Martin van Creveld looks at Amazons: women warriors in the real world

Summary: Martin van Creveld looks at the accounts of women soldiers from the ancient Amazons to modern armies, cutting away the myths to real the facts. It’s a timely analysis, with the US radically revising the role of women in our military.

Peshmerga Women
Peshmerga Women by Jan Sefti. Published under a Creative Commons License.


By Martin van Creveld. From his website, 27 August 2015
Posted with his generous permission

I get feedback on my articles. For that I am grateful; it makes me think. Recently someone took issue with my claim that, in the military, where there are women there are no bullets and where there are bullets there are no women. How about the brave Kurdish women who are fighting Daesh? Don’t they make up 30-35%?

30-35% of what? I asked. After all, women make up nearly 30% of the Israel Defense Force. Nevertheless, in the so-called Second Lebanon War of 2006, 130 male soldiers were killed against just one female. The 66 IDF soldiers who died in operation Protective Edge in 2014 did not include a single woman. So just what do 30-35% mean?

Regarding the fighting Kurdish troops  he answered rather brusquely. In support he sent these sites:

I opened them. They did not mention any figures on the ratio of brave Kurdish fighting females to brave Kurdish fighting males. And the headline? “No Frontline Deployment for Female Kurdish Troops.”

What the article did say was that, in a place called Dobruk, there is or was a colonel who commanded “a 30-woman unit.” Strange, that: since when do colonels command platoons? Isn’t their job to command brigades in which there are normally 27 platoons as well as other units? Never mind.

The purpose of the unit? “To show,” says the colonel, “that we are different from IS, which will never let women fight.” In other words, propaganda. Though whom the propaganda is intended for, the Kurds themselves or their slavering Western admirers, is left unsaid.

That business disposed of, I decided to do a little research. And yes, I did find a Reuters photo report titled, “Kurdish women fighters wage war on Islamic State in Iraq.” It claimed that women made up some 30%. Thirty percent of exactly what? Military personnel (assuming that, in a place like Kurdistan, there is a clear distinction between the military and civilians)? All kinds of support troops? Fighters who actually hold a gun, fire at the enemy, and are fired at in return? The article provides no answers. What it does provide are nice-looking pictures of women posing with Kalashnikov assault rifles. So do a great many similar sites.

The words “photo report” are important. Many years ago, Nazi propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels used to tell his public that “pictures do not lie.” That, of course, was itself the greatest lie of all. I do not want to imply that Reuters was lying. Only that doing so with the aid of pictures is, if anything, easier than with words.

One takes a good looking, somewhat dark-skinned, woman in some dilapidated-looking setting. One pays her a few dollars. Many women (and men) will help even without the dollars. Some will happily sell their grandmothers simply in order to appear on BBC News or some similar show. The paperwork having been settled, one puts her into something that looks more or less like a uniform. To add a local touch, her head may be adorned by a kefiyeh. One gives her the rifle which she does or does not know how to fire. One makes her stand up and pose, kneel and pose, lie down and pose. Easy.

Another article claims that the Kurdish Peshmerga have “hundreds” of female troops {here’s a similar article from 2003}. Hundreds out of how many? 250,000, as The Guardian, 22.2.2015, claimed? And what do they actually do? Have “Daesh on the run,” as an article in Toronto Sun, published on 18.8.2015, claimed? Frankly, I did not know Daesh was on the run. The latest I read was that, according to US intelligence agencies, “Daesh remains as powerful today as it was in mid-2014. It can replace fighters faster than any other military organization on earth” (Albawaba News, Egypt, 13.8.2015). Notwithstanding that more than 60 countries, a third of the total, are trying to counter it.

But back to the women. In proportion to their number in the Peshmerga, how many women fight weapon in hand? How many were killed or wounded? Nowhere could I find clear answers.

And why the Kurds? All Western armies now have legions of heroic fighting females. So why should anyone go all the way to Kurdistan, normally not the most important, progressive, or interesting place in the world, to hunt for them? Shouldn’t they be everywhere?

Perhaps the history of the Greek Amazons provides an answer. Originally they were supposed to live in Phrygia, not far from the city of Troy which they vainly tried to save from the Greeks. Next, since they could not be found there, they shifted their habitat to the country north of the Black Sea. When they could not be found there they shifted their habitat to Libya. Next, since they could not be found they moved into the “frontiers of the inhabited world.” Or so the historian Diodorus, who wrote between about 60 and 30 BC, says.

Wherever Greek armies and colonists arrived they eagerly looked for Amazons. Failing to find them, they did their best to fake them. By one legend, the Amazon Queen Thalestris presented Alexander the Great with 300 of her subjects in the hope that they would conceive and have children as strong as he was. Perhaps because Alexander does not seem to have been terribly interested in women, though, nothing came of it. Some subsequent Greek and Roman rulers put captive “Amazons” on display during victory celebrations and the like. Freaks, they knew, always draw crowds.

From then to the present, the question has not been whether women fight in war. Except on rare occasions, usually such as are linked either to insurgencies or to last-ditch home defense, they do not. The question, rather, is why fighting females have such a strong hold on the male imagination.

For an answer, I shall select just example. In Berlin there is the world-famous Pergamon Museum. Inside the museum there is the Pergamon Altar built by King Eumenes II at some time between 200 and 150 BC. So stunning is it that I have seen visitors standing in front of it, speechless and unable to move.

Athena in the Pergamon Altar
Athena in a frieze from the Pergamon Altar.

In the present context the important sculptures are those of Zeus, the father of the gods and the strongest among them by far, and his warrior daughter Athene. The unknown artist has portrayed Zeus as one would expect him to be, i.e. as the very image of a bare-chested, powerful, dominant male with muscles and pubic hair to match.

Not so Athene who obviously presented the sculptor with a problem. On one hand she had to look robust (“Pallas,” in Greek, one of her epithets) in order to appear credible as a warrior. On the other she cannot be made to look too robust. Or else she will make her male partner in battle less credible. Besides, it is necessary to make clear that she is a woman. How to reconcile the conflicting demands? Here goes. Her arms, which are considerably weaker than those of Zeus, have been left exposed. There is no bare chest, no pubic hair. Instead the left half of her chest is encased by armor. The right one is covered by a thin, almost transparent, fabric that leaves her nipple clearly visible.

The combination of combat with cleavage continues to fascinate the male mind. Throughout history, that fascination has led to strange results. Down to the end of the nineteenth century female on female duels — there were a few — always drew crowds of leering men. Nowadays the same happens wherever a “catfight” is announced. Nothing like a couple of half-naked women bashing one another to get to get spectators on their feet! Meanwhile real fighting women remain as rare as they were when Alexander vainly looked for them.

Or else, conscious of his public relations as he was, merely pretended to do so.


About the Author

Martin van Creveld

Martin van Creveld is Professor Emeritus of History at Hebrew University of Jerusalem, and one of the world’s most renowned experts on military history and strategy.

The central role of Professor van Creveld in the development of theory about modern war is difficult to exaggerate. He has provided both the broad historical context — looking both forward and back in time — much of the analytical work, and a large share of the real work in publishing both academic and general interest books. He does not use the term 4GW, preferring to speak of “non-trinitarian” warfare — but his work is foundational for 4GW just the same.

Professor van Creveld has written 20 books, about almost every significant aspect of war. He has written about the history of war, such as The Age of Airpower. He has written about the tools of war: Technology and War: From 2000 B.C. to the Present.

Some of his books discuss the methods of war: Supplying War: Logistics from Wallenstein to Patton, Training of Officers: From Military Professionalism to Irrelevance, and Air Power and Maneuver Warfare.

Perhaps most important are his books examine the evolution of war, such as Nuclear Proliferation and the Future of Conflict, The Transformation of War: The Most Radical Reinterpretation of Armed Conflict Since Clausewitz (IMO the best work to date about modern war), The Changing Face of War: Combat from the Marne to Iraq, and (my favorite) The Culture of War.

He’s written controversial books, such as Fighting Power: German and U.S. Army Performance, 1939-1945 (German soldiers were better than our!) and Men, Women & War: Do Women Belong in the Front Line?.

He’s written one of the most influential books of our generation about war, his magnum opus — the dense but mind-opening The Rise and Decline of the State – the ur-text describing the political order of the 21st century.

For links to his articles see The Essential 4GW reading list: Martin van Creveld.

For More Information

Expect to see more of these: “Anger After A Female Kurdish Fighter Is Killed, Stripped” by Jacob Steinblatt at Vocative, 17 August 2015 — “Kurdish activists blame Turkish security forces for the death of a female fighter and the desecration of her body.”

Also see “Sex and the Peshmerga” by Bilal Ahmed at Souciant, 6 October 2014.

Please like us on Facebook, follow us on Twitter, and post your comments — because we value your participation. 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. Women in combat are the real Revolution in Military Affairs.
  5. News about the battle for women’s equality in our armed forces.
Men, Women & War
Available at Amazon.
Transformation of War
Available at Amazon.

9 thoughts on “Martin van Creveld looks at Amazons: women warriors in the real world”

  1. Il existe deux critères d’évaluation physique différents ce qui prouve bien qu’il y des différences entre les sexes dans la presse généraliste on parle de bastion masculin et le fait qu’elles y était interdit mais en fait qu’en on parle “ouvert aux femmes” c’est on adapte l’évaluation et les exigences sans parler du recrutement. Il n’y a jamais eut un plan pour attirer plus d’hommes dans l’armée. En occident on parle d’armée technologique, se sont les femmes qui sont plus diplômé que les hommes et comme en occident et pas que, c’est plus les féministes qui sont en charge de l’égalité cela entraine des modifications qui ne sont pas sans conséquences car si il y des codes féminins, il y a en également des masculins c’est logique. Le mieux serait d’avoir des sections/pelotons/ compagnie voir bataillon féminins sans baisser trop les critères, toutefois elles ne représenteraient pas 15 % des effectif totaux d’une armée Américaine et Française probablement moins de 5 % mais aujourd’hui ont confond égalité et mixité.

  2. He’s arguing that because it hasn’t been done, it can’t be done. This is classic conservatism (“If the Member’s proposal be sound would the Saxon or sharp-eyed Norman have passed it by?”)
    When I was a grad student in EE 35 yrs ago there were about 2 women out of 30 in my classes. Now it’s about 40% women.
    I’m no military expert, but men have about twice the upper body strength which can be needed in many combat situations. For some applications, like piloting a drone, hardly any strength is required.
    The top snipers in the Red Army in WW2 were roughly half women (of course the country was threatened with genocide.)

  3. We do know that a Byzantine account of a 971 battle in Bulgaria where the Varangians as the Eastern European Vikings were sometimes known suffered a rare defeat mentions finding armed women amongst the dead. Women also constituted significant numbers of the Soviet partisans.

    1. Danish,

      Martin van Creveld says that from WWII on, very roughly 15% of unconventional insurgent forces are women. What’s more significant, however, is not their presence or if they carry weapons — but how they are used? Shock troops? Fighters? Support troops?

      I’ve looked for studies about this (e.g., casualties and death rates by gender), in a casual way, and found almost nothing. Which perhaps suggests that despite the vivid anecdotes, women tend to be used in support roles even in unconventional forces. Otherwise we’d have heard about them.

      The exception is suicide bombers. This might reflect not only women fighters willingness to die as martyrs, but also the misogynist attitude of their male leaders. There are precedents. The Brits’ Special Operations Executive came under fire after WWII when people learned about their casual expenditure of women agents. For example, dropping them into Holland despite overwhelming evidence that the underground there was under NAZi control. These women were quickly captured and tortured.

  4. The whole point of war is to kill their men and rape their women. It’s a selfish DNA imperative. Killing their women is Darwinian suicide, hence it is a non starter. Only the most pathological cultures press their women into combat. What are these who fight behind their women? These are not men.

  5. Pingback: 历史小说成为事实,隐藏了有用的教训 – B新聞

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