It's Time to Face the Gender Paradox

By Mackubin Thomas Owens

Those of us opposed to expanding the role of women in the military agree that if the military were "just a job"—nothing more than a daily commute to the Pentagon—and if equal opportunity were all that was at stake in this issue, it would be hard to oppose opening combat specialties to women. After all, women have demonstrated their competence in all areas of U.S. society, from medicine and the law to business and the academy. But opponents of women in combat contend that the military exists to fight and win the nation's wars.

We believe, with Karl Von Clausewitz, that war is a violent clash of wills, each seeking to prevail over the other, and that in war our will is directed against an animate object that reacts, often in unanticipated ways. This interaction between opposing wills occurs in a realm of chance and chaos. To prevail in this environment, military organizations must possess certain virtues, including aggressiveness, bravery, cohesion, morale, and discipline. We believe that technology has not lessened the importance of these virtues, and hold that in the military their maintenance must take precedence over the values of liberal society.

We believe that men and women are different, that these differences are natural (sexual) and not merely socially constructed (gender), and that these differences have an effect on the military ethos. Thus we contend that by bending the military to fit the requirements of "gender politics," advocates of women in combat are undermining the martial virtues necessary to victory and paving the way for a military failure.

To argue against women in combat is not to deny the significant contributions that women have made to the nation's defense. Women have served honorably, competently, and bravely during this country's 20th-century wars. It is my experience that the vast majority of women in today's armed forces are extremely professional and largely want nothing to do with the two extremes of feminism that the military spends time and effort trying to appease. In her recent book, Real Politics: At the Center of Everyday Life , Jean Bethke Elshtain describes these extremes as the "feminist victimization wing" and the "repressive androgynists."

The Military Ethos and the Problem of Friction

The greatest problem raised by the issue of women in combat is what Clausewitz called "friction . . . the only concept that more or less corresponds to the factors that distinguish real war from war on paper." "Everything in war is simple," he wrote, "but the simplest thing is difficult. The difficulties accumulate and end by producing a kind of friction that is inconceivable unless one has experienced war.... The military machine—the army and everything related to it—is basically very simple and therefore seems easy to manage. But we should keep in mind that none of its components is of one piece: each part is composed of individuals. . . the least important of whom may chance to delay things or somehow make them go wrong.... This tremendous friction, which cannot, as in mechanics, be reduced to a few points, is everywhere in contact with chance, and brings about effects that cannot be measured, just because they are largely due to chance." Friction appears to be intrinsic to war, reflecting the disproportionately large effects of the "least import" individuals in the system and of minor unforeseeable incidents. Unnoticeably small causes can be amplified in war until they produce unanticipated macro-effects.

Military organizations, of course, attempt to reduce friction. According to Clausewitz, friction is countered by such means as training, discipline, regulations, orders, and "the iron will of the commander." Anything that undermines these factors helps to generate friction. The critical question is: Are we ready to gamble that women in combat units, the success of which depends on unit cohesion, will not generate friction in addition to that arising from the processes of combat itself? Proposals to expand the roles of women in the military must be examined in the light of the effect that women already have had on the military and the military ethos.

The glue of the military ethos is what the Greeks called philia—friendship, comradeship, or brotherly love. Philia, the bond among individuals who have nothing in common but facing death and misery together, is the source of the unit cohesion that all research has shown to be critical to battlefield success.

Philia's importance is described by J. Glen Gray in The Warriors: Reflections on Men in Battle : "Numberless soldiers have died, more or less willingly, not for country or honor or religious faith or for any other abstract good, but because they realized that by fleeing their posts and rescuing themselves, they would expose their companions to greater danger. Such loyalty to the group is the essence of fighting morale.... Comrades are loyal to each other spontaneously and without any need for reasons."

Unit cohesion is a critical means of countering the natural friction generated by combat. The meaning and importance of this cohesion was summarized by the 1992 report of the Presidential Commission on the Assignment of Women in the Armed Forces as "the relationship that develops in a unit or group where (1) members share common values and experiences; (2) individuals in the group conform to group norms and behavior in order to ensure group survival and goals; (3) members lose their identity in favor of a group identity; (4) members focus on group activities and goals; (5) unit members become totally dependent on each other for the completion of their mission or survival; and (6) group members must meet all the standards of performance and behavior in order not to threaten group survival."

The presence of women in combat units will increase friction by undermining these factors. To understand how, it only is necessary to examine what already has happened—friction has manifested itself in three ways: (1) increased administrative and logistical problems arising from physical differences between men and women; (2) the emergence of double standards that result from these physical differences, undermining fairness and trust; and (3) the replacement of philia by eros.

Anatomy vs. Social Engineering

The major source of the increased friction generated by women in the military in general and in combat units in particular is traceable to the reality of physical bodies. As Stephanie Gutmann asked in a New Republic article last year, "Sex and the Soldier," "What happens when you try to integrate into a cohesive whole two populations with radically different bodies?" What happens when we examine the female soldier "not in political terms, but in the real, inescapable terms of physical structure?"

This is not a new problem. Plato's Socrates treats this issue in Book V of The Republic . He seems to conclude that the sort of perfect justice associated with the best regime, "the city in speech," is not possible in practice because of differences attributable to physical bodies. Socrates makes constant reference to how "absurd" and "ridiculous" the demands of abstract justice would appear if they were put into practice, e.g., if men and women were to exercise naked together in a gymnasium.

What are some of these physical realities? A partial catalog includes the following facts: the average female Soldier, Sailor, Airman, and Marine is about five inches shorter than her male counterpart and has half the upper body strength, lower aerobic capacity (at her physical peak between the ages of 20 and 30, the average woman has the aerobic capacity of a 50-year-old male), and 37% less muscle mass. She has a lighter skeleton, which may mean, for instance, that she can't pull G forces as well as a male.

But can't these differences be reduced? First, despite the hype surrounding the 1996 summer Olympics, the gap in physical performance between men and women has, of late, actually been increasing rather than decreasing. An important reason for the reversal of the putative worldwide trend toward improved athletic performance of women relative to men is the collapse of communism. Much of the improvement in women's athletic performances in the 1970s and 1980s that led to predictions of a closing gap between the sexes was the result of widespread, officially mandated steroid use by women's teams from communist countries, such as East Germany.

Second, gender politics has made it difficult—if not impossible—to ascertain exactly what can be done to improve the performance of women, because advocates of gender equity understand that the establishment of objective strength criteria would have a deleterious effect on women. Attempts by the Army to establish such strength standards and pretests for each military occupational specialty were abandoned when studies showed that only 10% of women met the standards proposed for more than 70% of Army jobs. Funding recently was denied for a study about remedial strength training for women.

Anatomical differences between men and women are as important as strength differences. A woman cannot urinate standing up. Most importantly, she tends, particularly if she is under the age of 30 (as are 60% of military personnel) to get pregnant.

These differences have had an adverse effect on the U.S. military at a time when continuing austerity in the U.S. defense budget is driving us toward a smaller and leaner force—one that will have to meet its obligations by increased emphasis on competence and readiness. For instance, women suffer a higher rate of attrition than men, and because of the turnover, are a more costly investment. Women are four times more likely to report ill, and the percentage of women being medically nonavailable at any time is twice that of men. If a woman can't do her job, someone else must do it for her. Women may be able to drive five-ton trucks, but need a man's help if they must change a tire. Women can be assigned to a field artillery unit, but often can't handle the ammunition.

Each year, somewhere between 10 and 17% of servicewomen become pregnant. In certain locales, the figure is even higher. James Webb notes that when he was Secretary of the Navy in 1988, 51% of single Air Force and 48% of single Navy women stationed in Iceland were pregnant. From the beginning of the U.S. deployment to Bosnia in December 1995 until July 1996, a woman had to be evacuated for pregnancy approximately every three days. During pregnancy (if she remains in the service at all), a woman must be exempted from progressively more routine duties such as marching, field training, and swim tests. After the baby is born, there are more problems, as exemplified by today's 24,000 uniformed-service mothers, none of whom fairly could be called a front-line soldier.

Fairness and the Military Ethos

In response to the problems created by these differences, the military has, in effect, discarded the very essence of philia and the military ethos: fairness and the absence of favoritism. This is the crux of the problem. As Mr. Webb has observed, "In the military environment, fairness is not only crucial, it is the coin of the realm.... The military ethos is dependent on the understanding that the criteria for allocating danger and recognition, both positive and negative, are essentially objective."

Favoritism and double standards are deadly to philia and its associated phenomena—cohesion, morale, discipline—elements of the military ethos that are critical to the success of a military organization. Not surprisingly, double standards generate resentment on the part of military men, which in turn leads to cynicism about military women in general—including those who have not benefited from a double standard and who perform their duties with distinction.

The military has created two types of double standards. The first is the tendency to allow women, but not men, to take advantage of sexual differences. For instance, morale, trust, and cohesion have suffered from the perception among military men that women can use pregnancy to avoid duty or deployments. The appearance of favoritism is reinforced by the widespread wickering of schedules and duty rosters to accommodate the particular circumstances of women. Of course, the most contentious debate over favoritism is that involving the claim that some women have been permitted to advance in flight training with performances that would have caused a male to wash out.

The second type of double standard is that based on differing physical standards. This double standard arises from the fact that in U.S. politics, the desire for equal opportunity is, in practice usually translated into the demand for equal results. The consequence has been the watering down of standards to accommodate the generally lower physical capabilities of women. This has had two results.

First, standards have been reduced so much that, in many cases, service members no longer are being prepared for the strenuous challenges they will face in the fleet or field. Navy studies indicated that only 12% of women could accomplish the two-person stretcher carry, which for years was thought to be critical to the security of a ship. The requirement was changed to be a four-person task. And the Marine Corps discovered that only 45% of female Marines could throw a hand grenade beyond its bursting radius (one Army study said 12%).

The Los Angeles Times recently published an article, "Boot Camp Kicks Its Harsh Image," describing how "the military is stripping away the sharp edges and hard knocks from this fabled test of manhood." As an example of the "kinder, gentler approach" that now characterizes today's coed training, the article cited the Navy's Great Lakes Training Center. A trainee who needs extra motivation is "offered emotional support, instructed on deep breathing and stress reduction, and given a chance to explore his feelings by pasting cut-out magazine photos on a piece of cardboard." The mind boggles at the thought of sailors "trained" this way manning a ship afire or actually under attack.

The second result is even more destructive of morale and trust. When the requirement can't be changed and the test cannot be eliminated, scores are "gender normed" to conceal the differences between men and women. All the services have lower physical standards for women than for men. The U.S. Military Academy has identified 120 physical differences between men and women, not to mention psychological ones, that result in a less rigorous overall program of physical training at West Point in order to accommodate female cadets.

For instance, the "USMA Report on the Integration and Performance of Women at West Point," prepared for the Defense Advisory Committee on Women in the Services in February 1992, reveals that scores for physically demanding events are gender normed at the Military Academy, where a woman can receive an A for the same performance that would earn a man a D. Navy women can achieve the minimum score on the physical readiness test by performing 11% fewer sit-ups and 53% fewer push-ups and by running 1.5 miles 27% slower than men.

There is immense political pressure to prevent women from failing to meet even reduced standards. This dynamic was at work in the case of Navy Lieutenant Kara Hultgreen, who paid for the double standard with her life. It was at work in the case of Admiral Stan Arthur, whose career came to an untimely end because he rejected the claim of a washed-out helicopter trainee that unfavorable flight evaluations were in retaliation for her sexual harassment complaint against one of her instructors. And it is at work in the case of Navy Lieutenant Patrick Burns, which has made it clear that there is a substantial career risk associated with holding female trainees to the same performance standards as man, and failing that, calling attention to the double standard in naval aviation.

Advocates of women in combat like to compare their efforts to the integration of blacks into the U.S. military. But the analogy is faulty. The integration of blacks into the ranks of the U.S. military stands in stark contrast to the attempt to integrate women. A major cause of successful racial integration of the military is that the services abjured double standards. According to Charles C. Moskos and John Sibley Butler in their recent book on the Army's successful effort integrate blacks, All That We Can Be , from the beginning of integration in the 1950s, the Army was adamant that merit would not be subordinated to quotas achieved by lowering standards, which would "stigmatize applicants by raising doubts about their true qualifications."

Eros vs. Philia

Finally, the presence of women in the close confines of a ship or a combat unit unleashes eros at the expense of philia. As Mr. Moskos has commented, "when you put men and women together in a confined environment and shake vigorously, don't be surprised if sex occurs. When the military says there can be no sex between a superior and a subordinate, that just flies in the face of reality. You can't make a principle based on a falsehood." Mixing the sexes and thereby introducing eros into an environment based on philia creates the most dangerous form of friction in the military.

Unlike philia, eros is individual and exclusive. Eros manifests itself as sexual competition, protectiveness, and favoritism. As Mr. Webb observes, "there is no greater or more natural bias than that of an individual toward a beloved. And few emotions are more powerful or more disturbing, than those surrounding the pursuit of, competition for, or the breaking off of amorous relationships."

The destructive effect on unit cohesion of such relationships can be denied only by ideologues. Does a superior order his or her beloved into danger? If he or she demonstrates favoritism, what are the consequences for unit morale and discipline? What happens when jealousy rears its head? These are questions of life and death that also help to explain why open homosexuality and homosexual behavior are prohibited in the services.

Feminists contend that these manifestations of eros are the result only of a lack of education and insensitivity to women, and can be eradicated through education and indoctrination. But all the social engineering in the world cannot change the fact that men treat women differently than they treat other men. This is illustrated by the closest thing we have to a laboratory experiment that tests the claims of those who would open combat specialties to women: the Israeli experience.

Women in Combat: The Israeli Case

In 1941, during the period of the British Mandate for Palestine, an elite, semiclandestine, volunteer Jewish youth organization called Palmach was created as the striking arm of Haganah, the Jewish defense organization in Palestine. The ideology of Palmach was egalitarian socialism, and according to the Israeli historian Martin van Creveld, the organization "was sexually integrated to an extent rarely attained by any armed force before or since."

Van Creveld writes that before Israeli independence, Palmach women accompanied men on missions, especially "undercover mission that involved obtaining intelligence, transmitting messages, smuggling arms, and the like." As Lesley Hazelton observes in her book, Israeli Women , one of the great services provided by women during the Mandate period and the early stages of the War of Independence was smuggling: "[T]hey could conceal guns and grenades under their clothes and evade detection by British troops manning the roadblocks, who did not search women."

Women never exceeded 16% of Palmach's membership, and their combat role was limited severely. Yigal Allon, a leading Palmach commander, wrote in his history of the Israeli Defense Force (IDF) that "the girls stormed at any proposed discrimination, arguing that it ran counter to the spirit of the new society being built in Palestine to restrict women to domestic chores, particularly since they had proved their competence as marksmen and sappers. In the end, the wiser counsel prevailed: the girls were still trained for combat but placed in units of their own. Wherever possible, they were trained for defensive warfare only." Ms. Hazelton observes that some women actually fought and died in battle, but they were the very rare exception. For the most part, "women served as wireless operators, nurses, quartermasters—exactly as women served in the British army during World War II."

Despite Palmach's ideological commitment to radical equality for women, the practical experience of the 1948 war—which involved coordinated, combined arms offensive actions—convinced the leaders of Israel and the IDF that the dangers of women in combat outweighed the benefits—including commitment to an abstract concept of equality between the sexes. According to former Israeli Defense Minister Moshe Dayan, women reduced the combat effectiveness of Haganah units because men took steps to protect them out of "fear of what the Arabs would do to [the] women if they captured them."

The Israeli case demonstrates that when confronted by great danger, reasonable people tend to sacrifice ideology to the dictates of nature. In other words, nature trumps attempts at human engineering. We should pay attention to the Israeli case.


National security is serious business. If the military fails, the society it protects may not survive. To avoid failure, a military organization must reduce friction. And experience has taught us that certain behavior increases friction by undermining good order, discipline, and morale, without which a military organization will certainly fail.

The United States spends billions of dollars each year on defense. Congress debates the needs of each weapon system—often many times—but there is little or no debate on women, friction, and military effectiveness.

One reason for this lack of debate is ideology. Advocates of women in combat do not want a public discussion because they do not want their ideological beliefs subjected to the criteria of objective reality. This is one explanation for the lack of discussion about objective standards. For instance, in 1995, then-Assistant Secretary of the Army Sara Lister, best known for calling Marines "extremists," cut funding for a previously mentioned study to discover if women could increase their strength through remedial body building. Why? Perhaps she was concerned that the study would prove that women permanently are weaker than men, and that the results of the study would be used to discredit the idea of women in combat.

The second and more troubling reason for the lack of open debate is fear. Officers of all ranks have been cowed into silence. In some quarters, to question the military's gender policy is to engage in sexual harassment. But officers owe it to their profession and more importantly, to the U.S. people, to say publicly what most say privately—that bending the military ethos to the demands of gender politics generates friction, undermining the military ethos and reducing military effectiveness, leading inexorably to a disaster on some future battlefield. In the words of the military sociologist Richard A. Gabriel, "It will avail us little if the members of our defeated forces are all equal. History will treat us for what we were: a social curiosity that failed."

Mackubin Thomas Owens is professor of strategy and force planning at the Naval War College.  He was editor-in-chief of Strategic Review from 1990 to 1997.  He is a Marine Corps infantry veteran of Vietnam.


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