Women in combat are the real Revolution in Military Affairs

Summary: Women fight in many of today’s wars. It’s perhaps the biggest change since the invention of nukes. We have seen women as fighters in the Eritrean Wars, as suicide bombers in the Middle East, as soldiers in western armies, and as soldiers in the Kurdish army. With few historical precedents, except in myths, large numbers of women in war is a real revolution in military affairs.

Warrior Women
Fact catching up to fantasy.


  1. War by women in developed nations
  2. Women soldiers in future wars
  3. War in the less-developed lands
  4. The democratization of warfare
  5. How will this revolution change war?
  6. For More Information


(1)  War by women in the developed nations

First let’s look at women’s increasing role in the military forces of the developed nations.

Some have gone all the way: “8 Other Nations That Send Women to Combat“, National Geographic, 25 January 2013 — Australia, Canada, Denmark, France, Germany, Israel, New Zealand, and Norway. In these nations women serve in roles that include “engaging an enemy on the ground … while being exposed to hostile fire and a high probability of physical contact with the hostile forces personnel” (per a 2010 British Ministry of Defense (MOD) study).

The number of nations doing so is increasing. As in the UK “Women soldiers to serve in front-line combat units” — “Senior Whitehall source says that MoD is ‘leaning towards making the change’ to allow women in front-line combat units after a six-month review” (The Telegraph, 5 December 2014).

But things might not be what they seem, as Martin van Creveld explains in Men, Women & War (2002):

This argues it is all a great illusion: that the influx of women into the military, far from representing a world-historic step in women’s unstoppable march towards liberation, is both a symptom and cause of the decline of the military. The process was triggered by the introduction of nuclear weapons over a half century ago. Since then the armed forces of no developed country have fought a war against a major opponent who was even remotely capable of of putting its own national existence in danger …

The more superfluous they have become — indeed precisely because they have been becoming superfluous — the more society and its leaders feel able to treat them not as fighting machines but as social laboratories …

For more about his theory see his article “The Great Illusion: Women in the Military”, Millennium – Journal of International Studies, 2000. Also see “Putting Women in Combat Is an Even Worse Idea Than You’d Think” by Mike Fredenburg at the National Review, 15 July 2015.

(2)  The test for women soldiers lies in future wars

The test of van Creveld’s theory and of western nations’ commitment to gender equality in combat, comes when women return in large numbers of body bags. So far none of those nations have had large numbers of women casualties.

Women have died serving America in our post-9/11 wars, but in small numbers (reflecting limitations on their roles) — as shown by this Congressional Research Service report (OIF and OID are Iraq; OEF is Afghanistan): women are 2% of military deaths so far vs roughly 11% of total US troops serving there.

CRS: casualties by gender
CRS, 20 November 2014.

(3) War in the less-developed lands

War is different for those fighting in the emerging and undeveloped lands. Farhana Ali was one of the first to report on this revolutionary development in the Middle East: “Muslim Female Fighters: An Emerging Trend“, Terrorism Monitor, 3 November 2005 — Excerpt:

“Muslim women are increasingly joining the global jihad, some motivated by religious conviction to change the plight of Muslims under occupation, and recruited by al-Qaeda and local terrorist groups strained by increased arrests and deaths of male operatives. Attacks by female fighters, also known as the mujahidaat, are arguably more deadly than those conducted by male jihadists, attributed in part to the perception that women are unlikely to commit such acts of horror, and when they do, the shock or “CNN factor” of their attacks draws far greater media attention than male bombers. Increasing awareness with instant media attention can motivate other women to commit similar attacks.”

Flash forward to today: “Female terrorists finding their place in Islamic militants’ ranks“, Los Angeles Times, 25 January 2015 — Excerpt:

From bikini-clad beachgoer to veiled jihadist fugitive, the partner of Paris gunman Amedy Coulibaly underwent a startling metamorphosis that illuminates the dangerous potential behind militant groups’ efforts to increase their recruiting of female terrorists.

Although French police initially questioned Hayat Boumeddiene, 26, five years ago, they acknowledge that she was subsequently able to make hundreds of phone calls and arrange meetings for Coulibaly through the wives of fellow assailants. She is then believed to have fled to Turkey just before the rash of killings in Paris this month, and is believed to have crossed into Syria.

Hayat’s case is just the latest example of how governments overlook and understate women’s involvement in terrorist groups,” said Jayne Huckerby, an associate professor at Duke University law school who studies the groups and advises governments in counter-terrorism strategies. … Women account for about 10% of those joining Islamic State from Europe and about 20% of those joining from France, Huckerby said. “What’s very striking is that she’s not an exception; she’s an example of a trend,” she said of Boumeddiene.

The real Revolution in Military Affairs
A Revolution.

But neither women in traditional roles of terrorist supporter nor as suicide bomber represents a revolution. For that we look to women as front line soldiers. Women were soldiers in the Eritrean War of Independence (a fascinating but understudied conflict); the BBC reported that 1/4 of their soldiers were women in the 1998-2000 war with Ethiopia. Details unknown.

But women are taking a role in the far more visible conflicts in the Middle East. See pictures and profiles of “These Remarkable Women Are Fighting ISIS“, Marie Claire, 20 September 2014. NBC News invites us to “Meet the Kurdish Women fighting ISIS in Syria“, 10 September 2014.

It’s unclear how much fighting they actually do. We get stories such as “Syria: Isis Jihadis Terrified of Fanatical Kurdish Women Soldiers who will Deny Them Place in Paradise“, International Business Times, 7 October 2014. Often false but they spread anything: “Myth: ISIS is afraid of female soldiers“, VOX, 1 October 2014.

We went through this before about women Peshmerga fighters in Kurdistan. “The Kurds Won’t Let Their Women Soldiers Anywhere Near the Front Line. But lady Pesh want to fight“, Medium, 9 September 2014.

But the trend seems clear that women continue to take a greater combat role even in these highly patriarchal societies. How far will this go? With what effects on both the nature of these conflicts and on their societies?

Flying Terminator
Future Warriors

(4)  The democratization of warfare

What gives women and children the opportunity to die for their tribe, religion, or nation in modern wars?

Technology is the obvious candidate. Many powerful weapons require little strength, such as pulling the trigger on an AK-47 or detonating 10 kg of SEMTEX wrapped around your waist. Today even the physically weak can fight. And they do fight, proving that bravery is a universal aspect of the human spirit. Many kinds of societies send women and children to fight and die, another example of the soulless, Darwinian nature of warfare. What works gets used. Even the most fundamental social rules bow to the necessities of war.

Consider this trend from another perspective. Many armies have traditionally relied on “stand-off” weapons, such as cavalry armed with the composite bow, to combat heavy infantry. Now armies can in some circumstances rely almost entirely on mines, mortars, and missiles – with no need to even face their enemy. We see this in Iraq, where about 2/3 of our deaths result from insurgents’ IEDs. We see the same trend in our own forces, as the day nears when remotely piloted vehicles sweep manned aircraft from the sky. Women can do all of these things as well as men, as can teenagers.

What need for the traditional warrior virtues in this form of combat? Bravery, discipline, and loyalty have little role in war by robot killing machines. As these tools grow more powerful, armies themselves become unnecessary in any conventional sense. Perhaps armies become strange in form, mixing a small fraction of fighters who face their foe, a larger number who kill without risk, and the majority providing support — with only the first considered soldiers (and paid as such, in money and public esteem).

Women Iraq Police Recruits
UPI/Edward Reagan/US A.rmy.

(5)  How will this revolution change war?

By their nature, we can only guess at the effects of revolutions.

Warfare is an intimate relationship between enemies. What glory for our elaborately equipped soldiers when they kill “armies” containing women and children? Or for a “pilot” sitting in a comfortable chair, commanding a RPV or cruise missile to attack a densely populated neighborhood hundreds of miles distant?

Will we see war as glorious when we kill women and children soldiers defending their cultures, however misguided we believe them to be?

These things have always been part of war. What about when war is just killing civilians and armies of men and women (and sometime children)? This is our Revolution in Military Affairs, perhaps the most significant in many millennia.

(6)  For More Information

Please like us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter. For more information see all posts about women and gender issues, and especially these…

  1. Women as soldiers – an update.
  2. Putting women in combat: a quick look at the other side of the debate.
  3. About the future of an American army with women as combat soldiers.
  4. News about the battle for women’s equality in our armed forces.


9 thoughts on “Women in combat are the real Revolution in Military Affairs”

  1. In your article on “Women in Combat” it sounds as if you are promoting what surely is the worst idea ever. Women are not suited to combat. In widely publicized marine Corps tests, half of women recruits were unable to throw a grenade far enough to not blow themselves up (along with all others unfortunate enough to have to serve beside them.) And how is a woman supposed to carry a pack that weighs more than she does? America’s military is struggling under the load now. We surely cannot afford to have the national defense, or the national security, further weakened by putting women in combat. That’s stupid talk.

    But more importantly, women in combat is morally wrong. Some things are just *wrong*: child sweatshop labor, homosexuals in the military, and women in combat. This “revolutionary trend” shows just how far down American values have come. The idea of women in combat is offensive to both man and God. America has tested God’s patience to the limit. The idea of women in combat could be the last straw, so to speak.

    It’s bad enough that America’s men slaughter each other — and countless innocent victims — in senseless wars. But it is even more shameful to think of women participating in this dreadful slaughter. I understand that your web site plays an important role presenting in contrarian views. But remember, words have meaning, Words have impact. Words can have a powerful influence on people. Choose your words carefully.

    1. chsulka,

      I suggest you read Martin van Creveld’s article (and even more so the book) cited in this article. He agrees with you on all points.

      The editorial position of the FM website is to leave most discussions of good and bad to the pros — philosophers and priests — and focus instead on effects of these trends. For women in combat the clear answer is that we do not yet know. The limited evidence from insurgent forces is that women can fight in the infantry, and have little negative effect on unit effectiveness. Beyond that only time and experience can provide answers.

  2. “With few historical precedents, except in near-mythological tales”
    Depends on what you have in mind. The russians employed women in frontline combat during WW2: snipers, pilots, tank drivers. Irregular warfare has often included women and some women found their way even in 18th and 19th century armies/navies by dressing as men. Of course it was marginal but even so today.

    “homosexuals in the military”

    Epaminondas would disagree I guess.

    1. Marcello,

      Yes, those are “few precedents”.

      The Russians made limited use of women, more so at the start of the war. There have been very isolated cases of women serving in front-lines roles as women (and more disguised as guys).

      Women have served in limited “combat” roles in irregular armies at various times and places.

      Also important — as this post explains in some details — women have served since WWII in less-developed nations on fairly large scale — in a small number of wars.

      None of these are remotely the same at what’s in progress now, putting them as line soldiers in developed nations’ infantry units — fully integrated with men.

      Magnitudes matter.

    2. Marcello,

      Re: gays in the military

      I agree. Due to length and relevance I cut out a section with a similar view.

      Fortunately people are stationary in time. Imagine some guys talking loudly about faggots in the army — that they couldn’t fight, and so forth. Sad for them guys at the next table are of the Sacred Band of Thebes.

      It wouldn’t count as the learning experience for the quickly-to-be-dead guys. But it would be so for onlookers.

  3. As America’s army grows more automated, software and hardware glitches will grow more common. I look forward to the near future when an American general presses the button to unleash his robot killing machines and gets the message AN UNEXPECTED APPLICATION ERROR HAS OCCURRED — ABORT, RETRY, OR IGNORE?

  4. I wonder if somewhere in the Middle East there is an Arabic version of Martin van Creveld predicting the collapse of Jihad because the women-folk are being allowed to participate.

    1. Joe,

      Touché! I wondered how well women fighters were accepted in traditional patriarchal societies like Etitrea.

      I read about the difficulties these women were having re-integrating after the Eritean – Ethopian war ended in 2000. US journalists reported this just like 1946 in the USA. I never saw follow-up reports to learn how this turned out.

  5. Women are equal warriors with men. Men must watch out for women unable to control their drinking — and intervene to protect them from their bad choices. Our young soldiers must hold both concepts in their minds simultaneously.

    Perhaps this is like the “friends don’t let friends drive when drunk” advice. Perhaps not. Time will tell.

    Alcohol redefined as ‘weapon’ in sexual assault cases by prosecutors, military officials“, The Gazette, 2 February 2015 — Excerpt:

    The alcohol – rum, vodka, wine and hard cider – listed in the latest allegation of sexual assault between Air Force Academy cadets is being viewed in a new way by the military and civilian prosecutors.

    Alcohol for years has been seen as a contributing factor in rapes, and it is thought to play a role in nearly half of the almost 6,000 sexual assaults reported across the Defense Department last year. But the role alcohol plays has been succinctly redefined.

    “It’s a weapon,” said Katharina Booth, chief trial deputy and chief of the Boulder District Attorney’s Office sexual assault unit. Booth said the change comes from the realization that perpetrators are more likely to use alcohol to subdue their sexual assault victims than guns, threats and fists.

    … In a December Pentagon report, the military calls alcohol a weapon in its latest sexual assault prevention guidance for commanders, echoing a statement made by Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel in May. Hagel ordered a review of alcohol policies in a bid to quell sexual assaults.

    “They include a department- wide review of institutional alcohol policies, which will be revised where necessary to address risks that alcohol poses to others, including the risk that alcohol is used as a weapon against victims in a predatory way,” Hagel said.

    At the Air Force Academy and other military bases, workers who serve alcohol in clubs are being told to watch for those who would use booze as a weapon, said Lt. Col. Kirstin Reimann, an Air Force spokeswoman at the Pentagon.

    … Last week, academy leaders sat through a presentation on sexual assault and the new view of alcohol’s role, according to the academy website. The speaker, Anne Munch, co-developer of the Air Force’s new bystander intervention program to prevent sexual assault, told the academy brass that old views of alcohol put too much focus on the victims of sexual assault.

    “For the same reason that a robber chooses a drunk victim (over a sober victim), a rapist will also choose a drunk victim,” she said, according to the academy’s website.

    … To combat alcohol issues, the academy, led by Superintendent Lt. Gen. Michelle Johnson, is relying on cadets to keep an eye on each other. Bystander intervention, a concept cadets are trained on, requires them to intercede when a classmate is intoxicated or otherwise at risk for harm including sexual assault.

    “Don’t drink alone,” the academy cautions on its website. “Have a wingman, or better yet two, and know where they are at all times.”

    Cadets took a pledge last fall to intercede if they see a classmate, or anyone else, at risk of sexual assault. Other work includes educating cadets on responsible drinking and giving more help to victims.

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