Martin van Creveld: women are a problem in the military, not the cure

Summary: Martin van Creveld examines the reason behind the Israel Defense Forces’ enthusiasm to recruit women. It’s the same reason for the enthusiasm of the US military. Men are increasingly unable or unwilling to serve. He discusses some of the likely consequences of this experiment.

IDF woman soldier


Military Women Are Not the Cure,
They Are the Disease

By Martin van Creveld.
From his website, 24 November 2016.

Re-posted with his generous permission.


For about twenty years now, I have been warning whoever would and would not listen about the dangers of feminizing the military. Now, in my own country, the chicks — no pun intended — are coming home to roost. As readers will know, the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) are the only ones in history to have made women wear uniform even against their will. However, from the end of the War of Independence (1948) to the late 1970s they only did so in a variety of auxiliary Military Occupation Specialties (MOS) that had little impact on the fighting “teeth.” At that point a shortage of manpower generated by the forces’ expansion following the 1973 Arab-Israeli War on one hand and feminist pressures on the other caused the situation to change. Female officers and enlisted personnel increased in both numbers and importance until the IDF was blessed with three small “combat” battalions made up mostly of women. Albeit that they are deployed along the borders with Egypt and Jordan, where hardly a shot has been fired for decades past.

Fast-move forward. For about a month now I have noticed, in Israel’s most important paper Yediot Ahronot, a series of articles about various combat IDF units. How little the public knew about them. How wonderful they were. How important the missions they carried out, and how daring their feats. Which towns provided them with proportionally the largest number of recruits. And so on. Briefly. the kind of stuff you would expect from a military that has difficulties attracting manpower.

Last week, the reasons behind the various publications came out of the bag. What I had suspected all along has now been announced with great fanfare. Year by year, fewer recruits are interested in joining the combat arms. From 2015 to 2016 alone, the figure went down by two percentage points, from 71.91 to 69.8. The decline is less pronounced among women, more among men. Coming on top of the fact that more and more men do not serve in the first place, the IDF has good reason to worry about its ability to fill combat slots as they should be.

Women in IDF
Women in the IDF Infantry Instructors course, 27 May 2008. IDF photo.

Throwing in money apart, several solutions have been proposed. One is to cut down on the training of cadets and fresh recruits so as to free them for tasks such as holding down the Occupied Territories. Another is to dramatically lower physical standards. Should this come to pass, then soldiers previously classified as fit only for desk-bound tasks and disaster relief either in the Territories or in Israel itself will be able to serve in “combat” MOS. For example, by controlling passports and looking for contraband at the various checkpoints leading from Israel to the Palestinian territories, Egypt and Jordan.

The most radical idea of all is to have women serve in the armored corps. But don’t let the slim figure, narrow shoulders, slender arms, and manicured nails of the good-looking girl in the picture mislead you. Over half of a tank’s weight consist of armor, and each of the road wheels shown weighs about as much as she does. As you would expect from such a machine, operating and maintaining it — as by loading ammunition, or swabbing the barrel of the gun, or changing a link in the tracks—is very heavy, and often very dirty, work only a handful of women can do. Should a woman be included in a tank crew, then the outcome will be to increase the burden on her male comrades. Perhaps even more problematic, in the confined space of an armored vehicle privacy is not minimal — it simply does not exist.

Such a system, in other words, can only lead to one of two things or, perhaps, to both. First, there will be another increase in the number of injured, in some cases even crippled, women hobbling about. And of course in claims for compensation of the kind which, even now, amounts to fully four percent of Israel’s entire defense budget. Second, there is going to be a big rise in “sexual harassment” claims; a problem which, as I pointed out in my recent book Pussycats, is currently wrecking not only Israel’s armed forces but those of all other Western ones as well.

More women in the forces are not the cure. They are the disease, or at least part of it. Feminization will inevitably lead, by all signs has already led, to the creation of a vicious cycle. By definition, the more women enter any professional field, institution, or branch of service the fewer men will remain in it. The fewer men remain, the more its prestige and the economic rewards it can command will be compromised. The more its prestige and economic rewards it can command are compromised, the fewer men it will be attract.

This process has been documented many, many times. Often by female researchers who worry, with good reason, about the impact their own growing presence may have on the rewards they can expect in their chosen fields. The best-known cases are those of secretaries (once upon a time, practically all secretaries were male), bank-tellers, pharmacists, book-editors, bakers, psychologists, and “wealth managers.” The ongoing decline in the ability of the humanities to attract students also seems to be linked with the fact that the percentage of female faculty members is them is exceptionally high.

And which IDF combat units do not suffer from a shortage of men? You guessed it: The two elite, entirely male, infantry brigades, Golani and the paratroopers.

Editors’ note: for more about the loss of status following women’s entry into a profession see “Is the Feminization of a Profession a Sign of a Loss of Prestige?” by Marlaine Cacouault-Bitaud in Work, Gender and Societies, 2001/1, and also “As Women Take Over a Male-Dominated Field, the Pay Drops” by Claire Cain Miller in the New York Times, 18 March 2016.


Martin van Creveld

About the Author

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. See links to his articles at The Essential 4GW reading list: Martin van Creveld.

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 in the fascinating Technology and War: From 2000 B.C. to the Present and Wargames: From Gladiators to Gigabytes (see the chapters about modern gaming, wargames for the people).

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.

He has written three books about Israel: Defending Israel: A Controversial Plan Toward Peace, The Sword And The Olive: A Critical History Of The Israeli Defense Force, and a biography of Moshe Dayan.

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 ours!), Men, Women & War: Do Women Belong in the Front Line?. and Pussycats: Why the Rest Keeps Beating the West (2016).

And perhaps most important for 21st century America, his magnum opus— the dense but mind-opening The Rise and Decline of the State— describes the political order unfolding before our eyes.

For More Information

Please like us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter. See other posts about  women and gender roles, and especially these…

  1. The Real Revolution in Military Affairs (it’s not what you think).
  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.
  6. Martin van Creveld looks at the experience of women in the Israel Defense Forces.

Two books about women in the military.

The Kinder, Gentler Military: Can America's Gender-Neutral Fighting Force Still Win Wars
Available at Amazon.
Men Women and War
Available at Amazon.

24 thoughts on “Martin van Creveld: women are a problem in the military, not the cure”

  1. Darn those women, lowering the prestige of all those fields they want to get involved in. /s More seriously, it does seem to be a systemic issue. I’ve read about how doctors in Russia are paid poorly and treated with little respect because the profession is majority-female due to USSR-era educational policies.

    I have always thought that the sensible way to handle a lot of these issues with things like mixed-gender ships, crews, etc. would be to have all-female vehicle or ship crews. You would obviously need a transitional period to train women as officers and there would be other challenges but it seems like it’s never been tried, outside of some Soviet air/sniper units in World War 2.

    1. Dana,

      That’s a creative idea. This is all so new. In keeping with our ideological society, the push seems to be to implement beta versions of new social systems — putting them into production, so to speak — rather than experimentation and trials. I suspect that will work as badly as we should expect.

  2. thetinfoilhatsociety

    I think it depends on the woman. Really. Which means that equality as we currently understand it is BS.

  3. Get used to the idea of co-ed bathrooms” by Greg Stevens at The Kernel of the Daily Dot.

    “The 1997 movie Starship Troopers, a science-fiction film depicting a near-future society, has a famous scene in which military cadets, both men and women, are bonding and horsing around in the showers. No special point is made about the fact that the showers are co-ed, and no explanation is offered. It is depicted as the most natural thing in the world.”

    Martin van Creveld’s writing reminded me of the notably seamless gender integration of the military that was pictured in that movie. It’s fiction for sure, and may or may not eventually become reality. Either way, especially given its timing in 1997, the movie might have been formative to general opinions about the matter today.

    Fabius Maximus might also appreciate the relation to one of his favorite writers, Robert Heinlein.

    1. Todd,

      The shower scene in the 1997 film Starship Troopers was one of the early stages to what has become typical in US fiction — all media: genderless integration. Esp military and police. Even NCIS, considered a conservative show, has men and women drawn almost identically (even with co-ed shower rooms).

      This reflects the views of people in the entertainment industry, most liberal or left. We see the extreme view in the article you cite by Greg Stevens. Like a good Stalinist, he proclaims that the Left’s social engineers will force social change. The peons must just bend over and take it; eventually they will like it.

      It’s mad hubris. Trump and the rise of far-right political parties in Europe is the result. They forget: there is always a counter-revolution. Time will tell who wins.

    2. @Fab: While I would agree that we’re probably unlikely to actually see genderless showers and similar, I think we have digested other large evolutions without mass upheavals. I would wonder what the troops themselves think of things. My own favorite window is the comic strip “Terminal Lance,” although of course any such perspective comes from only one author.

      Of course the situation will vary in different nations and their military demands; Israel would have every reason to be more cautious with experimentation in their infantry units. What might just lead to disorganization, scandal and some collapsed officer careers here, might lead to a major terrorist incident in Israel.

      1. Dana,

        It depends on what one means by “acceptance.” For the military, the core metrics are the ability to attract and retain talented people (the first a real-time indicator), and combat effectiveness. MvC points to the IDF having problems with the first. Only time will tell about the second, although the performance of the IDF land forces in the past decade has been weak.

    3. Todd,

      That is a great article. I wondered if it was worth writing about, but decided that doing so was kicking a sick dog. The author displays the ignorance, hubris, and authoritarian attitudes that have wrecked the Left in American — with a counter-reaction that put Trump in the White House.

      “The reason that I can confidently predict that mixed-gender multi-user bathrooms will one day be the norm is that the arguments against them are all stupid. …The first stages are under way: buildings are being required, in more and more places, to have at least one genderless single-stall bathroom available for those who want it. The next stages will be mixed-gender multi-user bathrooms available in buildings that also have single-gender (men’s and women’s) bathrooms for those who prefer to use them. As society adapts, and more and more realize that the mixed-gender bathrooms are not dangerous or harmful, they will become more commonly used. …It will happen because people will finally realise that there is nothing to feel uncomfortable about.”

      The Left will use the government’s police power to force social change because they know what’s best. They believe that Americans will eventually come to love Big Brother, just as in 1984. Unfortunately many people have become angry about the social engineering of the Left, and want to stop the Left’s experimentation on American society. We are not their lab rats.

      “appreciate the relation to one of his favorite writers, Robert Heinlein.”

      The film “Starship Troopers” was intended as a mockery — a rather ignorant one — of the book. I wonder how Heinlein would have regarded the famous shower scene. His books represented the work of his imagination, not necessarily his personal views — and his personal views radically changed during his life (he published between 1939 and 1987). Hence the wide range of viewpoints seen in them.

  4. Hi Folks,
    I have never served in the military, however many of my coworkers have. I’ve asked them about this subject, after reading about here, and have gotten either neutral or affirmative responses about having females in the military. One fried of mine, who had a female infantry-person die (shrapnel) in his arms during the 2nd Gulf War, said on the whole he was OK with it, that the women did their jobs well. Apparently there were times when the only person who could fit into a tight space that needed to be ‘cleared’ was a female with a flashlight and a pistol, and there would be no lack of volunteers.
    Having said that and staying with the ground-force scenario, I do fear what would happen if a modern, gender-integrated army ran into a non-nonsense/hyper-male/results-oriented army (say, like the U.S., or Germany, fielded in WW2). I suspect the results would be tragic.

    1. Charles,

      Thank you for that second person reflections. Unfortunately I doubt it tells us much. As pollsters and social scientists have shown, the impressions of a few individuals in casual conversation don’t get the same results as well-designed questions in a properly designed survey — where people speak anonymously.

      Also, I wonder if the effects on recruitment and retention — let alone on group combat effectiveness — can be reliably found questioning individuals — no matter how well-designed the survey.

    2. I believe the Kurdish peshmerga, which include a fair number of women, have indeed been having a tragic encounter with ISIL troops… Tragic for the ISIL forces, that is to say.

      If anything I think having a “hyper-male” army could lead to great tragedy by leading to systemic underestimation of the opponent because they’re “weak girly men” who will surely be out-masculined by our brave boys. The South made that mistake, as did the Japanese military.

      1. Dana,

        A number of people in the field have attempted to document the exciting reports about the Kurdish women brigades, with no success.

        War news is usually war propaganda. More so now, because the crash in news profitability means that they seldom send correspondents to cover those stories. They pay locals to write them, who respond (logically) to local needs.

  5. I have no problems with women in combat as long as they can do the job. IIRC, women are well suited to pilot roles and are at least as well able to stand up to the pressures of high G manoeuvres as men. So there’s no reason not to use them. Similarly with many crew positions in the navy.

    When it comes to the difficult and mucky bits of ground combat I do wonder. Particularly when we see selection processes tuned with the apparent aim of letting more women in to ground combat units. Armed forces need to let go of the concept of gender equality, set selection standards according to their requirements for the job and then recruit the people that pass the tests.

    I look forward to abandoning gender segregation in sport.

    1. Steve,

      The “do the job” theory ignores that wars are not fought by individuals, interchangeable cogs so that we need only ensure that each is up to spec. They are fought by teams, whose group dynamics have evolved over millennia. How well will women fit into these groups? Both sides guess with mad confidence. Only time will tell.

      On the other hand, what fraction of the US armed forces consist of ground combat troops (although support troops are exposed to danger)? The total is 1.3 million active duty, of which 460K are Army and 182 Marines — total of 642k (49%). Guessing, 25% of the Army and 30% of the USMC = 170k total, only 13%. It might not be the end of the Republic if we gender integrate the other 87% and slowly experiment with women in ground combat.

      But we won’t do that, because the question is driven (like so many these days) by ideology.

      This is often described as an experiment. It’s not, because experiments are conducted on a small scale — with careful monitoring. Rather we are like mad computer programmers, who want the beta version of vital new software put into production without testing. After all, what could go wrong?

  6. I met a medic that served in the YPG via the reddit with a different handle.

    He is confirmed to the real deal and says that there are actually Kurdish women fighters which is possible because they refuse body armour generally speaking hence the strength requirements aren’t as strict as western military as well as the fact that men still handle the manual labor.

    But their shooting ability has no real difference with the YPG.

    Although this video shoots women shooting it may be propaganda:

    1. Info,

      Sure there are women soldiers in the Kurdish army. They’re probably as good at shooting as the men (why not?). The question is how they are used. That is the validity of the stories of their deployment in combat, their ferocity, and how they are feared by foes.

      These read to me like typical propaganda, but could be true. I recommend skepticism until we have actual evidence.

      Also: before believing what someone tells you on Reddit, remember than on the internet nobody knows if you’re a dog.

      1. Although the tag for his handle is (Verified) so I would put more weight on the validity on his remarks. I see no reason why they would lie in regards to the fact that he may is the real deal on an official syrian war reddit. That man also did an AMA in regards to Rojava in regards to his experiences there.

        Although the other caveats when I pressed him on the issue made those claims more valid like refusing body armor and men taking care of the manual tasks. Hence strength is not as important as mobility and flexibility in an infantry role in their case. The heavy weapons and armor as far as I can see in the videos are all handled by the men.

        I do agree that propaganda is overblown that makes such women out to be amazons. And agree that time will tell.

        I will the your last statement into consideration.

        Although technology may have already changed the dynamics of warfare in regards to gender. Pre-gunpowder weapons for require muscle power. Hence the male sex is more suited to it. But modern weapons like pistols or other light weapons can be quite suitable and deadly in the hands of the fairer sex. Since accuracy is not sex specific in terms of advantage. When more manual tasks are taken care of by technology the barriers may be lowered even more.

      2. infowar,

        First, infantry success is still to a large extent determined by physical strength and endurance.

        Second, infantry success is even more determined by psychological factors: willingness to suffer and to kill, unit cohesion, pack dynamics, etc. How well women manage this remains unknown. There is too little data. Much of the experience of women in ground combat is with insurgent groups (e.g., Eritrea), about which there are few or no studies. Time will give answers, but propaganda tells us nothing.

      3. I pressed the man(YPG medic) who goes with them to the frontlines for answers on this very issue.

        ”Are you asking me to gauge the difference between men and women fighters? Because that is the only difference between the YPG and YPJ; sex organs. Women can fight, men can fight. I never saw anything that suggested that the YPJ weren’t as capable as the men.”

        He insists on this although I objected to that based on real physical differences between the sexes.

        Which he added how that men handle the manual labor and that they refuse to wear any armor and use any equipment that weigh them down.

        Modern militaries I am aware of have equipment that requires physical strength and endurance to handle. And that especially in contexts where space is more limited much more effective man-to-man over unarmored lightly armed infantry.

        Studies are needed to verify this of course.

        Perhaps this man is just doubling down on the propaganda. But this is the response I got.

      4. info,

        (1) You don’t know who this guy is, or have any evidence about the accuracy of his info. I’m mystified why you regard his comments as anything other than the usual chatter.

        (2) “”Are you asking me to gauge the difference between men and women fighters? Because that is the only difference between the YPG and YPJ; sex organs.”

        That’s pure ideology, too dumb to deserve comment, warranting no further attention this that person on this subject. A century of science has shown a host of other physiological differences (e.g., skeletal structure, susceptibility to stress fractures). Then there is the larger and still poorly understood array of psychological differences — both innate and cultural.

      5. It would be fascinating to see how much ideological indoctrination can override the psychological differences. Those fighters are after all highly indoctrinated as part of their training. Which does seem to provide a form of discipline and morale boost. In a similar way nationalistic indoctrination in the Japanese made them very fanatical in fighting which if combined with competence makes a very deadly brew.

      6. infowarrior,

        All interesting speculation. Since we have almost no data, I doubt this helps. As for the Kurdish women fighters, we don’t even know to what extent they are fighting.

        “In a similar way nationalistic indoctrination in the Japanese made them very fanatical in fighting which if combined with competence makes a very deadly brew.”

        I doubt that is correct. I don’t recall any research on this, equivalent to Martin van Creveld’s Fighting Power (comparing the armies fighting in Europe during WWII). My guess is that their fanaticism made Japan’s soldiers less effective as an army.

  7. I know I am really late on this forum and its clearly dead but I just wanted to weigh in.

    I don’t think anybody is saying women can’t do what men do in a combat situation. I think it is more a question of achieving the same results. Of course women have proven themselves time and time again throughout many conflicts around the world. Unfortunately I find it is much easier to find a man who is physiologically built to endure more than a woman, who is not. A lot of is is psychological too, and although a woman may have the mental fortitude to endure her body may not agree. Again, that is not to say that there aren’t women out there willing an able, and certainly there are men who could not pass a lot of the challenges. I however find it more likely that a man will be able to pass the requirements set before them.

    As infowarrior stated, “When more manual tasks are taken care of by technology the barriers may be lowered even more.”

    This means nothing. Just because technology replaces a lot of the manual tasks does not mean that the point of training and being capable of doing those tasks are moot. There is a reason that even in such tasks as land nav, they allowed us to use GPS, but we also had to train with and become proficient at using a lensatic compass. That is also why we train in hand to hand combat including knife and beyonet training, just because you have a gun doesn’t mean it isn’t without its faults. Sure technology will be there to help, but the physical demand will always be there for when technology fails…and it WILL fail.

    1. Larry Kummer, Editor


      I agree with your comment overall, but I wonder what you meant by the opening.

      “I don’t think anybody is saying women can’t do what men do in a combat situation.”

      There are many who say exactly that.

      “women have proven themselves time and time again throughout many conflicts around the world.”

      As Martin van Creveld has shown, there is little evidence of that. A few Russian snipers, some partisans in WWII, poorly documented stories of Kurdish and Eritrean women soldiers. Given the wide variance among people, we might be comparing what the average guy can do with the exceptional woman (top 1%?). Drawing operationally useful conclusions from this is difficult.

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