Women in Uniform

red army galAmong 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.

Current Situation

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.

10 thoughts on “Women in Uniform

  • gardner.peter.d says:

    Genuine question: has the option of segregating the sexes in the military been adopted by any country in recent times and with what success?

  • rosross says:

    There is a long history of women fighting in combat, although given the fact that history rarely bothers with herstory, many people remain unaware that for thousands of years, women also fought in many societies.

    One presumes that some were more suited to this than others and that a strapping young woman would make a better fighter than a weedy young man.

    Surely suitability for the task is what matters, rather than gender. Although, since war makes a mess of most people’s minds what we want is a society which no longer sees it as a problem-solving mechanism.

    • Peter OBrien says:

      There may be historical instances of women fighting (Masada comes to mind), but they would be exceptions to the general rule that women do not engage in direct combat. In any case, I have not argued that women are incapable of fighting. If we consider, as I do, that war is an aberration (albeit very widespread and persistent) which we would prefer to do without and historically we have excluded (excused?) women from its’ worst aspects, why would we now consider it a form of human advancement to increase their participation?

      • rosross says:

        I was referring to the development of the patriarchal age where women were considered inferior on all counts, including their ability to fight. I oppose war utterly but in an age of gender equality I do not think you can discriminate against any woman who has the physical ability to do a particular job. It would be a form of human advancement only in terms of gender equality being a worthy goal and a measure of human advancement.

        As long as women are discriminated against purely because they are women, you will never have gender equality and without gender equality you retain aspects of patriarchy which prevent civilized attitudes and behaviour. The position of, ‘we need to protect the fairer sex from the horrors of war by not allowing them to engage in direct combat,’ is a farce given the fact that armies kill women as effectively as they kill men, not to mention children, and it is in fact women and children who are in the ‘front line,’ i.e. direct combat in most wars as civilians.

        I find it patronising and pretentious to seek to exclude females from military positions which involve front-line combat when the front-line combat targets women anyway, and often children, the aged, the sick, the infirm.

        • Peter OBrien says:

          Human nature and human society are full of contradictions, paradoxes, subjectivity, and emotion. Were it not so, this discussion would be moot because we would have no wars.

          Unlike most fields of human endeavour, the ‘balance sheet’ of combat is not calculated in dollars and cents. No soldier is a saint (and there are, of course, any number of ‘bastards’) but most are imbued with notions of honour and service – the good ones, anyway, and in our Army there are many of them.

          We ask them to lay their lives on the line, in the full knowledge that in any significant action, many will, in fact, die.

          If these men decide, for whatever reason, that they don’t want women involved in this equation (and most of them do think this way) then why should we, as a society, not respect this position?

          • rosross says:

            I do not believe that soldiers have any more or greater notions of honour and service than anyone else and I have been exposed to quite a few and the army system. Soldiers are ordinary people who choose the job for their own reasons and while, as in any field, there might be one or two who think it is about honour and service, for most it is just a job which they think will suit them.

            We are fortunate in Australia that unlike the US, we do not attract most because it is the only way they can get an education, eat or support their family, and so those who join the Australian military do have freedom of choice. Having spent quite a bit of time around ‘army types’ it is easy to see it is a club and a system and systems drive behaviour and behaviour creates belief systems and round it goes. All armies feed the line that they are doing it for service and honour but it is far from the truth.

            And no doubt it must be since most wars in which Australia has engaged, all in fact, at least since the end of the Second World War have been immoral and unnecessary, and at times, illegal wars of invasion and occupation which, beginning with Vietnam, I am sure fuelled the drive within the army system to brainwash members that they were fighting for honour and service to their country. They were not and they are not.

            There are many acts of honour and nobility in wars, by soldiers and civilians alike, but war itself is never noble or honourable and the main service is to the war machine and the military industrial complex, along with various vested agendas, more ignoble than noble on most counts.

            You asked: “If these men decide, for whatever reason, that they don’t want women involved in this equation (and most of them do think this way) then why should we, as a society, not respect this position?”

            Why should we not respect their position? Because it is not their place to dictate and because their position is sourced in ignorance, arrogance and prejudice, not to mention misogyny.

            The army is, not surprisingly, a highly patriarchal and masculinised system and within it one finds, at least in my experience, the sorts of attitudes commonly held in society until at least the 1960’s – backward.

            Their ‘position’ is just another variation on the theme of male arrogance toward women and prejudice toward the feminine which had men in past times taking similar ‘positions’ in regard to refusing women the right to an education; refusing them the right to vote; refusing them the right to university; refusing them the right to become doctors, lawyers, politicians; refusing them the right to drive; refusing them still the right to equal pay for equal work ….. you get the picture, plain, old-fashioned, very old-fashioned male bigotry toward women masquerading as ‘consideration.’

            The army is a ‘boy’s club,’ sadly just as modern medicine is, and to the detriment of both. I look forward to a time when there are no more boy’s clubs and no more soldiers, but until then, I support to the hilt, on all counts, gender equality.

  • jstead says:

    I agree wholeheartedly with what you say.

    I am a woman who was raised by a soldier father, and myself spent more than 20 years in the Defence Department where I worked alongside many men. It was not always comfortable as a woman, but I learned to cope with that.

    I used to think along feminist lines, but my thinking has changed as I have aged. I now think that the “protective” role is an inherent male characteristic and we cause many social problems by trying to change this, or denying this. Yes, we “emasculate” men when we fail to appreciate those that take up the protective roles in society, or essentially tell them that being a warrior is nothing special – even women can do it!

    I also agree that we need the very best defence force we can have, and that there is no place for social experiments in gender politics. in

  • mburke@pcug.org.au says:

    RosRoss, you seem to be more keen to promote your feminist ideology and left-wing political opinions than in arguing the pros and cons of the potential roles for women in the Australian armed forces. It is clear from your messages above that despite your claim to have been exposed to quite a few “army types” and to the army system, you quite obviously have never served in the Australian Army or either of the other Australian Services. Frankly, your views are grotesquely ill-informed and quite naive. You simply don’t know what you are talking about and you never will unless and until you actually join the Army or one of the other Services.

    As its name suggests, the Australian Defence Force has one main purpose: the defence of Australia. All other issues are subordinate and incidental to that. Despite the sentimental nonsense being purveyed by the Sex Discrimination Commission, and the knee-jerk reactions of politicians seeking to pacify the activists, the Defence Force is not a social laboratory. Physically capable and well motivated and qualified women already fill a large number of formerly male-only roles in the ADF, and as technology develops even more roles will become gender neutral. Clearly, gender equality is the least important, indeed an utterly irrelevant, consideration in determining which roles women should be allowed to fill.

    • rosross says:

      Mburke, I made it clear I support gender equality simply because in an enlightened society there is no other acceptable option.

      To have a system where a soldier is chosen because of gender is unenlightened and unjust. There are many women who are far more capable physically than many men. There are many women who are far more capable mentally and emotionally than many men. To exclude women from any role has nothing to do with ability and everything to do with ignorance, prejudice and the army boy’s club.

      No, I have not served in the army, but as a journalist I have had cause to be closely involved with various military organisations and bases for very long periods, along with military personnel and have certainly had members of the army in my family. I think it provides insights.

      My views are realistic for any intelligent observer and particularly for women.

      • Mohsen says:

        Rosross ,
        You were supposed to answer to the question he asked: “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?” not beat the drum for feminism.
        By the way, you are referring to the army as “boys club” derogatorily. It’s funny, since ALL clubs are actually “boys’ clubs”: Schools, universities, police force, armies, sports, industries, working, having income, writing constitutions and laws, founding countries, institutions, religions, philosophies, criminal gangs.


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