Among the many fads that now seem to infest our public conversation, one in particular excites my interest — and my opposition: women in combat roles in our armed forces. Yes, I’m an old white man and my views are subjective, unscientific and, no doubt, sexist. And, of course, I have a ‘vested interest’ in preserving the dominant heteronormative paradigm. This is not a scientific study but an opinion piece. But bear with me.
First, some background. I am a former Army officer and served in combat in South Vietnam. But I also spent nearly 20 years in the private sector, on two occasions working under the direction of female managers. In neither case did I have any problem with this.
A fundamental (but not the only) question that needs to be addressed is this: Will the effectiveness of the defence force be enhanced by the inclusion of women in combat roles, will it be diminished, or will there be no effect either way? Because of its unique nature, I would argue that a defence force is not in existence to be an equal opportunity employer nor to advance any social agenda. It is there to maximise the chance of success in war, in other words to provide the best possible outcome for the citizens it is established to protect. If that is the case, then the only answer to the question posed above that would justify placing women in combat roles would be that, on balance, it enhances the effectiveness of the force.
With two notable exceptions – Russia during World War II and Israel — women in combat is a relatively new concept. Let us look at those two exceptions in more detail.
Russia in World War Two
In theory, under the Soviet system, women were supposed to be the equal of men, but in practice Stalinist propaganda emphasized their role in the home. When Germany attacked the Soviet Union in June, 1941, the thousands of women who immediately volunteered were turned away. As things worsened and male casualties soared, the first of what become 800,000 women joined the armed forces. Most served in medical and auxiliary roles, such as drivers, but many were fighter and bomber pilots, snipers, machine gunners, anti-aircraft gunners, and partisans. These efforts were probably most successful in the air force, where three regiments (one fighter, two bomber) were commanded and (dare I use the term?) manned by women.
Women also eventually found their way into combat roles in land units, but were not really encouraged to do so and, once in a combat unit, often faced considerable resistance from male soldiers and officers and, in some cases, suffered sexual and physical abuse. Nonetheless, 200,000 women were decorated — 86 of them receiving the Soviet Union’s highest award for bravery, Hero of the Soviet Union. Without detracting from the efforts and bravery of individual female combat soldiers in the Soviet Army, I think we might conclude that their collective combat contribution was neither here nor there. Their main, and valuable, role was filling second-line positions so that more men could be available for the front.
There is a perception, which I once shared, that women played a significant combat role in Israel before, during and after the 1948 War of Independence, but it appears this is not so. Prior to the creation of Israel, women fought for the Palmach and Haganah, defending kibbutzes and so on.
When David Ben Gurion created the Israeli Defence Force in 1948, he declared that women and men should share the responsibility of defending the newly formed nation, but it is not clear how many women actually served in combat and how effective (or otherwise) they were. Evidence on this matter is conflicted, with one source claiming that women were in fact barred from front-line positions during this war due to the risk of rape and torture should they become captives. Women did serve in combat roles, but my best reading of the histories and accounts is that it was on an ad hoc and opportunistic basis, rather than as part of an overall personnel strategy.
Immediately following the War of Independence (1948) women were officially barred from combat — a situation that did not change until 2000, when an amendment to the Military Service Law stated that ‘the right of women to serve in any role in the IDF is equal to that of men.’
The situation now is that almost all positions in the IDF are open to women, who make up about 3% of combat soldiers. A specialist battalion, Caracal, is 70% female and deployed to patrol the Israeli/Egyptian border.
It seems the following nations (at least) all employ women in combat roles with various restrictions (eg, in some countries women cannot serve in submarines or tanks): Australia, Canada, Denmark, France, Germany, Israel, New Zealand and Norway. As far as the Australian Army is concerned, women cannot, currently, serve in the major Arms Corps units (Infantry, Armoured, Artillery – with some exceptions – and Combat Engineers), or ground defence in the case of the RAAF.
Following a number of recent, and pretty outrageous, cases of sexual assault/harassment, the official response appears to be that the Defence hierarchy is looking at ways of expanding the combat-role participation of women in order to counter a perceived ‘sexist’ mentality amongst male servicemen. More about this later.
Now, let’s look at the pros and cons in a general sense. The only case advanced in favour of having women in combat roles arises from the concept of ‘equality’. As I have noted, unless this adds to the overall effectiveness of the force, it is not enough justification in itself. By this I mean the inclusion of women in combat units must do more than cancel out the negatives, a discussion of which follows.
The most obvious negative is that women are not, generally, physically strong as men — although there are, no doubt, many women who are stronger and fitter than the average infantry foot soldier. There are also some combat roles where strength is not as important — in the cockpit of a fighter plane, on the bridge of Navy vessel). Provided standards are not compromised, it should be a given that a female soldier is regarded as being just as capable as a man in these jobs. The question is whether or not standards are compromised in order to meet affirmative action targets. Overall, I would regard this as a very minor issue. Male soldiers are regularly weeded out of combat roles due to failure to maintain physical standards. The same could and should apply to women.
Another, perhaps more important consideration, is unit cohesion. Former US Marine Corps General Gregory Newbold probably says it best.
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.
Newbold’s comments relate only to infantry. He seems non-committal as to other combat roles, possibly because they are already a fait accompli in the US Defense Force. I would argue that Newbold’s argument applies just as much for any other combat unit.
In recent years we have seen a spate of very ugly sexual abuse/harassment cases in the ADF — cases which seem quite alien to the Defence Force in which I served. It cannot be denied that various forms of abuse have been going on for decades, long before I enlisted. But there seem to be perversity and viciousness in these modern instances that go beyond mere bullying. Most of these high-profile incidents have occurred at the Australian Defence Force Academy (AFDA) and on RAN vessels. I believe it is no co-incidence that this has coincided with the integration of female cadets into AFDA and female sailors joining ships. I don’t believe we are enlisting a new breed of anti-social servicemen, although that said, there may be some merit in the idea that social norms are declining in the military no more than in civilian society, assisted in large part by the Internet and social media.
Why are these incidents happening? I believe it is because some men feel threatened, even emasculated, by this incursion of women into what has been, until very recently, the almost exclusively male domain of the warrior class. Putting women into combat takes away the last masculine ‘role’ in society. In earlier generations men were the breadwinners and protectors while women were homemakers and nurturers. (I can already hear the screams of feminists!) Yes, women are now the equals of men in the breadwinner role, and no civilised man, especially one with a daughter, could have a problem with that. It goes without saying women have every right to pursue whatever career they want, to rise as high as talent and opportunity will allow. And, yes, I accept that there may still be obstacles to the complete realization of that aspiration. Nor am I suggesting that women be denied ‘equality’ simply to avoid provoking men into behaving badly or to protect fragile male self-esteem. What I am doing is posing a pair of questions:
Do we need women in combat roles for our Defence Force to be optimum or even effective? Definitely not.
Do we need men if we are to have effective defence forces? Of course we do.
To be blunt, while we stand to gain little in practical terms by placing women in front-line roles, we risk losing much more by adding them inadvisedly. The fact that this push to place women in combat is part of a typically academic, left-wing agenda, one that demands the elimination of all traditional gender-based roles, even in marriage, should be message enough in itself: in matters of defence, making practicality the servant of political correctness is a formula for catastrophe.