On 3 December, 2015, U.S. Defense Secretary Ashton Carter announced that all positions in the U.S. military will be opened up to women. “There will be no exceptions…they’ll be allowed to drive tanks, fire mortars, and lead infantry soldiers into combat. They’ll be able to serve as Army Rangers and Green Berets, Navy SEALs, Marine Corps infantry, Air Force para-jumpers, and everything else that was previously open only to men” (Matthew Rosenberg, 2015). Although new and controversial in the U.S., it is obvious that it has been a long time coming.
Here in Canada, all trades and roles were opened up to women way back in 1989. The one exception was submarine service, due to inadequate space, which was finally opened up with the acquisition of the new and more spacious Victoria-class submarines in 2000. While every experience is different, Canada and the U.S. do have similar cultures in many respects, and the Canadian experience with integration of women may provide some guidance and cautions for our cousins.
First, I will make a few things clear: I’m not going to waste much, if any, space arguing whether I feel that they should be allowed to assume combat roles. There is no shortage of opinions being aired out there, and I don’t think another one would really contribute much. This isn’t therapy for me, the change was made here long before I ever thought of joining, so we’re more or less over it. Once the decision has been made, it’s important to just get on with it. As I alluded to, it was a long time coming and it’s highly unlikely that it’s going to be reversed. Anyone who hasn’t seen this train coming has had blinders on.
As always, we need to focus on what’s within our circle of control, and adapt to what isn’t. Another reason for staying out of any fight to reverse the decision is that by doing so, you will find yourself being sidelined from shaping its implementation. It will be obvious that any arguments made are simply crafted to keep women out instead of maintaining combat effectiveness. If combat effectiveness is truly your concern, it’s better to remain agnostic on the inclusion of women and keep tightly focused on objective standards. Veterans and serving personnel alike are the ones best qualified to implement this decision, and if they’re marginalized from the debate, it will be worse for everyone.
I think it’s important to swat away some of the silly, stupid, and even some of the plausible-sounding arguments against integrating women, before I get into the very serious issues of getting on with it. It’s important because the more they get shouted around, the less credibility we will have in shaping the policy implementation. First, we live in a democracy with certain rights and principles that are enshrined in our constitutions. In Canada, it is the Charter of Rights and Freedoms, and in the U.S., it is the Equal Rights Act. In practice, of course, we’re talking about equality of opportunity; some (mostly college/university students) mistake this for equality of outcomes—not the same thing. There have always been limitations on this, but the trend has always been expansion of these rights, granting them to more and more groups—not retraction.
It is a massive hill to climb to say someone should be denied the right of opportunity, and the weight of evidence is on proving their rights should be denied, not that there is some advantage for granting the rights. You can’t make a case on small percentages, either. Denying handicapped access to federal buildings because it’s expensive to install ramps that only one percent of employees or visitors will use is a non-starter; saying this recent move is costly considering the small percentage of women who will ever want to join or qualify for combat trades is essentially the same. And if you vehemently disagree, don’t yell at me through your computer screen, go after your courts and legislators.
Some of the really ridiculous arguments being thrown out there are about how combat is no place for women; it’s a violent nightmare filled with blood, guts, and fear. True, but then women have been exposed to this forever. It’s as if we forget that they fill our medical ranks, and support trades certainly aren’t immune to combat, either. There aren’t any discernible front lines anymore, and we have certainly managed just fine with letting women outside the wire without them breaking into mass hysteria at the first rounds fired at them or the sight of blood.
As for the pressures of command, Canada has deployed a female company commander into combat. Maj Eleanor Taylor was deployed to Kandahar with 1st Battalion, the Royal Canadian Regiment (1RCR), in 2009, and was praised by those who served with her, and may very well be on track to be the first female infantry battalion CO (King, 2013). Capt. Ashley Collette was a platoon commander in Panjwaii District in Kandahar in May–December 2010, and was awarded the Medal of Military Valour for her leadership on that tour where she lost men and led a platoon of 60 in combat in one of the toughest neighborhoods (she of course rightly places the credit with her platoon). She shared the tight confines of the COP with her men (she was the only female), changing in her sleeping bag or simply asking for privacy when required with no drama (Kremer, 2013).
Another patronizing argument is that the men will be too distracted trying to save the women in their unit to carry on with the mission. This is stupid. We all have different relationships with the guys in our unit and I don’t think any factor that increases our determination to fight for each other is a bad thing. Can it be distracting from the mission? Yes, but it already happens. WO Frank Mellish and Pvt. William Cushley were killed going to the aid of Mellish’s best friend, WO Francis Nolan, in the opening salvos of Operation Medusa in Panjwaii, Afghanistan (Day, 2007). In the Korean War, Lt. (J.G.) Tom Hudner won the Medal of Honor for deliberately crashing his plane to attempt to save his best friend and wingman, Ensign Jesse Brown (Wikipedia, 2015). I challenge anyone to criticize their actions.
So is everything going to be all bright and rosy? No. Women are different, and some of these differences will provide advantages—access to other sources of intelligence and different viewpoints. Capt. Collette was both engaged directly with Afghan women, gathering intelligence and atmospherics, and despite the cultural norms and attitudes in Afghan society, neither Capt. Collette nor Maj. Taylor reported any problems in their interactions with village elders (Fisher, 2013) (Kremer, 2013).
Some will bring problems. Sexual dimorphism (differences between sexes, not some weird fetish) is a real thing, and average body size and composition is indeed different and a complicating factor. Generally speaking, women underperform men in virtually every measurable sport (with the exception of ultramarathon) by an average of 10 percent. On average, females must exert themselves much more in carrying out routine military tasks for a specific output, and fatigue faster than males. This overexertion, unsurprisingly, leads to more injuries. Cardiopulmonary endurance, the ability to perform continuous physical activity, is generally between 15–30 percent lower in trained females as compared to trained males.
For high-intensity/short-duration tasks typical in combat, such as sprinting, load carriage, and lifting, women have an average of 40 percent less strength than men for both upper and lower body. Women do have greater endurance relative to body size, which accounts for their equal performance in ultra-distance marathons, however this is negated in a military context (load carriage) where men have greater endurance due to their greater muscle mass. Women are at a 1.2–10 percent greater risk for musculoskeletal injury during basic training, and stress fractures are 1.5–9.5 times more prevalent (Y. Epstein, 2012).
Although those figures are all averages, and can be mitigated by training and better equipment such as rucksacks and helmets properly designed for the feminine physique, it still points to long odds of many women qualifying for the more intensive demands of dismounted infantry combat. And those that do may have short careers due to a higher injury rate. The numbers would appear to bear this out. Canada, as one of the first Western countries to admit women into combat trades, is perhaps the best gauge of what to expect in the near future for women in combat trades. Currently, women make up 2.4 percent of combat trades (infantry, armour, artillery, combat engineer) in the Regular Forces (active duty) and 5.6 percent in the Reserves (Government of Canada, 2014). Considering it is now 26 years after first opening up these positions, and despite ambitious recruiting targets, it appears unlikely that these statistics will change substantially.
So what of the other big issue that keeps being dragged out—unit cohesion? This is another odd argument, and one that comes to hand quite easily, but it’s been used over and over with little effect. Women have been integrated into the military already and we’ve adjusted. One of the keys has been the professionalization of the military culture, where technical competence is just as valued as personal relationships. Think about it: Did you like everybody in your platoon? Did you get the job done anyway? Shared hardship has a way of bringing disparate groups together. While sexual assault is a very real problem, it’s one that’s far more prevalent in large bases rather than the FOB, COP, or PB where most of the infantry will find themselves (King, 2013).
One highly positive aspect that has been repeated has been “as long as they qualify and meet the standards” they will be allowed to contribute. Hopefully this means some of the painful lessons of America’s allies have already been heeded. As promising as the statement about meeting standards is, it is probably obvious to most of us it is also a loaded statement. Which standards? Are they going to be changed to ensure goals are met? The Canadian Armed Forces (CAF) has some painful lessons to offer in this regard.
There were many unofficial fitness standards used back in the late ’80s and early ’90s at the battle schools used to assess recruits that were not well thought out and were eventually dropped and replaced with far inferior minimum standards—emphasis on “minimum.” The PT 400 was a score-based fitness test similar to the Cooper’s Test, and as such, it was good—as a measure of the ability to run, do push-ups, sit-ups, and pull-ups. But what was not clear was how it related to one’s ability to do the job.
Standards have since been changed from general fitness tests to “job-specific testing” or JSTs. Here in Canada, standards must be capable of surviving a court challenge of discrimination, and JSTs are far more robust in this regard. It is the exact same revolution that police fitness standards went through at the time, from arbitrary measures such as height, weight, and sex to measures of “occupational fitness” that were “objective, realistic, and non-discriminatory.” (J. Bonneau, 1995)
Police forces have been here before and they definitely have a lot of lessons learned as there are thousands of different police forces that have individually implemented occupational fitness standards subject to challenge and review. The actual results aren’t as important as the methods. Police work is varied; in fact, the majority of it is sedentary, but so is a lifeguard’s 99 percent of the time. But if a lifeguard or police officer can’t perform during that one percent incident, they have no business being employed in that job (A. Trottier, 1994). All kinds of standards are being thrown around, the hauling of casualties, rucksack, ammunition, etc., as reasons for exclusion, and they may or may not be legitimate.
A careful task analysis has to be conducted and validated in order to come up with a legitimate JST. CANSOF has gone through this, and is implementing the new JSTs for its units. They’re not without their teething problems, and will likely need updating from time to time, but I believe they are well worth it as they fulfill the requirement to be objective, realistic, and non-discriminatory. The process for JSTs are well established beginning with a task analysis.
This is where the “fit for what?” question is asked. What are the essential tasks required? This is often established by questionnaire and direct observation. Then, common tasks are identified, and then broken down into their physical abilities (strength, flexibility, power, etc.). With this information, a test of these required physical abilities can be developed, and ideally feedback will be sought throughout the process (A. Trottier, 1994). In fact, this is exactly what is going on in the U.S. military right now, with the various services having just completing a “blue ribbon” panel on military physical performance testing with the National Strength and Conditioning Association (Nindl, 2015).
Once the task standards are established, continued research in fitness, physiology, and ergonomics will be needed to increase the numbers of females who are able to serve. Innovation in physical training is long overdue, with many studies showing too much reliance on “field-expedient”-style training over the more effective individualized training that would much more efficiently enhance readiness and reduce musculoskeletal injuries that are of particular concern for female soldiers (Nindl B. , 2015) (Y. Epstein, 2012).
So while it may seem that I’m a cheerleader for integration, I think the truth is we’ve simply moved on up here. I can’t picture it being reversed, so I don’t find it productive to waste time and mental effort raging against it. While I agree that the focus on everything the military does should relate to combat effectiveness, it’s always been a wash. Military procurement has been hijacked by political concerns since at least Caesar’s times (I’m sure they had “buy Roman” legislation), bases are opened or closed based on votes, so I’m hardly shocked or particularly bothered by politics in other areas outside my control.
My own personal experience has been mixed. There was a female combat engineer on my tour in Afghanistan who was bounced around from section to section, endangering lives because no one wanted to be accused of discrimination in dealing with her. Is she the majority? No. Is Maj. Taylor, who was described by those she led in the Pioneer Platoon in 1 RCR as the best platoon commander they ever had going to be more representative? No. Most who make it will eventually settle somewhere in the middle. The sky won’t likely fall, and the younger soldiers who take our place will wonder what the big deal was.
(Images courtesy of bbc.com, foxnews.com, and o.canada.com)
Trottier, J. B. (1994). Police Health: A Physician’s Guide for the Assessment of Police Officers. Ottawa: Canada Communications Group.
Day, A. (2007, September 1). Operation Medusa: The Battle For Panjwai. Legion Magazine.
Fisher, M. (2013, January 26). News. Canada.com. Retrieved from http://o.canada.com/news/war-experienced-canadian-maj-eleanor-taylor-advised-u-s-brass-on-females-in-combat
Government of Canada. (2014, March 6). National Defence and The Canadian Armed Forces. Women in the Canadian Armed Forces. Retrieved from http://www.forces.gc.ca/en/news/article.page?doc=women-in-the-canadian-armed-forces/hie8w7rm
Bonneau, J. B. (1995). Physical Ability, Fitness, and Police Work. Journal of Clinical Forensic Medicine, 2, 157-164.
King, A. (2013). Women in Combat. The RUSI Journal, 1(158), 4 – 11.
Kremer, W. (2013, October 23). BBC News Magazine. BBC.com. Retrieved from http://www.bbc.com/news/magazine-24622762
Matthew Rosenberg, D. P. (2015, December 3). Politics. The New York Times. Retrieved from: http://www.nytimes.com/2015/12/04/us/politics/combat-military-women-ash-carter.html?_r=1
Nindl, B. (2015, November). Physical Training Strategies for Military Women’s Performance Optimization in Combat-Centric Occupations. The Journal of Strength & Conditioning Research, 29(11), S101 – S106.
Nindl, B. A. (2015). Executive Summary From the National Strength and Conditioning Association’s Second Blue Ribbon Panel on Military Physical Readiness: Military Physical Performance Testing. The Journal of Strength & Conditioning Research, 29, S216 – S220.
Wikipedia. (2015, June 29). Wikipedia. Retrieved from Thomas J. Hudner Jr: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Thomas_J._Hudner,_Jr.
Epstein, R. Y. (2012). Physiological employment standards IV: integration of women in combat units physiological and medical considerations. European Journal of Applied Physiology, 113(11).
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