Women and children make a revolution in military affairs

Summary: Women and children fight in many of today’s wars. It’s the second biggest change in war, behind the nukes. Women have fought as guerillas in the Eritrean Wars, as suicide bombers in the Middle East, as soldiers in high-tech western armies and low-tech insurgent armies (e.g., Kurdish Peshmerga). Children fight and kill across the world. With few historical precedents, except in myths, large numbers of women and children in war is the true revolution in military affairs. We can only guess at its effects.

Women Warrior
Fantasy becoming fact.

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” in National Geographic. Look at 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). But things might not be what they seem, as Martin van Creveld explains in Men, Women & War: Do Women Belong in the Front Line? (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 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” in 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.

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, will come when women return in large numbers of body bags. 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 (thru 2015) vs roughly 11% of total US troops serving there.

CRS: casualties by gender
CRS, 20 November 2014.

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“ in Terrorism Monitor.

“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 our wars: “Female terrorists finding their place in Islamic militants’ ranks” in the Los Angeles Times.

“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. We have few details and less evidence.

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” by Marie Claire. NBC News invites us to “Meet the Kurdish Women fighting ISIS in Syria“. The Telegraph has a picture of the Syrian Army’s Female Commando Battalion (800 strong).

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” at the International Business Times. they are often false – see “Myth: ISIS is afraid of female soldiers” at VOX – but they spread anyway.

We went through this before with the women Peshmerga fighters in Kurdistan: “The Kurds Won’t Let Their Women Soldiers Anywhere Near the Front Line. But lady Pesh want to fight” at Medium. Years later, we still do not know how many died in combat – the ultimate measure of the involvement.

But the trend seems clear. Women will continue to take a greater combat role, even in very patriarchal societies. How far will this go? We can only guess.

Women Iraq Police Recruits
Americans train Iraq fighters. UPI/Edward Reagan/US Army.

Child warriors

This is too horrific to discuss today. Population growth in less developed societies creates massive numbers of “excess children.” With Africa’s population projected to quadruple in the 21st century (from one to four billion), “warrior” might continue to be a growing occupation for children. See some documentation about this logical evolution in our times. To be clear – this is about those under 16. People over 16 have often been considered adults.

A 2000 image of a 14-year-old soldier in Sierra Leone Photograph: Adam Butler/AP.
A 14-year-old soldier in Sierra Leone. Adam Butler/AP.

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 most 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 another perspective. Many armies have traditionally relied on “stand-off” weapons, from cavalry armed with the composite bow to modern infantry with rockets. Now armies can often rely almost entirely on mines, mortars, drones, 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. The day nears when remotely piloted vehicles will sweep manned aircraft from the sky and tanks from the ground. Women can run these things as well as men. Teenagers can run such weapons.

What need for the traditional warrior virtues in this form of combat? Bravery, discipline, and loyalty have a small role in wars conducted 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 and even children can have equal roles in such armies. Armies of women and children might pose an asymmetric threat to western armies, sapping their will to fight, their self-esteem, and their reputation at home.

Flying Terminator
Robots: warriors of the future.

How will this revolution change war? Change society?

There are many ways this Revolution might change war and culture.

How will it change societies where women (and perhaps children) are fighters? How will combat experience change the women and children? How will their relationships with men change?

Warfare is an intimate relationship between enemies. What glory is there for the West’s elaborately equipped soldiers when they kill women and children soldiers?

How will masculinity change as defender and fighter, core roles of men since forever, are shared by women and children? No matter how the West changes, our thinking will be changed by seeing women and children fighters in other lands – especially if we cannot defeat them. How will the roles of warrior and soldier change as they are increasingly done by women and children? How will this change the role of war in cultures around the world?

This is our Revolution in Military Affairs, perhaps the most significant in many millennia. As usual with revolutions, our guesses about its effects are far too small and too conservative. Its effects might be massive beyond our ability to imagine.

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. Putting women in combat: a quick look at the other side of the debate.
  2. About the future of an American army with women as combat soldiers.
  3. News about the battle for women’s equality in our armed forces.
  4. Martin van Creveld looks at Amazons: women warriors in the real world.
  5. Martin van Creveld looks at the experience of women in the Israel Defense Forces.
  6. Martin van Creveld: women are a problem in the military, not the cure.
  7. Will feminizing the Marines win wars?
  8. Before “Wonder Women” there was “G I Jane.”

Thoughtcrime about women warriors

Men, Women & War: Do Women Belong in the Front Line?
Available at Amazon.

Men, Women & War:
Do Women Belong in the Front Line?

By Martin van Creveld.

“Throughout history, women have been shielded from the heat of battle, their role limited to supporting the men who do the actual fighting.

“Now all that has changed, and for the first time females have taken their place on the front lines. But, do they actually belong there? A distinguished military historian answers the question with a vehement no, arguing women are less physically capable, more injury-prone, given more lenient conditions, and disastrous for morale and military preparedness. Groundbreaking and controversial.”

12 thoughts on “Women and children make a revolution in military affairs”

  1. We may see war become more genocidal in impact as a result. No longer is such casualties mostly confined to males.

    Likewise a rise in suicide by women and children from war trauma.

    1. Larry Kummer, Editor


      I’ve been writing about this for over a decade. Nobody comments on my conclusions about possible futures. That suggests to me that they are correct, and too horrific for people to contemplate.

      1. Indeed.

        It seems as technology has proceeded past the industrial revolution and as a result of gunpowder/explosive technology. The potential for horror has only escalated.

  2. Pingback: Women and children make a revolution in military affairs – The Owl Criminology

  3. I’m not blind to these “facts of live and death;” however, I’d take an exception to call wymin participation in armed forces a “Revolution.”
    The “barbarians” had them regularly in their ranks during Roman times, many revolts in the middle ages included them, the Soviets had battalions of them (sharp-shooters, pilots, tank crews …) and IDF has a good proportion of women soldiers…

    IMHO, the (ab)use of children should not be branded under the same umbrella either — revulsion / deterioration comes to mind as better terms. I still have a picture in mind of kids in uniforms being petted by their Furer in the last days of his thousand-year-empire…
    Perhaps in a generation or two all the armed conflicts will be done by our robots against theirs and I can imagine some 14-year-olds being better at guiding these than the tough-as-nail 28-year-old Marines and — my moralizing would again prove naive and “out of touch.”

  4. The Syrian government has plenty of female soldiers, there were always female paramilitary in the Arab socialist countries (Syria, Iraq), indeed Syrian high school girls wear (or at least they used to do) military fatigue for school!!

    As the civil war progressed the government recruited women mostly from the Alwites heartland of Tartus & Latakia, for them it was a fight against ISIS which would probably slaughtered or enslaved them as apostates. They were used to hold the line on quite areas of the front around the Capital, snipers and artillery not attack infantry.

    Some of these girls have died in the fighting; but these days there is little to no mention of them, so it seems they were used at the lowest point (as in all other cases) now there is plenty of male recruits. The Syrian government demobilized a second trench of recruits (recruited in 2010) in December 2018, so all the talk about Syrian government lack of manpower all turned out to be of the same low quality of analysis that the Western Media has been producing about this war since 2011.

    The British Telegraph: https://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/picturegalleries/worldnews/11489803/Syrian-conflict-Bashar-al-Assads-female-fighters-in-pictures.html

    Videos in English from Russian RT:

    Videos in Arabic:

    PS: Women in Tartus & Latakia are no different than those in Turkey, Greece, Italy, Corsica, Morocco, Tunis and coastal Egypt: strong independent, have a deep faith without being constrained by religious practice and will take care of their looks even in combat!, but the majority of Syrians would not allow their women to volunteer.

    PS2: you mention in the summary: “suicide bombers in the Middle East” as a NEW phenomenon but surly the number of female suicide bombers in Arabia is nothing compared to the female Tamil suicide bombers in Sri Lanka? The Tamil Tigers made a practice of blowing up their female soldiers long before any woman blew herself up in Arabia (extremely small numbers of Arab women have gone through with it, most just give up with indication that some who didn’t were detonated from afar!).

    PS3: Arab women volunteers look much better holding a rifle in uniform than Israeli female conscripts ever did, I guess defending your land and honor is a much better look than occupation duty anyway ;)

    1. Larry Kummer, Editor


      That title is the perfect description of stories about women fighters: “Assad’s female fighters: Progress or propaganda?” Lots of thrilling stories from many wars, but little evidence of large scale ground fighting by women.

      1. I double posted the link, but I expected you to delete the second one and keep the first as the link is meant to supplement my first comment. If you read my long comment above you would see that these women were only used in the lowest point of 2015 (indeed the date of all the links and videos are from that time) and I mention in my long comment, which this was supposed to supplement, that there is little mention of them nowadays as the situation improved greatly for the government side.

        I am not in favor of females in combat roles if that is the impression that you got, I just wished to point a light on women soldiers who might have done more fighting in the last few years than Israeli conscripts had done in the last few decades and yet every time you post on this subject you offer the Israeli conscripts again and again as an example as if there weren’t women in uniform (voluntarily) just on the other side of the border.

        As to the title (of the article that I posted) you will forgive me if I don’t take my cues from the titles of journalist pieces from the French Foreign Service partly disguised as a professional news service. No single article (let alone the title) is enough to render judgment on a real life situation, the Western Media brands women on the government side as propaganda while those on the Kurdish side as heroes, these Syrian women were on the front and some did die, as I mentioned in my long comment above and propaganda use is very doubtful as Western Media has nothing good to say about the Assad government while local Arabs look unfavorably at such women, at most they might give a moral boost to fighters from their own regions of Tartus and Latakia, as I said above….very strange that you should skip my long and informative comment above to add a cynical comment on a supplemental link….strange!

        I post this link as just another source in English language, to be taken as a whole with the other links above specially on a subject (i.e. female soldiers in the Syrian army) that you appear wholly ignorant about as you keep mentioning the Israeli conscripts and the Kurdish female fighters without a single mention of the Syrian women battalion (at least a battalion if we would take the France24 number of 800, but actually more as there are other women in support roles) fighting (and dying) right between the other two.

      2. Larry Kummer, Editor


        I am a bit confused by your comment.

        (1) “I double posted the link, but I expected you to delete the second one and keep the first”

        I thought that’s what I did. If not, I apologize. I’m a bit busy here tonight.

        (2) “yet every time you post on this subject you offer the Israeli conscripts again and again as an example as if there weren’t women in uniform (voluntarily) just on the other side of the border.”

        Did you read this post? Apparently not.

        (3) “As to the title (of the article that I posted) you will forgive me if I don’t take my cues from the titles of journalist pieces …”

        Macht nichts to me. I said that the title was a great summary of the situation. And it is. That women are in the Syrian army tells us little. The number killed in action would tell us how they are used. Ditto the Kurdish women, etc.

        (4) “I just wished to point a light on women soldiers who might have done more fighting …”

        Or might not. The article gives us no info on the matter.

        (5) “you mention in the summary: “suicide bombers in the Middle East” as a NEW phenomenon”

        Please read more carefully. I said nothing remotely like that. The only mention about the history of suicide bombers is this:

        “But neither women in traditional roles of terrorist supporter nor as suicide bomber represents a revolution.”

        The first record that I know of in the West of a suicide attack was in the second century B.C. (there have been many since). From The First Book of the Maccabees, 1.6.43.

        “Now Eleazar, called Avaran, saw that one of the {elephants} was equipped with royal armor. It was taller than all the others, and he supposed that the king was on it. So he gave his life to save his people and to win for himself an everlasting name. He courageously ran into the midst of the phalanx to reach it; he killed men right and left, and they parted before him on both sides. He got under the elephant, stabbed it from beneath, and killed it; but it fell to the ground upon him and he died.”

        (6) “very strange that you should skip my long and informative comment above to add a cynical comment on a supplemental link….strange!”

        Your ideological glasses are too thick. I quoted the title because it was a perfect summary, imo. Not cynical. Not strange.

        (7) “that you appear wholly ignorant about as you keep mentioning the Israeli conscripts and the Kurdis”

        Take your filters off and re-read the article. You’ve entirely missed the message. It is not a list of women fighters, or of children fighters. It mentions a few well-known cases, and discusses the implications if these phenomena become more common. At 1932 words, it is 2x or 3x the ideal length of a post. People tend to lightly skim these long articles, and totally miss the thesis. Just as you did.

        (8) “without a single mention of the Syrian women battalion (at least a battalion if we would take the France24 number of 800, but actually more as there are other women in support roles) fighting (and dying) right between the other two.”

        Where do the Telegraph or France24 articles mention women dying in combat? Or even getting injured? (I didn’t listen to the videos you linked to).

      3. American expat in Israel here. And I can tell you flat out all that women conscripts in the IDF is a lot of hype. You have half the country convinced it’s necessary (the half that of course remains childless). and the other half keeps quiet for the same reason American conservatives in the us military keep quiet.

        There was an incident in the papers a while ago where they went on and on about how one these mixed brigades heroically took out a terrorist. And the reality was that the silly little girls were hiding and crying in some bushes while the men did all the work.

  5. Found this. For Syria, at least, that the ‘female suicide bomber’ thing is mostly media hype, which kind of fits my impression of what’s going on. The suicide bombers are mostly men, and most famously they are car bombs.


    But then found this too. Maybe it really is the Kurds who are using women in combat the most. I think it’s that Kurds in Syria are just a smaller population compared to Arabs in the country and they have carved out a large ministate with long lines to defend. They use women because of manpower shortages.


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