Summary: Women combatants appear in many of today’s conflicts around the world, a change in warfare with few precedents in history and perhaps the biggest change since the use of nukes. Recent examples include fighters in the Eritrean Wars, Middle East suicide bombers, soldiers in western armies, and in the Kurdish forces. With few historical precedents, except in near-mythological tales, large numbers of women in combat represents a real revolution in military affairs. Here we sort through the news for an introduction to this powerful trend.
- War by women in developed nations
- Women soldiers in future wars
- War in the less-developed lands
- The democratization of warfare
- How will this revolution change war?
- 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.
(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.
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?
(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).
(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
- Women as soldiers – an update.
- Putting women in combat: a quick look at the other side of the debate.
- About the future of an American army with women as combat soldiers.
- News about the battle for women’s equality in our armed forces.