Women in the Military: Is Physical Size and Strength Really Necessary for Military Success?

At the current time, the US military establishment is busy studying how to incorporate women in Combat Arms Military Occupational Specialties (MOS) and the creation of physical standards to either justify or exclude them from those specialties. While the military appears to be studying the tasks and standards that will support those tasks, I do not think anyone is actually asking the real questions that should be asked. And that question that should be asked is this: Do these “standards” really help make the military more capable of fighting our nations’ wars and accomplishing missions in support of it’s political interest? What I intend to do is to rattle some cages about whether these “standards” are necessary, or even good. I also want to demonstrate that the US Military’s focus on size and strength is a “manufactured problem” and that women could be easily incorporated into Combat Military Occupational Specialties with some adjustment of philosophy.

Physical Standards

While the current fetish is on whether or not women can physically stand up to the rigors of war, perhaps it would be instructive to note some historical figures who would fail the current standards of fitness which are being touted as proof positive that women can or cannot serve in Combat MOSs.

Napoleon Bonaparte was a short, consumptive, out of shape individual, and if he were alive today, would be considered unsatisfactory to serve as a soldier in today’s US military. The fact that he invented the concept of mass armies and wars of national existence or whether he struck terror in the hearts of the western world would bear no weight using the current, or potentially future physical standards.

Horatio Nelson was another slight individual, who was limited to the use of only one arm and one eye that, despite not being able to do the minimum pull-ups in today’s Navy, only managed to completely annihilate every enemy fleet he faced, even after he was dead.

Audie Murphy failed even the lax WWII induction physical more than once. He somehow managed to finagle his way into the Army and then into a combat unit where he was relegated to rear echelon, more safe duties for one befitting his slight stature and lack of physical strength. And when he finally twisted enough arms to be allowed to serve on the front lines, all he did was to earn every U.S. military combat award for valor available from the U.S. Army and its allies.

One could also, quite daringly, actually bring up the cases of actual historic women who performed quite well on the battlefield. Women like Artemisia I, Xerxes’ naval commander who defeated the Greek navy. Or women like Joan of Arc, who awakened a moribund French army to inspire it to win battles. Or women like Boadicea, who threatened the mighty Roman. There is also the example of Marina Raskova, who was so effective against the German army in the USSR in WWII that she and her all-women regiment were singled out as the highest priority target by the Luftwaffe. Or the US’ own Margaret Corbin during the American Revolution, who served her gun faithfully to the end against the British, despite being severely wounded, and witnessing the death of her husband in the battle of Manhattan.

And that does not even mention the key role that women played as the sometimes chief advisor and de facto Chief of Staff to their military commander as they accompanied him on campaigns prior to the wide-scale adoption of General Staffs. (Since Officers were nobility and the noble women were expected to run extensive households and staffs, when women accompanied their husbands on campaign, the role of Chief of Staff came quite naturally.)

I think it is key to use myself as an example as well, here. I am a 51-year old man and exceptionally fit. I’ve served 32 years in Active Duty Army, Army National Guard and Army Reserves. I have 4.5 years deployed to a combat zone, most of which time I spent outside the wire, to include significant time conducting infantry-style operations with the Poppy Eradication Force in Helmand Province, Afghanistan. Prior to that, I served as an artilleryman, armor crewman, Cavalry Scout, Intelligence Officer and Instructor. I habitually earn a max score on the Army Physical Fitness Test and have instructed and developed physical fitness programs for a couple decades, now.

My dirty little secret: I am not physically qualified to serve in the US military. I have an untreated broken L5 vertebrate, which impinges on my Sciatic nerve, which I did not know about until after induction. I’ve had major leg trauma as a teenager, which I lied about during induction; I cannot throw a grenade, due to multiple shoulder injuries from my early life as a cowboy (being able to throw a grenade a specified distance is a requirement for entry into the US Army). I am absolutely and unequivocally unqualified to serve in our nation’s military. Despite this, I have effectively closed with and destroyed our nation’s enemies with direct fire; I have commanded three companies and two battalions. I have professionally mentored subordinates that have netted nine company commanders, three battalion commanders and one Brigade Commander. I have successfully conducted direct operations at great risk to myself under extremely difficult conditions, the majority of which happened in my mid-40s.

My point in mentioning all of the above is to demonstrate, logically that the physical “standards” are largely crap. We, stupidly, as a military, recruit for the physical and then attempt to train for the mental, which is illogical and counter to what matters most for mission accomplishment. And restricting women’s participation in the US military because of theoretical and largely ego-driven and male focused physical requirements is counterproductive to military readiness.

Personalizing the Issue Further

I grew up in a small farming community in Northwest Iowa, where men and women often work together; families would often include women in the more physical tasks. I’m used to working around physically capable females, so I was delighted when a fellow northwest Iowa farm girl became available for service in Afghanistan with me. At the time I was operating a small team of direct intelligence gatherers in a military contract, so I was able to circumvent the ordinary military regulations excluding women from direct combat roles. Despite not having any military experience, this willowy, 6 foot 116 pound 23-year-old female proved to be a tough, resilient partner. In addition, her gender allowed her access to the half of the population that was normally out of bounds. I knew this young lady and her family, and knew she was entirely capable of running a shovel all day, so her gender was not even a consideration when it came to the physical demands of combat operations.

After working with this young lady and attaining remarkable success in our role as intelligence gatherers, I quickly gained the reputation of “the guy who could work with females” which led to a succession of female work partners. These females were chosen on the grounds of their intellect, their drive and their ability to communicate, in that order, and proved to be operationally excellent and physically resilient. All were in adequate to superb physical condition, to the point to where they pushed me during extremely challenging day-to-day operations as well as in physical training whenever we had the time to work out.

More importantly, our intelligence gathering efforts were exceptionally effective and productive, with both qualitative and quantitatively superior results in excess of units 10 times our size that shared our battlespace.

Strength and Size

When in discussions with military people, the political entities that administer the military, and military “experts”, one is led to believe that the primary source of military excellence and professionalism is physical strength and size. Our soldiers are asked to carry an immensely heavy load during infantry combat; with most references for so-called “light” infantry being around 120 pounds. The US Army is an Army that, despite having an abundance of protected and unprotected transport, both ground and air, makes a fetish of how much weight its infantry routinely carries into combat. But does the ability to carry immense amounts of weight convert to military prowess? Let us examine some of military forces that have proven historic excellence to test that hypothesis.

First lets look at the military that defeated the US military from 1965 to 1972: The Viet Cong and then the North Vietnamese Army consisted of soldiers which averaged 5’2” 110 pounds – These soldiers made epic, strategic foot movements, carrying only a rifle, ammunition, water, food and a tarpaulin for sleep and weather protection. They were smaller and physically weaker than a current day US Army female soldier. However, the North Vietnamese Army focused on the things that matter. You see, despite their relative lack of motor transport, the North Vietnamese were not so stupid as to load down their valuable infantry with gear, nor did they restrict their combat abilities with heavy body armor.

Before and during World War II, no rational person would claim that the Japanese Army was not capable of successful combat operations. Despite being virtually unsupported, logistically, and being thrown away in meaningless ways by their combat leaders, all their opponents universally feared the Japanese soldier. And they accomplished ferocious reputation while measuring on average only 5’3” and weighing in at 120 pounds.

Both the Army of Northern Virginia and the Army of the Potomac were packed with physically unfit individuals, who probably couldn’t pass the pushups and the sit-up events of today’s Army PFT.

The Roman Army was probably close to 5’ 3” tall on average, except some of the barbarian auxiliaries. It’s interesting to note that relatively small yet well trained Roman units defeated Celts that not only outnumbered them, but were physically larger, averaging 5’8”-5’10” in height.

And what about the “big, beefy American troops? The average Marine in WWII was 5’7” and 140-150 pounds. When I was an APMS at Illinois State University, our average female (we had a large proportion of female track athletes) was 5’7” and 140 pounds. And all of the physically fit ones were capable of carrying a rifle, pack and basic supplies for long distances. In my experience, a fit military female is superior at actual, versus theoretical military tasks than a typical non-fit military male.

In practical terms, there are only a few militarily relevant physical fitness tasks that we should be focusing on. These include the ability to carry a rifle, wear a rucksack with minimum necessary supplies, the ability to walk long distances and sprint short distances and the ability to get over an obstacle.

While there is the potential for activity such as loading an artillery or tank shell, as well as the oft-repeated “carrying a 270 pound man to safety” that is considered to be the pinnacle of military capability, the problem with testing these things to be the “end-all, be-all” for determining female participation in Combat Arms, is that they are tasks that prove to be rare, and sometime apocryphal in nature. While extremely rarely all crew members may be required to load an artillery or tank shell under unusual conditions, only the lowest ranking crew are required to do this action, and then only for a short time during their first enlistment (unless they are a “dud” who lacks aptitude or drive for any other task.) I was both a tank and artillery crewman, and not only do soldiers do loader duties only for a short while, professionally, there are certain “cheats” for small stature/low strength individuals to accomplish these tasks. While no sane person would assign a small stature/low strength individual to load a gun for a prolonged period of time, it can be done efficiently and quickly with practice. By the way, tank crews routinely reassign crewmen based on talent/aptitude, and small low ranking soldiers tend to start out as a driver, which is a low strength position, and large low ranking soldiers start out as a loader. Many maintenance tasks require physical strength, but again, except on the unit commander’s tank, smaller-framed crewmen can use skill in lieu of strength, and crews are routinely configured to account for lower strength individuals now.

The Institutional Cowardice of Body Armor

While we are addressing the loads of our soldiers, let’s discuss the 40-50 pounds of body armor our soldiers wear. This armor in and of itself is debilitating and reduces combat efficiency, even among physically strong and large individuals. While body armor has some utility in protection of life and the reduction of wounding effects, the current philosophy has resulted in body armor designed to attempt to prevent any and all wounds. It has also become a mandatory wear item, which reflects an illogical risk aversion in military terms. This armor is ill fitting, reduces mobility to the point of becoming a threat to mission accomplishment and produces stress injuries. When you consider the fact that the armor is not designed for a female frame, perhaps we should stop claiming females should not participate in combat tasks because they cannot carry it, and start examining why our Military leadership has bought into such ridiculous and risk averse design and wear policy, regardless of if it make sense or not.

What’s Really Behind the Physical Requirements Issue:

When one comes down to it, the focus on size and strength can be distilled down an adolescent argument about women “hacking it” and “pulling their fair share.” And if we are going to base our military staffing decisions on “fairness”, why not extend that to intelligence? What if we applied standards on a soldiers’ ability to think with the same rigor as the physical standards? Anyone who’s been in the military for more than a day or two can quite easily determine that native intelligence is not maximized or even desired. I would submit that military service, especially combat arms are much more intellectually demanding than popular sentiment gives it credit for.

Provided that the US military can get over its adolescent fixation of female soldiers being able to “carry their fair share” of weight, and the blatantly misogynistic way women are treated in the military “fraternity”, there are some relatively simple solutions to integrating women into Combat Arms.

Some easy fixes:

Fitness

Despite my assertions that physical size and strength are not the key element in military endeavors, physical fitness IS extremely important. Female trainees entering the military in a combat role will need additional fitness training during their initial training, and throughout their service compared to their male counterparts, in order to ensure they are able to maximize the performance of their admittedly smaller frames, which will help them in keeping up physically with the male counterparts, because in the process of integration, they will need to keep up to gain respect.

Nutrition

Our young women in uniform will also have special nutrition requirements. While young men are capable of converting immense amounts of fried foods and sugar into muscle mass and energy without injury or affecting fitness for a time, women’s metabolisms have a lower tolerance of a poor diet then men’s. And to be fair, it wouldn’t hurt male soldiers to have a healthier diet as well. Military dining facilities are infamous for their low quality and large quantities of food. Military DFACs serve mainly fried foods, and most have only token healthy choice items, which are almost always prepared badly or are of low quality.

Developing Female Specific Gear

Despite a booming civilian female clothing and accessory industry in the US, the military finds it “a bridge too far” to make even token efforts to procure and produce equipment designed for female frames. Female boots are just scaled down versions of male boots, with improper flex points, support and fit, which leads to less performance and stress injuries. Female clothing and boots need to fit them, and not just be a sized-down version of male designs.

Despite the typical female frame being a more efficient load carrier than a male frame, nonsensically, military load carrying equipment is designed for the less capable male frame. Load carrying equipment that distributed loads more toward the hips and less toward the shoulders would make the woman’s ability to keep up with her male counterparts more likely. Oddly enough, the old style LCE did a better job of this, despite the effort put in to “improving” the new stuff.

Compromising on Body Armor

While I mentioned the inappropriate design and completely inflexible use of body armor, adapting body armor to a female frame would be much simpler if the body armor was made of better, lightweight materials, instead of massive, relatively low-tech Kevlar plates. Existing armor already exists that weighs just a few pounds and is designed for women. And that body armor needs to compromise on its protection ability of both female AND male frames, with the eye to ONLY protecting the truly critical areas, such as the thoracic cavity and cranium, in as minimal way possible. Complete safety through body armor is neither possible nor desirable. Only the minimum body armor consistent with mission accomplishment should be permitted. This is the single most important thing our military can do to not only integrate females into combat occupations, but also for the overall ability of the military at large to accomplish missions.

Rethinking the Load

In fact, the inclusion of females would be a great excuse for the military to rethink the load it puts on its soldiers. Despite an embarrassment of transport, and several systems designed to take the load off the US infantry, leaders continue to fetish the load our infantry carries. Except for some special missions, leaders could reduce the load by maximizing the use of transport, or even resorting to the time-proven use of bearers and caching materials, a technique that is still in Infantry manuals.

Without addressing any other aspect of female integration, it is provably false, through the use of historical examples and simple logic, that size and strength are sole or even primary criteria for military excellence. While fitness plays a role in military performance, both historic figures and entire military units have succeeded with small-framed, relatively physically weak soldiers. Our military would be better and more successful if they focused more on recruiting for intelligence and drive and training for fitness than vice versa.

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About hotmilkforbreakfast

I am a researcher, a writer, a former soldier, an academic and a lifelong learner. All text and pictures are copyrighted and are not to be used without express permission of the author.
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