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May 10, 2013

A Platoon Of Their Own?

Yesterday, the intrepid mr rdr (indefatigable charter member of the Oink Cadre and globally renowned head-exploder-in-chief) sent us this WSJ piece. Written by a Marine 1st Lieutenant, it proposes a creative solution to the thorny problem of integrating women into the combat arms MOS's:

In professional sports and in the Olympics, men and women perform separately. In boot camp and officer-candidate schools—the entry points for all service members—men and women also are separated, with placement into different platoons within the same company.

So why not mirror what society at large and the military already do: put men and women into their own teams, with female infantry platoons on one side and male platoons on the other?

An all-female infantry platoon would not suffer from many of the problems that detractors cite, such as a lack of unit cohesion caused by mixing the sexes. Like the Amazons, female-only platoons could build their own brand of cohesion, which may prove superior to the men's. The arrangement would also avoid putting male soldiers in the position of feeling obliged to compensate for an underperforming female.

While the all-female platoon solution would not compensate for physical and physiological differences and how they affect performance on the battlefield, it would be a good way to test that line of argument. If the female platoons showed that their combat performance equaled that of men, then the separated-platoon arrangement would merely be a step on the road to full integration. If the female platoons underperformed, then the idea of women in the infantry might need to be scrapped or the women-only platoons would be the final compromise, with their deployment based on battlefield needs.

A staged approach rather than rushing headlong into full integration in combat units may be the best approach. Once the right (or privilege) to serve in any military specialty is passed to women, it would be virtually impossible to change course, no matter the consequence or effect on combat effectiveness.

But who knows? Women running toward the sound of the guns may very well prefer fighting alongside other women—and their effectiveness may surprise even the most pessimistic. The Amazons certainly made an impression on the Greeks.

Let's start with what's right about this proposal.

Firstly, the all female platoon partially addresses a few of the most difficult issues associated with integrating women into designated combat billets (as opposed to billets in which combat exposure occurs, but is incidental to the job rather than being the main focus of the job). This is an important distinction. During the debate over women serving in combat, proponents of integrating women into the combat arms argued that women are already in combat. But that argument dishonestly conflates occasional combat risk/exposure with the 24/7 reality with which Marine and other military combat units must contend.

The health and hygiene concerns expressed by critics of the DoD's recent decision are neither insubstantial nor imaginary - several studies of military womens' health bear them out. Since I've addressed these issues before, I won't rehash them here. This document contains about as good a summary as I've seen. It's entirely possible that all female/female-run platoons would experience better medical outcomes than isolated women integrated into mostly male platoons.

What this solution doesn't really address is the standards and numbers problems. Since the Dept. of Defense announced the removal of the bar to women in the combat arms, the military hasn't exactly been flooded with applicants yearning to become grunts. And as the Lieutenant admits, the four women who have applied to IOC have failed to complete the program. It's possible his idea would encourage more women to apply, and this isn't trivial: a sample size of four doesn't tell us much about how likely it is that women in general can meet the same physical standards as male infantry applicants. But the early indications don't support the notion that large numbers of military women are dying to get into the combat arms.

What disturbs me most here is the underlying assumption that if women are to serve in combat billets or be successfully integrated into the overall force structure, special accommodations must or should be made for them. How do we get from the premise that there are no important differences between men and women to the premise that integrating women into combat billets will work better if we make accommodations for the differences we just claimed don't exist?

In a political climate where disparate outcomes are assumed to prove disparate (and discriminatory) treatment, how will the armed forces resist the urge to lower standards in order to get more women into the combat arms? If the dearth of women in combat billets was such an injustice, why aren't more women applying for admittance?

And finally, how do we justify spending more money for these special accommodations in an era of shrinking budgets and make-do-with-less demands on the armed forces? The author rightly notes that practical considerations (upper body strength, stamina, etc) have been dismissed or even ridiculed in favor of what he describes as "patriotism and human rights" concerns.

But patriotism doesn't entitle an otherwise unqualified applicant to serve in the armed forces. During the 3 years he was stationed with the Recruit Training battalions at Parris Island, my husband watched countless male recruits wash out of recruit training. They weren't bad people. They truly wanted to serve their country. But for a wide variety of reasons, they couldn't meet the physical or mental standards.

If gender doesn't matter, on what equitable or legal basis can the armed forces justify holding male candidates to a higher physical standard than their female counterparts? It's an odd argument for advocates of equality and fairness to make, and yet the only way things can truly be "fair" here would be for the military to lower standards and adopt the exact kind of special accommodations we were assured would not result from admitting women to the combat arms.

Posted by Cassandra at May 10, 2013 07:49 AM

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In addition to the concerns you raise, the biggest thing that bothers me about the suggestion is the combat effectiveness problem. For the sake of argument, say that it's true that what we think we've learned about male/female injury rates in sports holds for the physical aspects of military service. Then young women will be injured even in ordinary training, let alone in combat, at rates far larger than the rates at which young men suffer the same injuries.

So now let's say you find enough women who can pass the standard military training to form a platoon. How sustainable is that platoon once it deploys to war, and we aren't talking about the injuries that come from road marches and confidence courses, but from the real nature of infantry combat across a contested terrain?

Concentrating the women into one platoon seems to maximize the dangers that come from this higher susceptibility to injury. If the women suffered a higher rate of disabling injuries -- just talking about the usual problems with knees and ACLs -- but they were scattered across the force, it would still cause problems for their platoons to integrate a replacement, but these problems are more managable. If you lose the same percentage all out of one platoon, that platoon is in trouble. It's going to have to integrate replacements at a much higher rate.

I am convinced that this move by the military is a bad idea, although I understand the military has no choice about it. Still, if it must be done, single-sex female units offer exceptional problems. Of course, mixed-sex units have other problems: we can expect a lot of those young women to be out of service because of pregnancy, if experience holds from non-combat mixed-sex units. Since there's no reason they can't get pregnant outside of their unit (indeed, it's preferable if they do!), however, I'd take that as an incidental and unavoidable risk of including young women in the unit. The injury-rate risk is avoidable and central to the nature of the project.

Posted by: Grim at May 10, 2013 11:39 AM

There were so many aspects of his proposal that I wanted to address, but I've been in Conference Call Hell this week and had no time. But I hadn't considered the risk of concentrating women in a single platoon from an illness/injury standpoint.

I'm also not sure putting all the women into one platoon does anything to mitigate the problem of male Marines either having to pick up the slack (if they can't perform as well in combat) or feeling inclined - for whatever reason - to protect the women. That almost seems a bigger problem for the command when it happens at the platoon level (one platoon picking up the slack for another) than at the individual level (one Marine picking up the slack for another). It creates a structural weakness at the company level that seems hard to justify.

Posted by: Cassandra at May 10, 2013 12:26 PM

The very best of ideas, the very best of intentions are, under the auspices of the government, mere pretense.

There are always choices once removed from the considered choices. In this case one of them would be to refuse to choose, to abstain from having to deliberate which is the lesser of two evils, to resign from a military that would acquiesce to the absurd. The failure to do so works to the success of the pretense. Women have no place in combat, or even on the front lines. If you would have them fight have them fight for their lives in the case of a Stalingrad or a Nanking; otherwise, insist that what is so is so and cannot be made other than that by fiat. Little compliances have big consequences – or haven't the last 100 years made it to the history texts yet?

Posted by: George Pal at May 10, 2013 12:38 PM

Ironically, when we were younger I was a big proponent of allowing women to serve if they could meet the same standard. Being female my ownself, the notion that women can't hack difficult and dangerous duty is naturally repugnant to me.

What changed my mind over the years was three things:

1. Watching real world issues the raised by the presence of women in the military. In any cohort, 10% of the people cause about 90% of the problems.

I think this is true with military rape - your average guy isn't running around raping female soldiers, but the few who are predators cause disproportionate problems for everyone else. And you can't protect women from predators without unacceptably limiting their freedom. Rape is very much a crime of opportunity, and there are few civilian counterparts to a military environment where large numbers of young, single men live in very close quarters. College is one, and it's no accident that rape is a problem there too.

It's a feature of the system.

2. Watching how politicized any issue involving a minority (and women are still in the minority in the armed forces) becomes, and the unbelievable stupidity that results.

3. Living in Parris Island for 3 years. Until then, I never saw the data on things like stress fracture rates.

I have the utmost respect for female Marines. It's a tough job, and they absolutely have contributed to the war effort. The Lioness program is a good example of women doing jobs men could not do.

But I can't get to total immersion in the combat arms from there. When I learn that DoD stopped tracking pregnancies and their effect on readiness, I have no choice to conclude that political correctness is harming the mission.

You can't argue "fairness" and then demand special protections or special treatment. And you can't argue fairness and ignore the obvious fact that pregnancy - whether it occurs in CONUS or in the field - means someone else has to deploy in the pregnant woman's place. In the aggregate, that's unfair to men.

I am actually quite sympathetic to the desire to serve, and to serve in harm's way. It's just that I can't ignore the other side of the argument and still look at myself in the mirror.

Posted by: Cassandra at May 10, 2013 12:57 PM

Is it only the Army and the Marine Corps where women weren't allowed in combat roles? That is, have women been allowed in combat roles in the Air Force and the Navy? (Yes, I'm really behind the curve here.)

Posted by: Elise at May 10, 2013 08:08 PM

The problem, Elise, is in terms of what is defined as a 'combat role.' In the Army and USMC, infantry, cavalry, artillery, and armor below the level of the brigade headquarters has been defined as a combat billet, as have certain special operations units (but not all of these: I was out in Iraq with some female Psychological Operations soldiers, for example).

In the Navy and the Air Force, these designations do not exist except for the special operations categories. As far as I know, these are all-male, but I gather we're intended to review and revise those standards with an eye toward making them open to women.

Posted by: Grim at May 10, 2013 09:33 PM

Excellent post & discussion!
BZ to Cassandra & Grim.

Fear I've gotta award the BoTA to George. The ugly truth is that even well trained men, already selected for physical ability, have a hard time in many real life (read awful and terrible) combat. I want everyone that advocates women in combat to watch a few of the more historically accurate war flicks, including the recent Clint flicks on Iwo Jima, and the recent documentaries on Afghanistan. Or talk to a Marine that served on the ground in Korea.
- the pols may force formation of female units, or force women into current all male (primary) combat units (read infantry), but if they are ever so stupid as to actually send them into a tough fight, there will inevitably be disproportionate female casualties.

Cassandra, fyi, there really isn't a true combat role in the USAF, unless your flying in a fighter. Ask your (brave and worthy) USMC friends; we mock zoomies as 'bus drivers in a blue uniform' for a reason.

Grim: despite the stupid movie, there is less chance of a snowball celebrating an anniversary in hell than a woman getting through SEAL training honestly.

Best Regards,

PS: I'm surprised that the psycological difference between genders is rarely raised in this discussion. It's a plain fact that men, especially young men, are (much?) more aggressive than women. Anyone that says that doesn't matter in combat is a fool.

Posted by: CAPT Mike at May 10, 2013 11:58 PM

In the Navy and the Air Force, these designations do not exist except for the special operations categories.

So women have been allowed to fly fighter and bomber aircraft in combat situations and to serve on ships that fire on enemy positions and can expect to be fired on in turn?

Posted by: Elise at May 11, 2013 12:50 PM

Since the Clinton administration. It was one of his big first-year reforms, along with Don't Ask, Don't Tell. (It was surprising how quickly that one went from being the leading edge of gay rights to an absolutely unacceptable affront to gay rights.)

Posted by: Grim at May 11, 2013 01:31 PM

Thanks for the info, Grim.

Posted by: Elise at May 11, 2013 08:17 PM

You're welcome.

Posted by: Grim at May 11, 2013 08:30 PM

@ Elise: Yes.

Posted by: CAPT Mike at May 12, 2013 12:27 AM

I think this is an interesting kind of experiment, even if it turns out to be wildly impractical in the military context.

In general, I'm suspicious of "separate but equal" experiments, which human beings unfortunately don't seem able to carry out in much good faith; instead, we get ghettoes. But let's imagine for a minute that we could carry an experiment out in good faith, and let's switch the context to something a little less emotionally charged. Say, EMT work.

Unlike traditional medical services, EMT work involves a certain amount of facing danger, heavy lifting in isolated situations where there may not be an husky orderly at ready call, and so on. People might reasonably wonder whether the average slight, young woman is cut out for it. There certainly is a lot of grumbling in my fire dept. over very frequent calls late at night for "lift assists" from EMT teams composed of two women or a single woman.

But I often suspect that job specs and procedures are geared toward the average expected applicant without a huge amount of attention to whether those average specs actually are ideal for the job in the abstract. In a country with smaller people, all kinds of physical tasks are treated socially with appropriate attention to the expected size and strength of the participants, but the jobs get done perfectly well. An all-female carpenter team might make more consistent use of power-tool workarounds and rely less on muscular strength. Our modern warriors, even, are less dependent on extraordinary size and sword-reach, and more on skills appropriate to a mechanized high-tech organization.

If we could conduct some dispassionate experiments, we might see how a lot of tasks got done when women typically performed them and adjusted their tools, habits, schedules, and procedures to suit their own average capabilities. Sometimes that would result in a team with lower average capability, which would tell us that this job is best done by big, hairy men. Sometimes the team would do just fine competitively, perhaps using a different approach but getting good results. That would tell us that male advantages were not strictly relevant to the task, but only to the socially ingrained habits of the teams traditionally associated with the task.

Sometimes we might find out that women overall had some kind of competitive advantage, perhaps as a result of greater endurance or patience or fine motor skills or color perception. I think we can be sure, though, that we would never as a result exclude men from the effort, because that would be unthinkable, except in a case a clear-cut and extreme as that of breast-feeding. :-) Nevertheless, it would tell us something that we can never learn from sticking women into a previously all-male organization and see how well they fit.

Posted by: Texan99 at May 14, 2013 11:00 AM

"No better friend, no worse enemy."

Males are probably better at being a worse enemy, especially if manual pounding is being used.

Females are probably better at being better friends, especially if testosterone poisoning might get in the way.

There could doubtless be mixed teams that could be better than unmixed teams but no one has a clue as to how to form such, and keep them going in combat.

Tom Kratman's The Amazon Legion has what amounts to the invention of a female Ranger corps and some of the successes and failures therein. Fiction with a large dose of reality, the fourth of one of the most horrific military science fiction series I've read.

Posted by: htom at May 18, 2013 01:53 AM