Women in the Armed Forces and Women in Combat

(© 2003 by Russ Lewis All rights reserved)



In 1973 I volunteered to go back to Vietnam for a second time; this time as commander of the 505th Tactical Control Group, the group in charge of our Southeast Asian radar sites. But just before I left the west coast all United States forces pulled out of Vietnam, and I ended up commanding the 621st Tactical Control Squadron, headquartered at Udorn (Udon Thani), Thailand. The 621st inherited the remaining Southeast Asian radar units, a logistics center in Bangkok, and a classified mission devolved from the 505th.

In my third month at Udorn my executive officer went home. His replacement turned out to be a first lieutenant whose first name was Ellen. A few Caucasian women had been on the base before Ellen, but they were civilians: the wing commander’s secretary, a girl from the consulate downtown, an occasional wife brought over as a visitor in tourist status, etc. Ellen was the first military woman on the base and her arrival caused a stir.

As soon as she’d unpacked Ellen tried to get women’s fatigues from base supply but was told she’d have to go across the road to Amarjit, the Sikh tailor, and have him make her some. She wasn’t satisfied with that answer and neither was I. Eventually, after a few arguments and near fistfights, she showed up in some huge fatigues with the trousers and sleeves rolled way up. In another month or so some girl fatigues arrived from the states and Ellen was able to stop looking like a clown. There were other similar incidents, but that one still makes me smile.

If you’re a squadron commander, even if your squadron really is a group with units scattered around the country, you’re the troop commander for its local members. At Udorn that included the people in the squadron headquarters, the people manning the classified center, and the people at Brigham Control, which was one of the radar sites under the 621st, and was on base – a total of several hundred. As a troop commander you’re responsible for your people whether they’re on duty or off. That means that if someone in your outfit gets in trouble down town at night, you get called out – unless the executive officer and/or first sergeant can take care of the problem without your help.

Happily I had a top-notch first sergeant, and Ellen turned out to be the best executive officer anyone possibly could have. She was easy to get along with, tough when she needed to be, extremely well organized, and always cheerful – a ray of sunshine even when things weren’t going right, and thanks to Ellen all sorts of nasty details got taken care of without me having to become involved, a lot more than had been the case with her predecessor.

But a problem arose when a couple of officers in the unit started sniffing around after her. Ellen didn’t need help to take care of that kind of situation. She had a husband back in the States and she could handle herself exceedingly well. She’d brush off the sniffers with a smile and go on about her business, but the issue never quite went away. The result was a morale problem, albeit a minor one, that we didn’t really need.

When I returned to the States I was assigned as Director of Combat Operations at 29th NORAD Region, Great Falls, Montana. I was in charge of five crews that provided early warning and intercept control over the region. By this time there were quite a few women on the crews. Most of them were very capable, though they were less likely to be available for duty than the men.

I think women make better executive officers than men, and I don’t doubt that women can fly airplanes as well as men can. In fact I can’t think of many things that need to be done in the Air Force that women can’t do just as well, and in some cases, better than men.

Except combat.

If you go to Google and type in “women in combat,” you’ll find more information than you’ll be able to assimilate in a lifetime, because more is being added faster than you can read. You’ll find several kinds of arguments and information on the web:

You’ll find feminist rants and propaganda by pundits and other usual suspects about how unfair it is that women can’t be in combat. My favorite is an article by Suzanne Ontiveros in the Chicago Sun-Times entitled “Foes of Women in Combat Crawl Out of the Woodwork.” Her funkiest opinion in that article is: “I think women who are in the military should be treated the same as their male counterparts. Everyone makes such a big deal about being able to do push-ups and other physical feats. We’ve yet to see a war where the guy who could do the most push-ups won the battle.”

Then you’ll see articles by academics like Robin Gerber, senior scholar at the Academy of Leadership, University of Maryland, who says that preventing women from being combat infantry grunts is an effort aimed at “moving women back to the mess hall.” And a statement by David Segal, a sociology professor and director of the Center for Research on Military Organization at the University of Maryland who says several conservative (emphasis added) groups use the issue of military efficiency to “couch their opposition to women’s participation in the military.” And an article by Kenneth P. Werrell, Ph.D, Associate Professor of History at Radford College, impartially titled: “Should Women Be Permitted in Combat? Yes.” Kenneth states: “Soldiers should be judged on their ability to do the job, not their age, color, or sex.” Kenneth is a USAFA graduate who spent five years in the Air Force and flew weather reconnaissance aircraft in Japan for three and a half years before deciding to put all that combat behind him and become an academic.

The silliest of the academic papers I found is one entitled “The Warrior Framework Under Fire: Challenging Traditional Debates Surrounding the Role of Women in the Military, Today and Tomorrow,” by Karen D. Davis and Brian McKee, two fellows at the Directorate of Strategic Human Resources, Canadian Armed Forces, Ottawa. Their paper summarizes “deep” sociological research on the “characteristics of the warrior,” and comes up with such gems as: “In one test, participants had to hold their arms in a rigid position out of the body. Just over 75% of the time, women outlasted men;” and “Germany now permits women in combat units… They have joined Canada, Denmark, Norway, Spain and Sweden in opening up all military positions to women,” and this incredible non sequitur intended to refute the idea that pregnancy among “warriors” is a problem: “It has not been established that rates of pregnancy in mixed operational environments is greater than the rate of pregnancy witnessed among the female population as a whole.”

Then, there’s the opinion of that well-known group, Many Experts, that having women in combat is inevitable because there’s a “… growing international move to include women in combat missions by Canada, South Africa and a number of Scandinavian countries.” You’ll find this kind of hogwash repeated over and over again.

But the scariest things you’ll find are traces of the efforts the United States is making to take the politically correct path and rush women into combat. For instance:

The story of Kara Hultgreen. Kara was the Navy’s first female F-14 carrier pilot. During carrier flight training she’d received four “down”s, any one of which would have washed out a male pilot, and two of the “down”s involved a mistake similar to the one that finally killed her. On October 25, 1994, during a landing, she experienced a compressor stall in her F-14’s left engine, failed to execute correct go-around procedures, got behind the power curve, and went into the water. Nineteen days later they found her body. The Navy claimed the accident was caused by mechanical failure, but someone finally got fed up with the lies that were being handed out and smuggled a copy of the accident report to a newspaper. You can find the report on the web nowadays and, especially if you’ve flown jet aircraft, you’ll find it interesting reading. There was a bleed valve failure in the left engine that made a compressor stall more likely than usual, but Kara pulled off too much power, then advanced the throttles too quickly to correct for too low an airspeed, pulled up the nose, stalled the compressor in the left engine, and then failed to handle the stick and rudder properly once she was waved off and went to afterburner power. The only part of this fiasco that really was Kara’s fault was her frantic desire to be a carrier pilot. As Jonathan Rosenblum wrote in the Jerusalem post: “Ironically, Hultgreen had written earlier to a Rear Admiral, ‘If people let me slide through on a lower standard, it’s my life on the line.’” Her trainers tried to wash her out but the Navy was trying hard to conform to the PC ethos, heavy in the land in 1994, and wouldn’t allow it. In the end it was the Clinton administration and some gutless navy officers who killed her.

You’ll also come across the Linda Bray story: Linda was the captain held up by Pat Schroeder as a perfect example of the effectiveness of women in combat when she liberated a dog kennel during the incursion in Panama. At first we were told that she and her troops engaged in a three hour firefight, but a research paper by Aaron Naparstek says: “Original Army reports erroneously claimed that Captain Bray had ‘crashed through the gate in a jeep armed with a .50 caliber machine gun. Three enemy dead were found later.’ In reality, the fight occurred over a PDF dog kennel, it lasted ten minutes, no one was killed, and Bray gave the attack order over the radio.”

Then there was the USS Arcadia, stationed in the Persian Gulf during Desert Storm, and dubbed “the love boat” when it was discovered that ten percent of its women had become pregnant and had to be evacuated. And the USS Eisenhower, a nuclear aircraft carrier about to leave for the Adriatic Sea with a crew of 4,919 sailors to patrol the no-fly zone over Bosnia. As the ship was about to sail it was discovered that 24 “sailors” were pregnant. Then, once the ship got on station, 15 more “sailors” became pregnant and had to be evacuated.

Recently, we’ve heard the Jessica Lynch story in which Jessica fought to the last woman, killing enemy after enemy until her ammunition ran out, then was shot, stabbed, captured, and rescued. But once she arrived in hospital, doctors couldn’t find any signs of gunshots or stab wounds, though she had injuries consistent with a truck accident.

Lets face it, the armed forces of neither Canada, Germany, nor the Scandinavian countries have seen serious combat since long before political correctness took over. The only three countries with recent large-scale combat experience are Great Britain, Israel, and the United States.

In 2001 British Defence Secretary Geoff Hoon ordered a “Combat Effectiveness Gender Study,” a study Mr. Hoon expected would demonstrate that women are physically capable of serving in land combat units. The study was released in January 2002 and recommended that women not be allowed to fight in the front lines.

In a test requiring soldiers to carry 90 lbs. of artillery shells over measured distance, the male failure rate was 20%. The female failure rate was 70%. (Suzanne Ontiveros, call your office; these girls hadn’t been doing their pushups.)

In a 12.5-mile route march carrying 60 lbs. of equipment, followed by target practice simulating conditions under fire, men failed in 17% of cases. Women failed in 48%.

Females were generally slower in simulated combat exercises involving lengthy “fire and move” situations, in which participants had to sprint from one position to another in full battle dress.

In close-quarter battle tests, including hand-to-hand combat, women suffered much higher injury rates.

In addition to shortcomings in physical strength, the report said that the cohension of frontline units suffers when women are introduced, because men’s behavior becomes “more instinctive and less professional.” (emphasis added)

According to Brigadier General Suzy Yogev of the Israeli army, women in some Israeli units suffer 30% more stress fractures than men in training.

A 1994 article by John Luddy for the Heritage Foundation said: “History shows that the presence of women has a devastating impact on the effectiveness of men in battle. For example, it is a common misperception that Israel allows women in combat units. In fact, women have been barred from combat in Israel since 1950, when a review of the 1948 Arab-Israeli War showed how harmful their presence could be. The study revealed that men tried to protect and assist women rather than continue their attack. As a result, they not only put their own lives in greater danger, but also jeopardized the survival of the entire unit. The study further revealed that unit morale was damaged when men saw women killed and maimed on the battlefield.”

Edward Norton, a reservist in the Israel Defense Forces adds: "Women have always played an important role in the Israeli military, but they rarely see combat; if they do, it is usually by accident. No one in Israel, including feminists, has any objection to this situation. The fact that the Persian Gulf War has produced calls to allow women on the front lines proves only how atypical that war was and how little Americans really understand combat."

There’s a lot more of this from British and Israeli sources. In short, people with first-hand combat experience understand why women don’t belong in it. Furthermore, academic studies before the fact can’t really tell us much that’s useful about combat and the place of women in it, nor is anyone whose combat experience consists of three and a half years flying weather reconnaissance qualified to write about combat, with or without women. Having an opinion about combat without having been there is like having an opinion about what it’s like to be black if you’re not black. You have a right to your opinion, but it’s going to be an uninformed opinion, even if you buttress it with “research.”

Jonathan Rosenblum put his finger on the most significant problem in an August, 2001 Jerusalem Post article: “… an elaborate set of rituals by which men have always bonded into cohesive fighting units has been abandoned as unsuitable. (emphasis added) As Barbara Pope, a former undersecretary of the Navy for manpower (Clinton administration), described the goal: ‘We are weeding out the white male as the norm. We’re about changing the culture.’”

Rosenblum continues with the clearest statement of the case I saw on the web: “… standards can be lowered for basic training, but the conditions of actual military operations cannot be made equally forgiving. Armed services can ignore the facts of nature, but the results will be felt in money and lives. The US Army twice attempted to develop ‘gender neutral’ strength tests for different military operational specialties. The effort had to be abandoned when preliminary studies showed that most women were not strong enough for 70% of the military specialties. Yet allowing women into those specialties without such standards has resulted in a situation in which women are disproportionately incapable of performing the military specialties for which they have been trained.”


To summarize what the people who know about combat tell us and what our own experience confirms:


First, when men and women are mixed in a military unit, sex always becomes a problem. Second, if it’s an infantry or a field artillery unit, women can’t handle the heavy lifting, running, etc., called for by actual, as opposed to training, conditions, which means that everyone in the unit is placed in unnecessary peril. The same thing would be true on a ship hit by a torpedo or a bomb when upper body strength is needed to save lives and shore up the vessel. Third, seeing women killed and chopped up on a battlefield rattles men more than seeing other men killed and chopped up. Fourth, and far more important than any of the other three: An effective combat unit depends on a kind of bonding between men no woman ever can be a part of.


So where does that leave us?


Well, it leaves me back at the problem Ellen poses. I think we need Ellens in our armed forces, but promotion to the highest military grades should require combat experience, but Ellen shouldn’t be in combat. Women always will be headed down a dead-end street in their military careers unless we pretend that problems with women in combat don’t exist and send them into combat. Unfortunately, that’s what we’re doing at present. Our government and news media work hard to produce the illusion Pat Schroeder, the Clintons, and others like them would have us accept in lieu of reality. And to a large extent, because our recent experience with combat doesn’t expose their distortions, they’re getting away with it. But as Edward Norton perceived, the wars we’ve fought since Vietnam have been atypical. We’ve been able to exercise overwhelming force against our adversaries in all of these wars. We’ve had absolute air supremacy. There was no aerial combat in either Gulf war. Aircraft that were shot down were shot down by ground fire and the ground fire was trifling compared with the ground fire we experienced in Europe, Korea, Laos, Vietnam, and Cambodia. Air and ground casualties have been very, very few, even though they’ve been played up in the newspapers as verging on unacceptable.

If we can maintain our overwhelming military supremacy forever we’ll never have to pay a heavy price in blood and treasure for our illusions. But history should tell us that that’s a forlorn hope. In the long run, if we embed our women deeply into our combat structure, then have to fight a less asymmetric war than our recent ones, trying to restructure our forces on the run as we come face to face with reality may cost us not only a terrible human price, but defeat.

In the end, much as I wish for it, I haven’t an answer to the question of how to integrate Ellens into our armed forces without damaging the forces and without disadvantaging the women. I keep groping for one.


Russ Lewis

July 19, 2003

By the time she went home, Ellen’s husband had decided he didn’t like living without a wife for a year at a time and they divorced. Ellen and an OSI lieutenant she’d become friendly with in Thailand – friendly only, I have no doubt, since I knew the OSI lieutenant quite well – came to visit me one evening when I was stationed in Texas. They seemed a great couple and both were single then. I’ve lost contact with both of them, but I’ve always hoped they made a life together.