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Reader’s Digest, February 1999

A soldier brings her perspective to the ongoing debate

Should Women Go Into Combat?
By Catherine L. Aspy


Inside my boots my feet had turned to hamburger. My uniform, even my belt, was soaking with sweat, and my back and shoulders were numb from the 40 pounds of gear in my rucksack. The climax of Army basic training at Fort Jackson, S.C., a 12-mile march, was almost over.

Determined to keep up, I forced my muscles to move. But few of the other women in the company remained with me near the front. Many were straggling, and some rode the truck that followed to retrieve discarded rucksacks. The men, meanwhile, were swinging along, calling cadence. They seemed to relish the whole thing.
       That march confirmed something which had struck me often during the previous eight weeks: with rare exceptions, the women in my unit could not physically compete with the men. Many were unable to lift heavy weights, scale barriers or pull themselves along a rope suspended above a safety net. Mixed running groups had inevitably sorted themselves out by sex; in final tests on two-mile runs, the average woman took 18 minutes, the average man about 14. It was apparent that too many of the men weren't challenged enough by the training regimen.
       There certainly were good soldiers among the women in my company; later on, during regular duty at a military-intelligence installation, I saw women of all the service branches perform as well as or better than men in a variety of capacities. Nevertheless, the huge physical performance gap, so obvious in basic training, forced me to consider the implications of placing women in ground combat units.
       Today the nearly 200,000 women in the nation's armed forces (14 percent of all active-duty personnel) serve as everything from Air Force fighter pilots to military police officers to captains of Navy ships. But the direct combat arms of the Army and Marines—including infantry, armor and field artillery—are closed to them.
       Should women be allowed into these units as well? Many believe they should. After all, we Americans resent being barred from anything; it's part of our instinct for freedom. Former Rep. Patricia Schroeder (D, Colo.) declared, "Combat-exclusion laws have outlived their usefulness and are now nothing more than institutionalized discrimination."
       It's not an issue I thought about much when I enlisted. I'm sure if I had been asked at the time whether women should be allowed in combat, I would have at least said, "maybe."
       Now I say "no." Everything I observed during my hitch in the Army, and later, as I studied the issue and talked to others inside and outside the military, has convinced me this would be a mistake.

       Combat is not primarily about brains, or patriotism, or dedication to duty. There is no question women soldiers have those in abundance. Combat is about war-fighting capacity and the morale of the unit. Here physical strength can be a life-and-death issue. And that is why the physical disparities between men and women cannot be ignored.

       Unequal Load. For years, Sgt. Kelly Logan* believed that women should be allowed into combat units, that "it didn't matter if you were a man or a woman—there is one standard, we all meet it, bond, and drive on with the mission." Then came her 1997 tour of duty with peacekeeping forces in Bosnia. "I had a complete change in attitude," she says. "When we had to do things like digging and reinforcing bunkers, the guys ended up doing most of the physical work. The women tended to move themselves to the sidelines." Logan watched resentment build until it undermined the unit's morale.
       She also observed that many women were "so unprepared for heavy-duty soldiering that they would have endangered the unit in a crisis." Patrolling in Bosnia required soldiers to remain on high alert and in full battle gear, including flak vests and ammo. Says Logan: "The equipment prevented many of the women from moving as quickly as men, let alone being combat-effective."
       While some women may be up to the rigors of combat, she says, "they are the rare exception. And for some individuals, it was only a matter of time before the platonic bonds progressed to sex, and then all kinds of disruptions ensued."
       Logan has reluctantly concluded that "women cannot bond with men in a unit the same way men do." But she cannot say so openly, and insisted that her real name not be used. "It can definitely hurt your career to speak your mind publicly about these things."
       The expectation in military units has always been that you pull your own load. But an Apache helicopter pilot told me that his female crew chief simply refused to carry her tools, which weighted 60 to 80 pounds.
       "The Army is supposed to be about not showing favoritism," says Desert Storm veteran Sam Ryskind, who was a mechanic in the famed 82nd Airborne Division. "But the females I trained with were de facto exempted from any heavy-lifting jobs."
       Whether it was changing truck tires, loading cargo, or even moving heavy cooking pots into position on the chow line, Ryskind says men "always pulled the hard work. Pretty soon this made it an us-and-them situation."
       While these experiences do not reflect actual combat conditions, they point to the kinds of intractable problems that would arise if women were in combat units.
       In 1994 an Army rule barring women from hundreds of "combat support" positions was eliminated. Meanwhile the Army tried to institute tests to match a soldier's physical strength to a specific "military occupation specialty," or MOS. Then it was discovered that the tests would have disqualified most Army women from 65 percent of the more than 200 MOSs. The tests were scrapped.

       The Strength Factor. To deal with the male-female performance gap, the Army has increased emphasis on "teamwork." No one is against teamwork—that's the essence of the military. But in some cases it has become a euphemism for defining down military tasks, as when three or four soldiers are needed to carry an injured comrade instead of two.
       "From a combat stand point this is just ludicrous," notes William Gregor, a veteran of combat in Vietnam who is now associate professor of social sciences at the Army's School of Advanced Military Studies in Fort Leavenworth, Kan. "You may not have extra people around. And battle wears you down. A unit where one person can't pull his or her weight becomes a weaker unit."
       I'm five feet, six inches tall, and I arrived at basic training weighing 135 pounds. I was taller than many women in my unit. But the average female soldier is 4.7 inches shorter and 33.9 pounds lighter than her male counterpart. She has 37.8 pounds less lean body mass. This is critical because greater lean body mass is closely related to physical strength.
       A U.S. Navy study of dynamic upper-torso strength in 38 men and women found that the women possessed about half the lifting power of the men. In another Navy study, the top seven percent of 239 women scored in the same range as the bottom seven percent of men in upper-body strength.
       Even though I had been athletic in high school and had been toughened by two months' training, that final 12-mile march was a killer. One reason: cardio respiratory capacity—the rate at which the heart, lungs and blood vessels deliver oxygen to working muscles. Trainers know that this capacity is key to sustained physical performance. And numerous studies have revealed differences by sex. "In general," summarized the 1992 Presidential Commission on the Assignment of Women in the Armed Forces, "women have a smaller heart mass, heart volume and cardiac output than men."
       Some who want women in combat units acknowledge these differences, but claim they're based on stereotyping and can be minimized by extra training. It isn't that simple.
       In a 1997 Army study, for example, 46 women were given a specially designed 24-week physical-training program to see if they could improve their ability to do "very heavy" lifting. During the training, the number of women who qualified for these jobs increased from 24 percent to 78 percent. Still, on average they were unable to match the lifting performance of men who did not undergo the program.
       But what about those few women who might qualify for combat units? Gregor, who has done extensive research on male-female physical performance, questions how realistic it is to train 100 women for combat on the chance of finding a handful who will meet—or in exceptional cases exceed—the minimum requirements.

       Tougher Standards? The interchangeability of every soldier in a combat emergency is an enduring principle of an army's effectiveness as a fighting force. It assumes that each has received the same training and can perform to the same basic standard. That's still true for men who sign up to go directly into the Army's combat arms. They train "the old way," in a harsh, demanding environment.
       It's no longer true elsewhere. Under mixed-gender basic training instituted in 1994, men and women are held to different standards. The regimen became less challenging, to hide the difference in physical performance between men and women (although the Army denies this).
       Eventually, the softness of basic training became an object of such widespread public ridicule that "tougher" rules were drawn up. Even with these new standards, scheduled to take effect this month, women can score as well as men who are being tested against a tougher standard. In the 17-to-21 age group, for example, to get a minimum score of 50 points, a male recruit must do 35 push-ups, a female, 13. If women were allowed into combat units and these double standards were made universal, the result would be to put physically weaker forces into the field.
       An Army publicity release defended these "tougher" standards on the ground that they "promote gender equity" and "level the playing field."
       I don't know about the "playing" field. But somehow I think the field of actual combat will not be very level.


*not her real name.


Catherine L. Aspy graduated from Harvard in 1992 and served two years in the Army. She is now in the Individual Ready Reserve. Aspy was assisted in the reporting of this article by the Reader's Digest Washington Bureau.

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