Best Defense
Thomas E. Ricks' daily take on national security.

Is our country setting women up to fail?

By allowing women to attempt to try to perform functions for which they are highly challenged, are we setting most women up for failure?




By Col. Johnny Brooks, U.S. Army (Ret.)
Best Defense guest columnist

The Department of Defense has given the armed services until Oct 2015 to explain why each service cannot open all military occupational specialties to women. If exceptions are not requested and granted, in Jan 2016, every vocation in the U.S. military will be open for women. Women will be able to serve in all jobs unless the service presents a case to demonstrate why women should not. It is well known there are distinctions between men and women on what they can accomplish and how well. Women have always served our military with professionalism and exceptional performance. However, by allowing women to attempt to try to perform functions for which they are highly challenged, are we setting most women up for failure?

When engaging in this debate on where women can perform in the military and what they can do, we always shift to the physical differences between men and women. There will be some number of women who will be able to meet all physical challenges, so let’s leave that alone and admit that after exhaustive search and preparation, some women can physically qualify. For sure, the physical differences between men and women have had enough study, debate, and discussion. It exists. Get over it. Few appear to listen anyway.

Let’s also admit that this ongoing debate is not about improving military unit efficiency or bettering combat effectiveness but is more an attempt at allowing women to reach the highest ranks of the Army and USMC. Navy and AF have already allowed women to serve as pilots and ship’s officers, positions that will allow them to reach the highest of levels. In the Army and USMC, the greatest numbers of General Officers are largely populated by those who have trained over years to conduct offensive ground combat operations; Infantry, Armor and Field Artillery. Women are mostly precluded from those arms. Simply put, if you are going to have more women four-star generals then you need them to come from the infantry, armor, or field artillery. Don’t let anyone tell you this is about equality. It is about allowing a very few women to break the legendary “glass ceiling.”

Advocates in DOD and the services (mostly civilian political appointees, but not all) often state that other countries have been successful in integrating women into the entire armed forces. Show me the country that has been successful and fought a war? The country most used as a success story is Canada. Canada opened up its entire armed forces to women in 1986. Most recent statistical analysis of the Canadian Infantry obtainable indicated that .55% of Canadian infanteers were women. Is that a success story?   A further analysis indicates that a much larger percentage of those women are officers than enlisted personnel. Why? Women don’t want to serve in the infantry and, once there, don’t last as long as men due to lack of interest, potential for injury or life motivation changes. At best, unless composition of units is manipulated, there will be two or three women in an infantry company of 150 personnel. Is that a healthy atmosphere? It is most unlikely. Who are we setting up for failure here?

Of course, the first country most uninformed Americans turn to as a success of women fighting its wars is Israel. This is just a prime example of folklore taking momentum and being used to distort and further a cause. Currently Israel has an ongoing debate on the role of women much the same as do we. The IDF does not have women in infantry or armor units. It does have women at its training centers, training officers and soldiers on using the tools of war, but chose not to allow women in those combat units. The IDF has formed a battalion of infantry whose mission is border security (much like our Border Patrol but with a more military capabilities), the Caracal battalion, in which they do allow women to serve at all levels. Advocates of women being totally integrated in our Army and USMC use these examples often as how women fight Israel’s wars. Women serve in the IDF much the same as they are in the U.S. Army and USMC, actually with more limitations.

Others will use examples of other nations as success stories. The Republic of South Africa will tell you that 30% of its force is women. Getting confirmation of that has been difficult, but South Africans will also tell you that the purpose of their Army is not to fight wars but to be a peacekeeping force for Africa. The Swiss, one nation with male universal service but not for women, will tell you that it has many women in all its arms. The Swiss are a reserve army with only 1% serving on active duty in order to train and maintain their reserve force. The first comment a Swiss officer will make is that the chances of the Swiss army fighting in a war are “zero.” Other nations will say they have women in their infantry, but on analysis show they are deceiving their politicians by having women clerks, drivers, and mechanics in combat forces, but stop at allowing women in infantry fighting organizations, such as the squad and platoon.

Numerous militaries around the world advertise they have women throughout their military. Examination almost always shows at best they have lots of women officers with few enlisted personnel and they are almost always doing support functions. Again show us one country that has integrated successfully in combat forces and has fought a war. There are none of which I am aware that demonstrate success.

As stated before, we will always be able to find some women who can physically perform the functions required in combat forces. The real question is, “is it worth it?” Men are the problem. Men are incapable of holding women soldiers to the same standard they hold a male soldier. Now we hear all this discussion from our political and military leaders about gender equality in physical requirements; gender equal fitness testing. What does that mean? It means women are going to receive higher results on fitness testing at the expense of men getting less physically qualified. Many call that gender norming, making it easier for all. Simply said, that is no way to run a highly professional military organization. It is, however, a way to make more women compete.

Bigger than the physical norming is the acceptance of women by men. When men look at women soldiers, they see their daughters, wives, or in some cases their granddaughters. As such they believe since they are related to them they can accomplish anything. Well they can’t! Men have a difficult time counseling women on normal issues that a viable military force must openly discuss, like weight control, work absence, performance of duty or even disciplinary infractions. This inability of male leaders to be fair with all soldiers allows contempt to evolve. It is highly doubtful there is any way around men treating women differently.

The issue of cohesion comes up often in discussions on this subject. Social scientists often say that the entrance of women into all aspects of the military would have no effect on cohesion of units and thus would not affect readiness. I contend that nothing will tear apart a military organization like several lonely men seeking the affection of the sole female in the organization. Studies indicate it takes only a couple of weeks without the affections of a woman for a man to become somewhat controlled by those primal instincts. There is no doubt that cohesion will be greatly impacted by men seeking the affection of the same women in a military organization. I won’t go to the extreme of saying men will kill for the affection of a woman after a short period of time, but many men will become consumed in that effort. To those who say just order them to cease. You can’t legislate human sexuality, and you probably have never been in the military.

Earlier it was stated that we would leave the subject of physical differences out of the conversation. I will but I cannot leave alone the subject of injuries and in particular potentially disabling injuries. Studies estimate women are at least three times (statistics vary by study, some are up to eight times as great) more liable to be injured than a man, and that is in conventional support units. In the more physically demanding combat arms; armor, field artillery and infantry, it should be anticipated there will be a large increase in injured female soldiers. Some will be maimed for life. Others will be so injured they will have to leave the service or the combat arms. We can anticipate a serious impact on the retention of women beyond first term of service and a drop in the continuance rate to a military career because of an increase in and type of injuries. Injuries will not only limit the success of women in the military but will have tremendous impact on many of them for life.

Should we implement women in all vocations of the Army and USMC, there will accordingly be an increase on the number of women who will be required to deploy to fight our nations wars in the MEUs of the USMC and BCTs of the Army. That is what those fighting organizations do, deploy and fight our wars. In the testimonies before the Military Leadership Diversity Commission, information was provided from the services that the major reason given by women for departure from the services, especially the USMC and Army, were deployments. Recently, the Population Representation in the Military Services; FY 2013 Summary report, stated that the percentage of women in the enlisted force has been decreasing each year over the past decade. The increase of women departing from the services can be correlated to the increase in deployments caused by the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Evidence shows women don’t like to deploy and, as a result, the services are having a decline in women who are being retained. Increase women’s representation in the highly deployable forces of the MEUs and the BCTs and you can only predict more women will leave the services. This does not appear to set women and the services up for success.

If women are allowed to serve in combat forces, someone, somewhere, probably some politician who has never served, is going to argue that women should be drafted and involuntarily placed in the combat forces and especially the infantry. The thought of women non-volunteers being forced into the Infantry by a draft should not appeal to any mother or father in our country. Those drafted usually go into the military vocation of least favor, and Infantry, in time of war, is the least favored. The thought of having women in the Infantry is one thing, but to force them into combat forces is totally another. It is a recipe for military disaster.

When in discussion with senior officers who advocate the total integration of women into all aspects of our forces, I have over the years listened and developed this tactic. All of these senior officers were at one time a commander at company level. I simply asked them, “Okay, commander, how would you like to be the company commander of that rifle company on top of some mountain, in Afghanistan, on an eight month deployment with two or three women in a company of 150 men.” The usual response is that is just a matter of good leadership, applying law and order and ensuring respect. My response is always, “Okay, Dad — how would you like one of those two or three women to be your daughter?” I have yet to hear a response.

There is more to integrating women into the entire armed forces than just building muscles and taking a lower standard, gender normed physical fitness test. There is just the simple question on why? We are doing this because some, in a large minority, think many, in a small majority, want to be allowed to serve in the units in our military that are charged to take combat to the enemy. We will find out much the same as have the Canadians and others; women just won’t be interested in serving in this capacity.   We will create a very unhealthy atmosphere and have a few women struggling to make it along with a lot of men. Is it fair for a very small number of women to be placed in this situation all in the name of being able to possibly, maybe, appoint one additional woman four star General in 40 years. It is seriously doubtful.

The leadership will probably state that if integration into all arms isn’t successful then we revert back and go to the old way, the correct way. Only one time have I seen the U.S. military admit it was wrong. In the 80s, we attempted gender integrated basic training in the Army. It was an abject failure, and we admitted it and returned to the gender segregated training only. Only several years later, with new political guidance and senior leaders more desiring to accommodate, we tried again and succeeded. Dig deep on this subject, and you will see it is less than successful. Done in order to assist women in improving, this method of training has not made women better but has lowered the standards for men to achieve.

Are we setting up women for failure? We definitely are setting up a much larger number for failure than we will have those who are successful. One thing for sure is that young people’s level of confidence is quite malleable. Make them succeed early and they have a greater chance at succeeding for life. Have them fail early and they lose the confidence rapidly and early that is necessary to be successful. A very few women will succeed in this endeavor, if allowed. Military readiness will not be improved one bit. Maybe, just maybe, in 40 years the politicians will get what they seek; one more woman in visible four star General positions in our military. The politicians will try to ensure that happens.

What if the services fail to rebut the orders of the Secretary of Defense to allow women to serve in all military vocations or what if the SecDef denies the rebuttals? The bad news is we can expect to physically injure many women and force them to be placed on the roles of the Social Security Administration as early disabled and join those who are tenants of the Veterans’ Administration for life. The second order effect is that we will have allowed women to become early failures who will have to face those issues the remainder of their lives. The good news is women aren’t stupid. There won’t be very many attempt to join the combat arms because they know their own shortcomings. The bottom line is, if allowed to happen, this would not pass the common sense test and will not improve military effectiveness or unit efficiency at all.

In over 30 years, Colonel Brooks commanded and trained units at all levels from platoon to brigade. He also trained with the U.K. Parachute Regiment while commanding a rifle company. He wishes to state this article was written prior to publishing of an article with similar title, “Is the Marine Corps Setting Women Up to Fail in Combat Roles?” by Col. (Ret.) Ellen Haren.

Defense Video & Imagery Distribution System

Thomas E. Ricks covered the U.S. military from 1991 to 2008 for the Wall Street Journal and then the Washington Post. He can be reached at Twitter: @tomricks1

More from Foreign Policy

Keri Russell as Kate Wyler walks by a State Department Seal from a scene in The Diplomat, a new Netflix show about the foreign service.
Keri Russell as Kate Wyler walks by a State Department Seal from a scene in The Diplomat, a new Netflix show about the foreign service.

At Long Last, the Foreign Service Gets the Netflix Treatment

Keri Russell gets Drexel furniture but no Senate confirmation hearing.

Chinese President Xi Jinping and French President Emmanuel Macron speak in the garden of the governor of Guangdong's residence in Guangzhou, China, on April 7.
Chinese President Xi Jinping and French President Emmanuel Macron speak in the garden of the governor of Guangdong's residence in Guangzhou, China, on April 7.

How Macron Is Blocking EU Strategy on Russia and China

As a strategic consensus emerges in Europe, France is in the way.

Chinese President Jiang Zemin greets U.S. President George W. Bush prior to a meeting of APEC leaders in 2001.
Chinese President Jiang Zemin greets U.S. President George W. Bush prior to a meeting of APEC leaders in 2001.

What the Bush-Obama China Memos Reveal

Newly declassified documents contain important lessons for U.S. China policy.

A girl stands atop a destroyed Russian tank.
A girl stands atop a destroyed Russian tank.

Russia’s Boom Business Goes Bust

Moscow’s arms exports have fallen to levels not seen since the Soviet Union’s collapse.