April 29, 2012: The U.S. Marine Corps is sending some female officers to the infantry school. This is so these women can assume more staff and support jobs in combat battalions and brigades. Normally, officers go to the infantry school in order to be infantry officers. But women are not allowed to be in the infantry. That has not kept women out of combat. American women serving in combat is no longer news, nor is the sight of many women in a combat zone. Nearly 300,000 women have served in combat zones since 2001. In the peak years there were 12,000 women serving in Iraq, and there are even more in Afghanistan right now. While female troops are technically in support roles those jobs include flying helicopters and other aircraft, military police (as in guarding bases and convoys), and truck drivers (convoys under fire). The women troops also participate in base security (guard duty). Intelligence gathering and, in general, have ample opportunity for armed and violent interactions with unfriendly locals.
The marines took the lead in training women to accompany combat patrols so that more intelligence could be obtained from women out in the countryside. In Iraq and Afghanistan it's considered very bad manners for a woman to have any contact, even a conversation, with a man she is not related to. But the female marines could talk to the women in a village and gain information the male marines could not. If there were some combat the women were armed and knew how to take care of themselves.
Throughout history women have often found themselves involved in combat, usually because there was no other choice. The most common examples were the defense of a castle or walled town. If the place was taken the women were frequently raped and killed. So there was an incentive to fight and win. While pre-gunpowder combat emphasized muscle and the use of swords, spears, shields, and heavy armor, this was less the case when defending walls. Women were also able to use a crossbow, recurved or short bow (the long bow required a lot of muscle). Throwing things down at people climbing scaling ladders or pushing the ladders away where things women could handle. Once the attackers were over the wall, it was a different story. If a woman had a crossbow or bow she could still help out, or fall back and help build another small wall. Often the defense of castles was led by a woman, usually the wife of the guy who owned the place. There were many cases of the lady of the castle successfully defending the family fortress several times.
Among the Mongols, and other Central Asian nomads, women were expected to learn archery, if only to hunt and help defend the camp. The most outstanding female archers (and riders, everyone learned to ride a horse) could hunt or even go to war with the men. But most of the fighting, especially the close quarters, often hand-to-hand stuff, was still done by men.
Today, combat troops, in the form of infantry, are less than ten percent of most armies. And for these troops the emphasis is still on muscle, mainly because of how much gear infantry carry into combat. On the low end its 30 kg (66 pounds), at the high end 50 kg (110 pounds). Few women can carry that kind of weight and still run around for hours, or days, on end. But back at battalion headquarters the officers running the show need more brains than muscle, plus some experience with the infantry. So the marines are sending potential female combat unit staff officers to infantry school and then to combat battalion and brigade headquarters to see how they will do.
Meanwhile, women are finding themselves in combat but not nearly as much as men. Over the last decade there has been a sharp increase in American female troops killed in combat. Since September 11, 2001, 139 female troops have died in combat, two percent of the 6,740 who have died so far. That's two percent of all combat deaths, or 49 combat deaths per 100,000 women sent to the combat zone, compared to 330 for the male troops.
Over a third of the female dead (and nearly as many male dead) were from non-combat causes (traffic accidents or mishaps on bases). The rest of the dead and wounded women were killed in combat. Women comprise ten percent of the troops in the combat zones and about 16 percent of all U.S. troops worldwide. Currently, 15 percent of American active duty (full time) troops are female and 18 percent of reservists. Seven percent of marines are women.
Department of Defense policy forbids the use of female troops in direct combat. This is mostly about politics, but the rule is there and must be obeyed. Or at least an attempt must be made to enforce the rule. While many women find themselves in firefights and exposed to roadside bombs anyway, that's normal for a combat zone. As far back as World War II 25 percent of all troops in the army found themselves under fire at one time or another, although only about 15 percent of soldiers had a "direct combat" job. In Iraq women made up about eight percent of the military personnel there but only two percent of the casualties (dead and wounded), so the policy, which many politicians oppose but most women soldiers favor, appears to be working.
As a practical matter you will never have a lot of women in combat, mainly because women have never been as effective as men in combat units. In the past century there have been several serious attempts to employ women in combat. Except for some guerilla units it never worked out well enough to make it practical to continue the practice. But women have proved very valuable in combat support units, where physical strength and a taste for ultra-violence (the two things that have always made men such eager warriors) are not essential. But American women have increasingly been in combat situations, as part of a ten year trend. That means more of them are getting killed or wounded.
The casualty rate of the 450,000 American women who served in World War II (where very few women were sent to the combat zone) was about 11 dead per 100,000 troops. It was about ten times that in Vietnam, where some 10,000 women served in a combat zone. However, the casualty rate for women in combat zones during World War II was about the same as for those women in Vietnam. Even without being in combat it was dangerous to be in the military. During World War II 25 percent of troop deaths were from non-combat causes. Vehicles (both ground and air) were more dangerous than today, as was a lot of other equipment.
In the 1991 Gulf War 33,000 women participated, and the casualty rate was about the same as Vietnam. That trend took a turn upward in Iraq, where about ten percent of the troops are female, although the women suffer casualties at about one-tenth the rate of the men. This is largely because women are not in combat units and are not involved in convoy operations to the same extent as the male troops.
Compared to past wars overall casualties in Iraq have been quite low, with only 1.7 percent of troops getting killed or wounded in combat. Since most of the casualties were suffered by the army and marines, and these two services only supplied 40 percent of the personnel, their casualty rate was more like 4.2 percent. But that's still a third of the rate in Vietnam (12.5 percent, or 350,000 combat casualties for 2.8 million who served there).
In the United States women began entering the armed forces in a big way 40 years ago. Now, about eight percent of 22 million veterans are women, and six percent of patients in the Veterans Administration (VA) medical system are as well. By the end of the decade ten percent of veterans will be female, as will be over nine percent of those receiving medical care from the VA.