Five years after the U.S. Army was ordered to allow women to take combat (infantry, armor, artillery, combat engineers) jobs, women account for about 1.13 percent of the 83,000 infantry and armor troops. That comes to 0.93 percent of the enlisted troops and 2.6 percent of the officers. The percentages are smaller in the reserves and National Guard.
Allowing women into the combat units was always more of a political than a practical issue. In 2014, after years of trying to justify allowing women into the infantry, artillery and armor and special operations forces, the U.S. government decided to just order the military to make it happen and do so without degrading the capabilities of these units. While the army was inclined to just say yes, find out what quotas the politicians wanted and go through the motions, others refused to play along. SOCOM (Special Operations Command) and the marines pointed out that the research does not support the political demands and that actually implementing the quotas could get people killed while degrading the effectiveness of the units involved. This is yet another reason why many politicians do not like the marines and are uneasy about SOCOM.
But action had to be taken and orders were orders. The various services opened up some infantry training programs to women and discovered two things. First, over 90 percent of women did not want to serve in any combat unit, especially the infantry. Those women who did, the majority of them officers, and went through infantry training discovered what female athletes and epidemiologists (doctors who study medical statistics) have long known; women are ten times more likely (than men) to suffer bone injuries and nearly as likely to suffer muscular injuries while engaged in stressful activities like basketball or infantry operations. Mental stress is another issue and most women who volunteered to try infantry training dropped out within days because of the combination of mental and physical stress. Proponents of women in combat, none of them combat veterans, dismissed these issues as minor and easily fixed, but offered no tangible or proven solutions.
In the army requirements were “modified” and everyone was told having some women in combat jobs was now the law and it had to be obeyed. While the army just did as they were told and complied, the marines were not as compliant. Back in 2012 the U.S. Army and Marine Corps were ordered to come up with procedures to select women capable of handling infantry and special operations assignments and then recruit some women for these jobs. This had become an obsession with many politicians. None of these proponents of women in the infantry had ever served in the infantry, but they understood that if they proceeded without proof that women could handle the job, that decision could mean getting a lot of American soldiers and marines killed. The politicians also knew that if it came to that, the military could be blamed for not implementing the new policy correctly.
These tests, overseen by monitors reporting back to civilian officials in Congress and the White House, failed to find the needed proof that women could handle infantry combat. The main problem the military had was their inability to make these politicians understand how combat operations actually work and the role sheer muscle plays in success, or simply survival. But many politicians had become committed to the idea that women should serve in the infantry and were ignoring contrary evidence.
All this comes after decades of allowing women to take jobs that were more and more likely to result in women having to deal with combat. Not infantry combat, but definitely dangerous situations where you were under attack and had to fight back or die. This was not infantry operations, which consisted of lots more moving around on foot carrying heavy loads and looking for a fight. Despite the infantry ban, many women serving in Iraq and Afghanistan found themselves in firefights and exposed to roadside bombs, something that's normal for a combat zone. Because women were earlier allowed to serve in MP (military police) units and serve regularly on convoy security duty, they got some combat experience. Those convoys often included other female troops who were trained to fight back, if necessary. It was usually the MPs who did the fighting and the female MPs performed well. Several of them received medals for exceptional performance in combat.
Hundreds of these female MPs were regularly in combat after September 11, 2001. This was the largest and longest exposure of American female troops to direct combat. Yet women have often been exposed to a lot of indirect combat. 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 14 percent of the military personnel but only two percent of the casualties (dead and wounded). Most women do not want to be in combat but those who did get a job with a risk of combat were trained for it and proved that they could handle it. These women knew that being in combat as an MP was not the same as doing it in an infantry unit. This experience, however, did provide proof to some that women could perform in infantry or special operations type combat.
All this controversy about women and combat is actually an ancient problem. The issue has long been contentious. Throughout history women have performed well in combat but mainly in situations where pure physical force was not a major factor. For example, women often played a large, and often decisive, part of the defending force in sieges. Many women learned to use the light bow for hunting. While not as lethal as the heavy bows (like the English longbow or Central Asian compound bow), when the situation got desperate the female archers made a difference, especially if it was shooting at men coming over the wall with rape and general mayhem in mind.
Once lightweight firearms appeared in the 18th and 19th centuries women were even deadlier in combat. Again, this only occurred in combat situations where the superior physical strength and sturdiness of men was not a factor. Then and now most infantry operations are all about the grunts (as infantry are often called) just moving themselves and their heavy loads into position for a fight. Here the sturdiness angle was all about the fact that men have more muscle and thicker bones. This makes men much less likely to suffer stress fractures or musculoskeletal injuries than women. This phenomenon has been noted as women became more active in sports like basketball. Modern infantry combat is intensely physical, and most women remain at a disadvantage here. There are some exceptions for specialist tasks that do not involve sturdiness or strength, like sniping. Then there is the hormonal angle. Men generate a lot more testosterone, a hormone that makes men more decisive and faster to act in combat. Moreover, testosterone does not, as the popular myth goes, make you more aggressive, it does make you more aware and decisive. That makes a difference in combat. Women seem to realize this as well and most of the women prefer serving in armor (tank and armored scout) units. This still involves some heavy lifting but not nearly as much as in the infantry. Tank crews spend most of their time sitting down inside an air-conditioned armored vehicle waiting for an opportunity to shoot something. Sort of like snipers, a task women tend to excel at, especially if the fighting is static and the female snipers to not have to carry large loads over long distances to get an opportunity to snipe. Russia female soldiers were particularly lethal as snipers in the many static (the battle lines did not move much) situations that occurred during World War II in Russia.
The main problem today is that the average load for a combat infantryman is over 40 kg (88 pounds) and men (in general) have always had more muscle, upper body strength and the ability to handle heavy loads better than women. But in situations like convoy escort, base security, or support jobs in the combat zone the combat load is lower and more manageable for women. It’s similar for armored units, although tank maintenance often involves some weight lifting and muscle. At that point there’s plenty of recent evidence that women can handle themselves in combat. That said, women, more than men, prefer to avoid serving in combat units.
Since 2001 American recruiters found it easier to find young men for combat units than for support jobs. It’s mainly female officers who demand the right to try out for combat jobs. That’s because the most of the senior jobs in the military go only to those who have some experience in a combat unit. But when the marines allowed 14 female marines to take the infantry officer course, none could pass and all agreed that they were treated just like the male trainees. Eventually two female marines did pass this course and that was not because the marines lowered their standards. This was not a unique situation.
Because of the strenuous nature of combat jobs (armor, artillery, and engineers, as well as infantry) there are physical standards for these occupations. The U.S. military calls it a profile and if you do not have the physical profile for a job, you can’t have it. While many men are not physically fit for the infantry, even fewer women are. For example, 55 percent of women cannot do the three pull-ups required in the physical fitness test, compared to only one percent of men. Some women could meet the physical standards and be eager to have the job. But Western nations (including Canada) that have sought to recruit physically qualified female candidates for the infantry found few volunteers and even fewer who could meet the profile and pass the training. While there are some women who can handle the physical requirements, very few come forward to volunteer for infantry duty. One survey of female soldiers in the U.S. Army found that over 92 percent would not be interested in having an infantry job. Decades of American research into the matter concluded that about three percent of women could be trained to the point where they were at the low end of the physically “qualified” people (male or female) for infantry combat. What that bit of data ignores is how many of those physically strong women would want a career in the infantry or special operations. There would be a few, but for the politicians who want women represented in infantry units this would smack of tokenism. All this came up during a time (post 2001) when physical standards for American infantry and special operations troops were increasing, because this was found to produce more effective troops and lower American casualties.
One area where women are sometimes recruited for infantry combat is in commando and paramilitary intelligence organizations. This is kept secret but having a combat-qualified woman along on some missions can be the key to success. While these women usually cannot carry as much weight, they often have language, cultural, and other skills that make them an essential part of the team. Special operations raids usually involve the troops travelling light so they can use speed and surprise to succeed. Exceptions can be made for exceptional people and the exceptional missions where they can be decisive. Women have long served as spies, and this is apparently how women came to become part of some commando organizations.
When the U.S. used conscription, the infantry ended up with a lot of less-muscular and enthusiastic men in the infantry. Allowances were made for this, but for elite units (paratroopers, commandos) there were no corners cut and everyone had to volunteer and meet high physical standards. That made a very noticeable difference in the combat abilities of the elite unit. After the 1970s all infantry were recruited to those old elite standards and it would wreck morale and decrease the number of male volunteers if it was mandated that some less physically qualified women be able to join infantry units. This doesn’t bother a lot of politicians but it does bother the guys out there getting shot at.
Meanwhile over the last century women have been increasingly a part of the military. In most Western nations over ten percent of military personnel are female. In the U.S. Army it’s now 15 percent, with 14 percent of enlisted troops and 19 percent of officers female. In the marines only 8.5 percent of officers are women. A century ago women comprised less than one percent of the military during World War I and most of those were nurses and other medical personnel. More women are in uniform now because there aren't enough qualified men, especially for many of the technical jobs armed forces now have to deal with. In the United States women became more of a presence in the armed forces after the military went all-volunteer in the 1970s. That led to more and more combat-support jobs being opened to women. This became popular within the military because the women were often better at these support jobs. This led to women being allowed to serve on American combat ships in 1994. In most NATO countries between 5-10 percent of sailors are women, while in Britain it is 10 percent, and in the United States 16 percent.
Once women were allowed to fly combat aircraft, it was only a matter of time before some of them rose to command positions. Currently, about ten percent of navy officers are female, as are nine percent of enlisted personnel. Only 4.2 percent of navy aviators (pilots) are women, as are 6.9 percent of flight officers (non-pilot aircrew). In the air force five percent of pilots are women. Women now command warships and air combat units (including fighter squadrons). Some women, and their political supporters, want to do the same thing in the infantry and special operations. If only the physical problems could be taken care of.
Advocates for women in combat also have to worry about combat casualties and the very well documented history of women in combat. During World War II over five million women served in the military, although they suffered fewer losses than the men, several hundred thousand did die. These women were often exposed to combat, especially when fighting as guerillas or operating anti-aircraft guns and early warning systems in Russia, Germany, and Britain. Russia also used women as traffic cops near the front line, as snipers, and as combat pilots. They tried using them as tank crews and regular infantry, but that didn’t work out, a historical lesson lost on current proponents. Women were most frequently employed in medical and other support jobs. The few who served as snipers or pilots were very good at it.
Most of the women who served in combat did so in guerilla units, especially in the Balkans and Russia. The women could not haul as heavy a load as the men but this was often not crucial, as many guerillas were only part-time fighters, living as civilians most of the time. Full time guerilla units often imposed the death penalty for pregnancy, although the women sometimes would not name the father. That said, guerilla organizations often imposed the death penalty for a number of offenses. The guerillas had few places to keep prisoners and sloppiness could get a lot of guerillas killed. The women tended to be more disciplined than the men and just as resolute in combat.
In the last century there have been several attempts to use women in ground combat units, and all have failed. When given a choice, far fewer women will choose combat jobs (infantry, armor, artillery). But duty as MPs does attract a lot of women, as do jobs like fighter, bomber, helicopter pilots and crews, and aboard warships. That works.
Meanwhile the casualty rate for women in Iraq was over ten times what it was in World War II, Vietnam, and the 1991 Gulf War (where 30,000 women served). A lot of the combat operations experienced by women in Iraq involved base security or guard duty. Female troops performed well in that. These were jobs that required alertness, attention to detail, and ability to quickly use your weapons when needed. Carrying a heavy load was not required. In convoy operations women have also done well, especially when it comes to spotting, and dealing with, IEDs (roadside bombs and ambushes). Going into the 21st century, warfare is becoming more automated and less dependent on muscle and testosterone. That gives women an edge, and they exploit it, just as they have done in so many other fields.
Meanwhile the military has been ordered to continue conducting experiments in order to find a way to justify allowing females in the infantry and special operations troops. After that comes the difficulty in finding women who are willing to volunteer and pass whatever standards survive.