the fighting women of the United States armed forces

This week, Defense Secretary Leon Panetta lifted the ban on women in “combat roles” in America’s military. Not that women will necessarily move into infantry units right away; the services actually have until 2016 to implement the change, although they must outline their initial steps by May. But already some people are anxious.

D.B. Grady writes in The Week that this is a military disaster being engineered to satisfy politically-correct Washington elites:

The fact is — however unfair, however much it pains us to admit it — in some areas, men and women are not equal. Is it worth checking a box marked “Equality” at the expense of the operational effectiveness of combat units? Is it worth putting young men at risk so that we, the enlightened Western liberals, might have a new accomplishment to discuss over gougères at cocktail parties?

Since I don’t have any gougères, I guess this doesn’t include me.

Grady has three objections to women being introduced into combat roles: first, they are too weak; second, young men and women will inevitably fall in love (or at least want to do it), and that will distract our troops; third, the wars are winding down, so why do we need this anyway?

The first objection (as even Grady himself seems to recognize) is the only one that even approaches being serious. But it is not very serious. It is certainly true that, on average, women have less upper body strength and are less able to put on muscle generally than men. But the two bell curves are not non-overlapping. For example, the most powerful female weightlifter in last summer’s Olympics, Zhou Lulu, lifted a total of 333 kg. This is substantially less than the male champion, Ilya Ilin, who lifted 418 kg — about 125% of Zhou’s tally. But her 333 would have put her somewhere around the 33rd percentile among men in Ilin’s class — better than some, not as good as most. In no sense would she have embarrassed herself, though, had she competed with the men.

Or take the two-mile run, a traditional part of the Army Physical Fitness Test. The women’s world record holder ran it in 8:58.58. Her male counterpart ran it in 7:58.61. That’s almost a minute faster, or, to put it another way, he shaved about 11% off her time. That’s a pretty good improvement, but, again, the female champion could easily hold her head up among the best runners in the world. (See the link for the list of top male 2-mile times.) And in long-distance (i.e., endurance) running, the gap narrows even further. The fastest woman marathoner ran 26.2 miles in 2:15:25. The fastest man did it in 2:03:38. That’s a gain of less than 9%.

And these are the best athletes in the world — the many, many male schlubs, some of whom join the Army, are not represented here.

My experience of women in the military was that the top, say, quarter or so would have been perfectly comfortable being graded on the men’s scale. And the top one or two in each, say, battalion-sized unit would have put a great number of the men to shame.

What this means, I think, is that the entry of women into combat positions need not harm readiness, as long as it is done sensibly. When I was in the Army I was assigned to a cavalry squadron, and our PT requirements were higher than the Army’s minimum standards. (We had to hit 70 in each category, rather than the usual 60; we also had to be able to do a 12-mile ruck march in 3 hours rather than the post-wide standard of 4 hours.) There is no reason infantry, cavalry, and other high-speed combat arms units can’t require women who choose to enter those jobs to meet the male standard, and there is no reason training for those jobs can’t reflect that. Women enlisting in combat arms MOSes would most likely be going to special OSUT basic training anyway, just like the men, so the cadre could start drilling it into them early that they’ll either have to make the cut or find another job. And we can start even earlier — recruiters could be required to show that female applicants can meet a certain minimum threshold of physical fitness before they’re slotted to valuable combat arms training berths.

What I’m saying is, this is an easily-solved problem. It’s logistical, not categorical.

I’d also point out that, despite the claims of the armed services, the PT test has never been the best reflection of the physical rigors of combat — though the Army is always working on that. Grady, for instance, worries about what happens when women are “‘kitted up’ with 75 pounds of body armor, ammunition, and supplies, in a truck, climbing in, jumping out, on your feet, on the ground, running, dragging, day after day, night after night, week after week, for months on end….” To which I would say, I’d rather have this lady jumping in and out of trucks with me…

sturdy lady

than this dude…


But while that skinny dude might well rock out during OSUT — while he might get a crushing back injury during his third ruck march and go back home to Milwaukee (or into the Quartermaster Corps) — he’s allowed to apply, and he’s allowed to try. And that’s the point. Make the standards as tough as they need to be to get the job done. But don’t keep people out who could meet the standards.

Anyway, bravo to Sec. Panetta and Pres. Obama, and bravo to the female soldiers and Marines who, in the years to come, choose the hard path.

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2 Responses to the fighting women of the United States armed forces

  1. Janiece says:

    Brother Seth, I believe you just made my “platonic internet boyfriend” list.

    I’ve never believed in lowering physical standards to accommodate women if the standards are in place as an actual indicator of ability to do the job at hand. People (of either gender) can either cut the mustard, or they can’t. The major issue of “equality” in my own time in the Navy surrounded opportunity. For the majority of my service, I wasn’t permitted to serve in a combat role, on a combat ship, on submarines, to fly a plane, to attempt any number of high profile, high promotion jobs simply by virtue of my gender. While an argument may be made that had I been given that chance I might have failed due to gender differences, the fact was I never had the chance. And so my service was considered “less than” my male counterparts because it was constrained, both in execution and in risk. It’s tough to tell a fellow Chief Petty Officer than I should stand on equal footing when 70% of their career was spent at sea compared to my 20%.

    This started to change as the years went on, of course – one of my last duty assignments was in littoral warfare, an “always on” CNO priority unit where the risk (and the reward, at least from a career advancement perspective) was high.

    I’m glad it’s come to this, provided service members of both genders maintain the standards they need keep everyone as effective and safe as possible.

  2. Grambear says:


    And why not extend the whole idea and get serious about physical fitness starting in preschool.

    I am glad for the chance for women to make it into the higher ranks.
    And queasy about anybody in combat.

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