Infantry’s primary role is close combat, which may occur in any type of mission, in any theater, or environment. Characterized by extreme violence and physiological shock, close combat is callous and unforgiving. Its dimensions are measured in minutes and meters, and its consequences are final. Close combat stresses every aspect of the physical, mental, and spiritual features of the human dimension. To this end, Infantrymen are specially selected, trained, and led.
    Infantrymen are soldiers who are specifically trained for the role of fighting on foot to engage the enemy face to face and have historically borne the brunt of the casualties during combat operations. Infantry units have more physically demanding training than other branches of armies, and place a greater emphasis on discipline, fitness, physical strength and aggression.
    The Infantry is unique because its core competency is founded on the individual Soldier—the Infantry rifleman. While other branches tend to focus on weapon systems and platforms to accomplish their mission, the Infantry alone relies almost exclusively on the human dimension of the individual rifleman to close with and destroy the enemy. This Soldier-centric approach fosters an environment that places the highest value on individual discipline, personal
    initiative, and performance-oriented leadership. The Infantry ethos is encapsulated by its motto: Follow Me! (“The infantry rifle,” 2007).
    According to PEW Social and Demographic Trends; Since 1973, when the United States military ended conscription and established an all-volunteer force, the number of women serving in the Army on active duty has risen dramatically. The share of women among the enlisted ranks has increased seven-fold, from 2% to 14% (Patten & Parker, 2011).
    The decades-long debate over changing roles of women in the military reached a turning point in 2011 when Congress directed the Pentagon to take a hard look at policies that restrict female service members. In February, the Defense Department relaxed some restrictions, moving women closer to combat, but a fuller review of combat jobs is under way.
    The current popular social trend is that of total and unequivocal equality. Some individuals feel that by not assigning women to combat units, the female Solder’s career is hampered. They feel she cannot obtain the same recognition, assignments, or status that her male counterpart can achieve. Currently, female army officers make up 7% of the “general” (Flag Level) officer corps.
    The process of integrating women in the Army has been slow and cumbersome and is being pushed by social matters over practical ones. Integrating women into the Infantry is not a task that should even be considered just so the few can “rise” to the top.
    Marine Capt. Katie Petronio authored a published article titled “Get Over It! We Are Not All Created Equal.” And is quoted telling MSNBC that “Infantry is one of those fields we need to leave alone.”
    The rigors of combat never change; they are a constant variable that individuals must be physically, mentally, and morally ready to handle. The current Army Physical Fitness standards for Soldiers 22 – 26 years of age are different for male and female.
    Integration should be based on a Soldiers ability to perform the required physical task with the required equipment. Separate testing standards for men and women do not accurately reflect or simulate the actual requirements.
    The rigors of combat never change; According to U.S. Army Soldier Systems Center-Natick, a fighting load should be held to less than 48 pounds, according to the field manual (“Foot marches,” 1990). The next level, approach March load, adds a light rucksack and should not exceed 72 pounds. In the worst-case scenario, emergency approach march loads require a larger rucksack, raising the total weight to 120-150 pounds (Dean, 2004).
    After reviewing the data, the average rifleman’s fighting load was 63 pounds, which meant he was carrying on average 36 percent of his body weight before strapping on a rucksack. The average approach march load was 96 pounds or 55 percent of average rifleman’s body weight, and the emergency approach march load average was 127 pounds or 71 percent of average rifleman’s body weight (Dean, 2004).
    The rigors of combat never change; efficiency, some women will be able to meet the required standards, but most will not. While integration of women into combat is possible for those qualified, the small number versus the additional logistical, regulatory and disciplinary costs associated with integration do not make it a worthwhile move. The needs of the many should outweigh the needs of the few.

    Warrant
    No one questions why there aren’t any females in the NFL, NBA, MLB, NHL, etc. Olympic athletes are the elite of the elite. No one questions why the women compete against women and men against men. Those are great sports and achievements. But lives and missions aren’t on the line. In combat, if you move slower one day, you don’t get bumped off the medal stand, you could die or get someone else killed.
    The readiness of our combat units and the security of our nation depend on making policies that are based off of sound science, not social engineering. The integration of women into infantry units must be based on rational sound data. Less attention should be made of the social engineering organizations. Put the country’s needs first, not the needs of a few individuals or groups. Women should not be allowed to be in infantry units.

    References
    Burrelli, D. Congressional Research Service, (2013). Women in combat: Issues for congress (7-5700). Retrieved from website: http://www.crs.gov
    Dean , C. (2004, Febuary 02). Study says combat load too heavy. SSC-Natick Press Release. Retrieved from http://www.natick.army.mil
    Fischer, H. Congressional Research Service, (2014). U.S. military casualty statistics: Ond, oif, and oef (7-5700). Retrieved from CRS Report for Congress website: http://www.fas.org
    Headquarters, Department of the Army, (2012). Army physical readiness training (FM 7-22). Retrieved from Department of the Army website: http://armypubs.army.mil
    Headquarters, Department of the Army. (1990). Foot marches (FM 21-18). Retrieved from Department of the Army website: http://armypubs.army.mil
    Headquarters, Department of the Army. (2007). The infantry rifle platoon and squad (FM 3-21.8 ). Retrieved from Department of the Army website: https://rdl.train.army.mil
    King, A. (2013). Women in combat. The RUSI Journal, 158:1(4-11), doi: 10.1080/03071847.2013.774634
    Patten, E., & Parker, K. (2011, December 22). Women in the u.s. military: Growing share, distinctive profile. Retrieved from http://www.pewsocialtrends.org
    Scarborough, R. (2012, April 01). Army’s ‘chilling trend’ puts women at risk. The Washington Times, Retrieved from http://www.washingtontimes.com

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Yep, some interesting reading — both the article and (especially) some of the comments. I’m not going to comment -directly- on anything already written above, for reasons of my own. Also, before I make my comments, I’d like to mention a couple of things about me, so you will be better able to put my comments in some sort of context.

    First, US Army, 1963-66 (+). Second, I am/was fluent in three foreign languages and “able to get by” in a couple more. Third, I’ve read and continue to read -a- =lot= of history, mainly military or military-related, and I do not confine myself to the US or “modern” time period (since I’ve been alive, more or less). I also read a -lot- in what I consider ‘adjunct’ areas/topics — psychology, sociology, ‘foreign studies’, etc. Now…

    1. I grew up around a great many WWII veterans, mostly US and ‘Allied’, and a few from the Korean “police-action”. OTOH, most of the WWII vets were certainly products of their times & environments, which is a polite way of saying they were =highly= racist, sexist, and other “-ists” and didn’t have much ’empathy’ or interest in non-Americans. OTOH, they were surprisingly ‘fair’ about a lot of things. When they met female combatants, they gave them the same respect they gave male combatants — and didn’t demand to know how many push-ups they could do! In fact, they made no bones about how the ‘state-side’ (so-called) “standards” (think ‘PT’, Chk.Sh., and other ‘standards’ of “good order and discipline”) didn’t mean diddly-squat when you got within smelling distance of cordite/gun-powder. In short, while women filled many non-combatant jobs to free up men for combat roles, there -were- many women involved in direct combat and they were neither looked down upon nor given a ration of shit by the male GIs. So, what the hell is the matter with the current GIs? =Most= negative comments about women in combat sound like ego-problems/manhood-problems/machismo-problems, yes, even those that are carefully and ‘oh-so-logically’ .. ‘reasoned’.

    Korea .. well, was a =seriously= ‘different’ conflict — it was a -land-war- in Asia, and it might just as well have been in “a galaxy far, far way”! We didn’t learn a damn thing from that one or the next one, either. Hmmm, rant for another time, I guess.

    2. Besides the use of women in combat during WWII, has anyone else noticed that several other countries have women in their armed forces, including combat units and even all-women combat units? For example, all-women units in the South Korean army are positively scary! Sweet, dainty little things? You better forget that =immediately=!! Further, if you took part in ‘that fiasco’ [Viet Nam], you know damn well there were plenty of women in VC combat positions, and they held their own with the men! Give them a break because they were women and you went home in a bag. And, again, how many push-ups you could do didn’t mean a thing, period, full-stop.

    – – = – –

    It may be that ‘we’ are asking the wrong questions and looking for the wrong ‘answers’ in the on-going debate about ‘women in combat//women in the infantry’. I don’t particularly care if you agree with me or not, but I would like you to think long and seriously about the points I’ve mentioned. Have fun.

    Like

  6. There was a time when the same arguments were made against allowing women into the military at all. When they were finally allowed in, it was in limited capacities better suited to their “delicate natures.”

    The largest fallacy of this argument is that all men are fierce warriors and all women are incapable of being the same.

    The reality presented by combat arms MOS’s is that if you aren’t in a combat MOS you aren’t worthy of being in the military. In other words, your mentality is a large part of the problem.

    Like

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