'You hear about slack discipline in mixed sex units because members are devoting too much attention to the opposite sex’


November 19 2007

'You hear about slack discipline in mixed sex units because members are devoting too much attention to the opposite sex’


November 19 2007

'You hear about slack discipline in mixed sex units because members are devoting too much attention to the opposite sex’



QIn Canada, women are fully integrated in the military, but in the U.S. military, women are not allowed in combat. Is there actually a powerful group pushing for full integration?

A: There clearly is at least an incipient movement, you see it in much of the press, where there have been a lot of stories about how women in Iraq are basically doing the same things as men and how the services there, particularly the army, are chafing under the restrictions of the prohibition on [female participation in] ground combat. Survey numbers show that about 10 per cent of military women say they themselves would be willing to volunteer for combat, but larger numbers say that women who want to should have the option.

Q: What would be wrong with letting that 10 per cent volunteer?

A: The argument that’s made frequently is that combat is no longer a test of brawn but of brains, so while it’s true that men are stronger than women, it doesn’t matter. But strength still matters! In the infantry, the typical soldier is carrying at a minimum 60 lb., and a lot are carrying 75 to 100 lb. That’s a very heavy load, and it’s not just that you have to carry it across the street, you have to carry it for miles, then have sufficient energy reserves to dig into what might be very hard ground, and then do what you went there for: engage in a fight with the enemy. Strength matters even on warships. You might have a

job—cook, say, or radioman—that doesn’t require much strength when things are operating normally, but if the ship gets hit by a missile, suddenly everybody’s job is damage control. When a U.S. ship hit an Iranian mine in the Persian Gulf in 1988 and almost sank, the captain ordered the magazine emptied of ammunition so it didn’t blow up the ship, and the shells were 50 lb. apiece. Twenty per cent of the ship’s crew was in a bucket brigade, passing these shells down the line. When bad things happen you often do need strength. Let’s say you’re a pilot whose airplane is attacked by hostile fire. One 220-lb. pilot who was in that position said it took every ounce of strength he had to keep the airplane steady. And he was a big, beefy guy.

Q: Is there any other reason women shouldn't be flying combat aircraft?

A: Well, the possibility of being a POW, which raises special problems. Once captured, female prisoners face a substantial risk of rape, and that’s something that, for the most part, men don’t face.

Q: If a woman is willing to take that risk, shouldn’t she be allowed to?

A: The thing is, it doesn’t just affect her. The captors may very well also have male prisoners, and can use the abuse or threats of abuse of female prisoners as a means of extracting information or other kinds of co-operation from male prisoners. We know from the air force training that even in simulations, men are much more distressed by abuse of their female comrades than their male comrades.

You don’t want to give the enemy an extra tool. Another issue is the effect on national morale when females are taken prisoner. The Jessica Lynch example showed pretty clearly that it’s perceived as a greater blow to the nation when females are captured—and we see now how public perceptions of how we’re doing and the costs we’re paying affect the resolve to continue a conflict.

Q: You say we’re not getting the full picture of women’s military performance in Iraq. What information is being withheld?

A: The mainstream press in general seems favourably disposed toward the service of women, so we get stories only of their good performance, we don’t hear about their bad performance. But you do hear anecdotal reports, not so much about women’s performance under fire as much as about slack discipline in the mixed sex support units, because the members are often devoting too much of their attention to the opposite sex. There’s too much monkey business.

Q: I was surprised that a central command officer told you no one is collecting information about the number of soldiers who get pregnant in Iraq.

A: I cannot believe the U.S. military is so unconcerned with the causes of personnel loss that they aren’t keeping track, but releasing it is another matter. They don’t see any advantage in saying that even a small number of women are leaving because of pregnancy. A statistic that you see frequently is that at any one time, about 10 per cent of the

women serving in the military—not just in Iraq, but in every part of the military—are pregnant. So far, 155,000 women have served in Iraq and Afghanistan altogether, so I’d guess that hundreds, and likely more, have become pregnant and returned home, or weren’t able to deploy in the first place because they were pregnant.

Q: Aside from the risk of pregnancy, what are some of the other issues in mixed sex units?

A You see a substantial reduction in efficiency—anecdotally, I’m not saying it’s been measured—and many of the people I talked to, quite a few of whom had served on the ground in Iraq, expressed concerns about having to look out for and protect women in their units.

Q :Alot of the arguments you’re making are the same ones that have been made about gays in the military: the negative effects on unit cohesion, the introduction of sexual tension, the perception of weakness.

A: It’s a somewhat different issue, but not entirely. And in the U.S. Army [unlike the Canadian military], the rule is that homosexuals cannot serve. A lot of people don’t understand that “don’t ask, don’t tell” is a Department of Defense enforcement regulation of a federal statute, which says essentially that those who engage in or desire to engage in homosexual activities are not eligible to serve in the armed forces.

Q: Do you think there are any other fields where full integration of women is a bad idea, or are you solely opposed to it in the military?

A: I’ve studied occupational segregation in the civilian world, and I think psychological and physical differences are a substantial cause of what we see in terms of the glass ceiling and gender gap. Even in the absence of discrimination, you would still see substantial differences in the way men and women sort themselves out in the workplace. But the thing about the military is, one, the challenges are so intense in combat, and two, the consequences of doing poorly, and the national security consequences also, are so potentially serious. Another thing is that while there are individual requirements such as strength, which is relatively easily measured, a lot of the psychological attributes that go into being an effective combat soldier are not so easy to measure. One recurrent theme of combat behaviour literature is that it’s always a surprise who ends up doing well.

Q: By the same token, could you not argue that women could surprise you?

A: I have no doubt that there are a few women who possess the requisite strength and personality profile to be individually effective soldiers.

Q: What’s the personality profile, exactly?

A: Fairly high risk preference, less fearful of things than other people, more physically aggressive and dominant than people in general, higher pain tolerance, less empathie than people in general—you’ve got to be able to detach yourself from the fact that the person whose head you’re about to blow off is another human being with a family, and having killed, you need to be able to deal with it without excessive guilt. I don’t think there are very many women with that profile, but it’s not just about individual traits, it’s about how groups interact. It’s a truism that individuals don’t fight wars, groups do. You fight as a unit. Can a mixed sex group be as cohesive? What is the effect of the kind of sexual competition that always goes on in groups of people in their prime mating years? Another issue related to cohesion is trust: combat soldiers have to be able to trust that their comrades have their back, they have to have confidence in their leaders and a willingness to follow them. The traits men identify in effective fighters tend to be very stereotypically masculine: courage, physical strength, leadership. In dangerous situations, women don’t trigger that kind of trust in men.

Q: What if she’s holding a powerful weapon and is higher-ranked?

A: These preferences exist to a large extent independent of what created them in our psyche. In ancient times, when everyone agrees that warfare was a matter of brawn, women would not have been effective fighters. In our evolutionary past, the selection of comrades for fighting and other dangerous activities would have had substantial fitness consequences, in the sense that if you trusted the wrong person, you died. So that would have created a substantial pressure for men to respond, on an intuitive rather than cognitive level, to a man who possessed the traits associated with being an effective fighter and hunter.

Q: So this lack of trust men have can’t be overturned by new evidence?

A: The decision to trust is what psychologists call fast and shallow; we don’t write down pros and cons, it’s a gut-level judgment and it’s very difficult to change on the basis of cognitive input. It’s like trying to tell somebody who’s afraid of snakes that you don’t have to be afraid, they’re not poisonous. The person says, “Okay, fine, but get them away from me.”

Q: In Iraq, and i?icreasingly in Afghanistan, there’s no such thing as a 100 per cent combatfree zone. So is your position that no women at all should be sent to either country, even in support positions?

A: I think that to the extent that all of Iraq is a war zone and all of the personnel serving

there are subject to combat risks, then my argument would be yes, women should be excluded.

Q: In which case they’ll never rise to the top ranks of the military.

A: If you look at promotion statistics [in the U.S.], women are often promoted at a disproportionately high rate.

Q: Only in the past 20 or 30years.

A: Forty years ago, the U.S. military was capped at two per cent female, so yes. Only in 1976 were the service academies opened to women. But over the last 20 years, even with the combat exclusion, women tended to do reasonably well, overall, in terms of promotion. But clearly, a woman’s probability of rising to the very top echelons of the military is very slight as long as women are excluded from combat.

'Jessica Lynch showed it’s perceived as a greater blow to the nation when females are captured’

Q: In the U.S., the military has traditionally provided a socio-economic ladder out of poverty. If women were barred even from support positions in Iraq, that ladder wouldn’t be as available for women as men.

A: Actually, the military might accept more women into training than it currently does. The percentage of female enlistees has gone down since 2000, and one interpretation is that women don’t want to be exposed to combat risks, as they are in Iraq. If you’re joining the military looking for a job or training, rather than looking to fight, the prospect of getting blown up is a disincentive. M