Leadership: Woman's Work


March 18, 2012: The growing number of women in the military is largely driven by the need for people with scarce skills. Since most (over 80 percent) of military jobs have little, or nothing, to do with combat, if you can't find enough qualified men you can recruit women. This is especially true in the West, where females tend to be better educated than males. Thus women comprise about ten percent of the troops in Western armed forces. In the United States this is 15 percent for active duty troops and 18 percent for the reserves. Civilian contractors, who are taking back some of the military jobs they performed for thousands of years, have an even higher percentage of females.

All this reflects growing female participation in the post-agricultural economy. We tend to forget that as recently as the 19th century 90 percent of humanity was engaged in agriculture. It had been that way for thousands of years. With industrialization women began to stay at home with the kids and no longer work the same jobs (as they did in agriculture) with their husbands. But in the last sixty years women have returned to their traditional place in the economy.

In the last decade the use of contractor personnel reached nearly fifty percent of the force, providing lots of opportunities for women. This was new, as in the last century there were fewer contractors and fewer women working those jobs.

In the Vietnam War contractors were 16 percent of the force. In the Korean War it was 28 percent of the force. During World War II it was 12 percent, it was 4 percent in World War I, during the U.S. Civil War it was 17 percent, during the Mexican-American War it was 15 percent, and during the Revolutionary War it was 18 percent. It was not just the U.S. that was using contractors in Iraq and Afghanistan, but many other nations around the world have been doing the same thing. It's particularly popular in Europe, and even Russia and China are picking up on this. And this has been going on everywhere for a long time.

This current trend in using women and contractors are actually a return to the past, when many of the "non-combat" troops were civilians. Another problem is the shrinking proportion of troops who actually fight. A century ago most armies comprised over 80 percent fighters and the rest "camp followers in uniform" (support troops). Today the ratio is reversed and therein resides a major problem. Way back in the day the support troops were called "camp followers," and they took care of supply, support, medical care, maintenance, and "entertainment" (that's where the term "camp follower" got a bad name). The majority of these people were men, and some of them were armed, mainly for defending the camp if the combat troops got beat real bad and needed somewhere to retreat to.

The military is using a lot more civilians now because of economics. In an age when most troops are highly paid volunteers, it's cheaper to hire additional civilians, on short term contracts, than it is to recruit and train more troops. In most ancient armies, most of the force was camp followers.

One of the great revolutions in military operations in this century has been in the enormous increase in support troops. This came after a sharp drop in the proportion of camp followers in the 18th and 19th centuries. Before that it was common for an army on the march to consist of 10-20 percent soldiers and the rest camp followers. There was a reason for this. Armies "in the field" were camping out and living rough could be unhealthy and arduous if you didn't have a lot of servants along to take care of the camping equipment and help out with the chores. Generals usually had to allow a lot of camp followers in order to get the soldiers to go along with the idea of campaigning.

Only the most disciplined armies could do away with all those camp followers and get the troops to do their own housekeeping. The Romans had such an army, with less than half the "troops" being camp followers. But the Romans' system was not re-invented until the 18th century, when many European armies trained their troops to do their own chores in the field, just as the Romans had. In the 19th century steamships and railroads came along and made supplying the troops even less labor intensive and more dependent on civilian support "troops." The widespread introduction of conscription in the 19th century also made it possible to get your "camp followers" cheap by drafting them and putting them in uniform.

Most of the growing quantities of supplies and equipment for the troops were provided by civilians in the form of workers who produced the weapons and other supplies back home, and then ran the ships and railroads that carried all this stuff to the troops. Gradually, as one gets closer to the fighting, more and more of the support people are in uniform, often doing the same jobs as others further back. But as a result of this trend, and the increasing use of technology, today's armies are less than 20 percent warriors and the rest "camp followers in uniform." In effect, the uniformed camp followers outnumber the fighters in the armed forces. While the senior commanders still come from the ranks of the fighters, they are vastly outnumbered by non-warrior officers. This has created management problems in that the tail (support troops) has an increasing tendency to wag the dog (the warriors). While support troops are critical to the effective performance of modern armed forces, it's still the warriors that do the actual fighting. But in peacetime the warrior generals are increasingly outnumbered by the camp follower generals and this has led to less of a "warrior" mentality and more of a "camp follower" one. Naturally, in pitched battle an army led by a warrior will trounce one led by a camp follower. But you need a real, live war to prove that, while in peacetime you can believe whatever you want or can convince the media and your superiors to embrace.

The U.S. military has actually been hiring contractors more and more since the 1960s, but does not give a lot of publicity to the program, mainly because some of the contractors, especially those in medical jobs, get paid far more than someone in uniform doing the same job. But many of the civilians, hired to do what was previously done by soldiers, are making as much, or less, than the troops (including benefits).

Some American generals have said they want to dispense with expensive foreign contractors because they believe these people are much more expensive than soldiers would be, doing the same work. That is not always possible, as some of these contractors are technical specialists (as in electronics and communications) for which the military has no counterparts.

The military has always had a lot of civilians around but more of them are now doing jobs in combat zones or out in the field. Many of the civilians are retired military or have served for a few years. They know the drill, and what they are getting into, but doing it for the big payday.  

In the last half century conscription has fallen out of favor but volunteer troops are too expensive to be used for a lot of support jobs, so more and more of these chores are contracted out to civilians. Even if you're in a modern combat zone, you often won't even notice a lot of the contractor civilians. They often wear army combat uniforms without any rank insignia. Some are armed. They work for the army without being in the army. But the truth of the situation is that the military has been going back to the past to find the future.

Generals who try to get rid of civilian contractors soon face resistance from subordinate commanders who will point out that more troops assigned to support jobs will mean fewer available for combat.


Article Archive

Leadership: Current 2022 2021 2020 2019 2018 2017 2016 2015 2014 2013 2012 2011 2010 2009 2008 2007 2006 2005 2004 2003 2002 2001 2000 1999 



Help Keep Us Soaring

We need your help! Our subscription base has slowly been dwindling. We need your help in reversing that trend. We would like to add 20 new subscribers this month.

Each month we count on your subscriptions or contributions. You can support us in the following ways:

  1. Make sure you spread the word about us. Two ways to do that are to like us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter.
  2. Subscribe to our daily newsletter. We’ll send the news to your email box, and you don’t have to come to the site unless you want to read columns or see photos.
  3. You can contribute to the health of StrategyPage. A contribution is not a donation that you can deduct at tax time, but a form of crowdfunding. We store none of your information when you contribute..
Subscribe   Contribute   Close