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National Observer Home > No. 49 - Winter 2001 > Editorial Comment

Women in Front Line Combat a Defence Issue Or a Discrimination Issue?

It was announced in May 2001 that a Defence Department committee, headed by Major-General Simon Willis, has recommended that women be admitted to army combat roles "if they match men's physical standards". The recommendation was to be considered by the Chiefs of Staff before being ultimately presented to the Cabinet of Mr. Howard's government.

This announcement raises a question of very serious concern: are issues of Australia's defence being determined by reference to questions of perceived political correctness, or by reference to genuine defence considerations directed towards maximising the effectiveness of the Services?

A number of matters are relevant here.

First, for army front-line combat, questions of physical strength are of vital importance. On this issue Dr. Peter Larkins, Vice-President of the Australian College of Sports Physicians, has said,

"[R]esearch is detailing greater differences in strength and endurance between men and women. The biggest contrast is in upper body strength, where men have a 50 per cent advantage. In lower body strength the advantage is about 30 per cent. In terms of endurance men also have a 30 per cent greater aerobic capacity because women have fewer red blood cells, less iron and smaller lungs . . . These factors would give men an advantage in carrying packs and in hand-to-hand combat, where 'brute strength' is the big factor."

These substantial differences in physical strength are relevant both where the carrying of haversacks (of perhaps 35 to 40 kilos) is concerned and also in direct physical combat, where for example the use of bayonets may be necessary.

Secondly, the use of women in front line combat "if they match men's physical standards" involves a dangerously inaccurate test. Even if, in an unusual case, a woman weighs as much as a man, differing proportions of muscle and fat and other differences mean that the woman is substantially weaker and less able to survive hand-to-hand combat. There is unfortunately much scope therefore for obfuscation and misleading assessments: almost certainly women claimed to "match" men's physical standards would not do so. A proposal to use women on a principle of "matching" strengths would therefore be deceptive.

Thirdly, the psychological fitness of women for front line combat has, it appears, been exaggerated. For those who are prepared to examine the matter scientifically, and not on a prejudiced basis, it is clear that men and women have very different levels of aggression. These differences are inherent and have a hormonal basis. Men, despite their more aggressive dispositions, often have difficulty in bringing themselves to shoot or bayonet individual enemy troops. It may be expected that this reluctance would be magnified greatly in the case of a normal woman. Further, the extreme trauma and brutality of close physical combat would impose a strain that one would not expect a normal woman to bear. Indeed, it is hardly going too far to say that if a particular woman showed a desire to kill men (or women) at close quarters, one would have severe doubts about her psychological balance, in view of the general characteristics of her sex.

Fourthly, the presence of women in front-line combat situations would certainly be likely to lead to responses on the part of male soldiers which would detract from their efficiency. The instinctive reaction of men to defend women would interfere with effective military operations. Certainly there would be a disposition on the part of male soldiers to go beyond appropriate tactics, in order to defend women. Therefore the efficiency of military units would be jeopardised. This position would be worsened by the proclivity of men to form emotional attachments with women, and to enter into sexual relationships (which has been found to be the case generally when defence force personnel comprise a mixture of the sexes).

Fifthly, other practical considerations have been raised: pre-menstrual tension, difficulties in hygiene and embarrassing propinquity in combat conditions in relation to such ordinary matters as ablutions and bodily functions, and the significant likelihood of rape and sexual maltreatment on capture.

Finally, there are moral questions that are basic to our civilisation. One of the characteristics of the human race is for men to protect their dependent women and children. It appears that this characteristic is not merely cultural; rather it is now innate, having developed over at least many hundreds of thousands of years. Is this now to be abandoned? Is it really appropriate that young women (who are, and whose children are, properly the principal objects for protection in danger) should be put deliberately into positions of great physical danger and psychological stress? What should be said of a civilisation which adopts this course?

In view of these factors it can hardly be doubted that any decision to place women in front line combat would be based on feminist pressure and what is commonly referred to as political correctness. It is indeed a matter of concern that the Australian Defence Force may now be influenced by such considerations. For example, Lieutenant-General Peter Cosgrove is reported to have said that the issue is not whether women are capable of tasks that would put them in danger, but whether the community accepts them playing this role.1 

In the April 2001 issue of National Observer there is an important article by Lieutenant-Colonel Neil James in which he analyses the very great influence and control of the Department of Defence over the Australian Defence Force. It appears that many decisions are made by Departmental bureaucrats, who have little if any experience of military operations, without any reference at all to senior oficers in the Services. In other cases the advice of senior officers is often treated dismissively. Further, in view of unfortunate Departmental influence over Defence Force appointments and promotions, many officers are not prepared to take positions that may be disapproved by the Department.

In this context the reaction of Army chief, Lieutenant General Peter Cosgrove, already referred to here, that "the issue was not whether women were capable of tasks that would put them in danger but whether the community accepted them playing this role"2 is alarming, since it raises the suspicion that this senior officer, like a number of others, has either been unduly affected by perceived political correctness or has not been prepared to take an adequate position as against the political agendas of bureaucrats in the Department of Defence.

This brings one back to the basic question: should military issues be determined primarily by reference to military considerations, or should they be determined by reference to political and social considerations that tend to reduce the effectiveness of the Defence Force?

This question need only be asked for the answer to be evident. The ability of Australia to defend itself is a matter of cardinal importance. If reliance is placed wrongly on an army weakened militarily through feminism and per- ceived political correctness, the con- sequences may be disastrous for  Australia. In war a second chance is not presented to the defeated. 

National Observer No. 49 - Winter 2001