Women’s Integration into Combat Stuck in a Physical Stalemate

23 March 2015, 2042 EDT

Last week 60 Minutes ran a feature called Women in Combat: Cracking the Last All-Male Bastion of the US Military.  The segment, led by David Martin, focused on Marine Infantry Officer training. He finds that, although the Marines are required to integrate women as a result of the removal of the combat exclusion, no women have made it through the rigorous physical training requirements. This re-raises key questions around women in combat:
*Do women have what it takes to serve in combat? and
*Should the military adjust its standards to accommodate women?
Physical standards are- by far- the greatest sticking point when it comes to debates on women in combat. Opponents of gender integration have long argued that the average physical differences between men and women are proof that women are inferior. They also argue that any adjustments in the current physical standards would be tantamount to ‘softening’ ‘diluting’ or weakening the standards and thereby reducing military effectiveness. Focusing on whether women can meet the current physical standards maintains a stalemate in terms of their full integration into the US military and limit the military’s ability to develop standards that reflect modern warfare. There are three reasons for this:

1. Physical standards are out of date and disconnected from the job.
2. Physical standards are not as objective as we think.
3. There are no exclusive combat roles, and therefore no need for exclusive combat physical standards. Let me explain:

1. Standards are out of date and disconnected from the job.

The contemporary Army Physical Readiness Test (APRT) was established in 1984. The test is composed of sit-ups, push-ups, and a two-mile run. Counter to common perceptions, the APRT has never been designed to measure job capacity. Decades ago the US General Accounting Office declared: “the physical fitness program is actually intended only to maintain the general fitness and health of military members and fitness testing is not aimed at assessing the capability to perform specific missions or military jobs.” Actually, there is (and should be more) debate about the use of generalized fitness tests for a military that requires varied skills and operational capabilities.

Although there are no established combat physical standards across the services, the Marines have rigorous physical standards designed to prepare individuals for combat. In the Wall Street Journal Michael O’Hanlon, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institute, argues  that Marine standards directly correlate to combat duties. One official summarized this argument saying, “pull-ups have been used to test Marines’ upper body strength for over 40 years. The ability to pull-up one’s own body weight over a bar shows the upper body strength that, in combat, is needed to lift fallen comrades, pull one’s self over a wall, and carry heavy munitions. Combat Marines also carry a pack that weighs around 90 pounds, with gunners carrying an additional 50 or 60 pounds.” But not everyone agrees that pull ups and heavy weight lifting prepares soldiers for combat. In response to O’Hanlon, David S. Holland, a US veteran of the Vietnam War, questioned the emphasis on upper body strength in physical testing. He characterizes tests of upper body strength as “contrived and subjective” and asks,  “How high are the walls? Four feet? Six feet? Ten feet? What is the combat load? Is there any research as to what and how often walls of various sizes are encountered? Or is the standard a seat-of-the-pants estimate by someone who happens to be blessed with superior upper-body strength?” Holland recalls that during his service, he “encountered zero walls in need of climbing.” Finally, Holland questions the presumption that a Marine must be able to move a wounded soldier across a battlefield- pointing out the variety of body types and means to move the wounded available to soldiers.

Given how rapidly the current realities of counterinsurgency, drone, and cyber security and warfare are changing, it seems ridiculous to cling to standards that presume men need to pull themselves out of trenches and drag bodies across battle lines. Reassessing the current physical standards will remove standards that were designed for men’s bodies and better prepare soldiers for modern war.

2. Physical standards are not as objective as we think.

I’ll keep this one short. But the bottom line is that debates about women’s physical capabilities are filled with emotional reactions and assumptions about women getting pregnant ‘strategically’ to avoid duties, women’s periods knocking them out cold, and women’s inability to handle the sanitary conditions of combat. Put simply, women’s bodies are treated as a liability- by their very nature. It is assumed that menstruation and pregnancy render women completely unpredictable, and therefore unreliable. In a recent post on American Thinker, Russ Vaughn laments that CBS didn’t deal with the ‘stickier’ issues associated with women in combat, including- it seems- dirt, diarrhea, and periods. He recommends that the military consult with “an objective panel of gynecologists…regarding the hygiene problems associated with menstrual events and increased risks for feminine disease” for women in combat. Yikes, menstrual events? Find more on this, including anecdotes about menstruating female Navy Seals potentially attracting sharks, in my forthcoming book.

3. There are no exclusive combat roles, and therefore no need for exclusive combat physical standards.

Although it is generally accepted that modern warfare doesn’t include battle lines and clearly identified enemies, combat physical requirement debates still manage to rely on old-school ideals of what ‘combat’ is. Warfare in both Iraq and Afghanistan in particular has been described as irregular and “characterized by guerrilla fighting in urban war zones with no clear front lines.” Pentagon spokeswoman Eileen Lainez summarised the impact of these changes for combat operations, saying “the nature of today’s conflicts is evolving; there are no front lines in Iraq and Afghanistan.” The point here is that, if it is impossible to distinguish front and rear battle lines, then how can there be calls for exclusive combat physical standards. Shouldn’t all soldiers be prepared for any aspect of war? The US military thinks so. It recognized the changing nature of warfare and had been including women in combat training since 2003, when the Army altered its basic training procedures in order to ensure that all soldiers were prepared for irregular warfare.

In the face of evidence about the changing nature of warfare, and shifts in policies and training related to combat, there is still an effort to cling to ideals of combat as exclusive, elite, and essential to US operations. This cling is an important site of gender politics and one that requires further debate and exploration- one that moves beyond simply counting how many women meet existing Marine standards. If standards don’t change, inevitably, very few women will ‘make the (male) cut’ into combat roles, including into the Marines. But a lack of change will also keep the entire military behind. There is a need to  develop physical standards that reflect modern warfare, recognise areas that women excel physically- including in endurance and flexibility, and changing a sexist culture that values bands of brothers and men’s bodies over all else.