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.
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.
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.”
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.
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.
- For an introduction, see the “Children as soldiers” page at UNICEF.
- The reports at Child Soldiers International.
- The Child Soldiers section at Human Rights Watch.
- “Young Assassins of the Drug Trade” by Alonzo Salazar of the North American Congress on Latin America (NACLA).
- Better copy here.
- A bibliography from the site of the Five College Program in Peace and World Security Studies (PAWSS).
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.
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
- 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.
- Martin van Creveld looks at Amazons: women warriors in the real world.
- Martin van Creveld looks at the experience of women in the Israel Defense Forces.
- Martin van Creveld: women are a problem in the military, not the cure.
- Will feminizing the Marines win wars?
- Before “Wonder Women” there was “G I Jane.”
Thoughtcrime about women warriors
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.”