wshaffer (wshaffer) wrote,

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Women in combat in the Australian military and elsewhere

So, the subject of women in combat roles in the military has been something I've been interested in ever since I read a big report on the subject of women in the U.S. military that was released during the Clinton administration. The reports findings and recommendations could be roughly summarized as follows:

  • A significant number of women in the army lacked physical capabilities necessary for combat roles, and the recommendation was that women not be allowed to serve in combat roles in the army. (The example I remember is that most women can't throw a grenade farther than its blast radius. Clearly a problem, although I always wondered why they didn't try a) training women specifically in throwing or b) recruiting female softball players.)

  • A significant number of women in the navy lacked some physical capabilities used in some combat roles (mainly the ability to haul really heavy equipment around the ship's deck), but the report recommended that women be allowed to serve in combat roles in the navy.

  • Lots of women are physically capable of being good fighter pilots, and, in fact, arguably have some physical advantages over men, but we should under no circumstances allow them to serve in combat roles because they might get raped or pregnant and we can't deal. (Seriously. It still boggles my mind.)

That was a couple of presidential administrations ago, and women are now actually doing a lot more combat-related work in the U.S. military than they were then, although there are still restrictions. But one of the things that was very obvious from reading the report is that physical readiness for combat is a pretty complicated thing to assess.

I was quite curious about the assertions made in this article in the Guardian about Australia's recent decision to open all combat roles in its military to women who meet the necessary physical fitness standards:

The Australian Defence Association, an influential security thinktank, previously warned that female soldiers could face heavy casualties. Biomechanical differences between the sexes' differences in muscle distribution, centres of gravity and rate of recovery from physical exertion could make even physically strong women more vulnerable in combat, according to Neil James, the association's executive director.

"You've got to worry about the risk of disproportionate female casualties compared to men and the minister's announcement really doesn't indicate that he's across all that detail," James said.

I've been trying to figure out what James is talking about. "Biomechanical differences between the sexes" can cover a multitude of things. The most obvious is that women have a wider pelvis, which means that the angle that their femur traverses between the hip and knee is wider, which can increase stress on the knee. Women also tend to have quadriceps muscles that are much stronger than their hamstrings, which can increase the risk of certain kinds of leg injuries. (These factors are often invoked to explain why female soccer and basketball players get injured at a higher rate than their male counterparts.)

As far as differences in muscle distribution, it's true that compared to a man with the same overall muscle mass, a woman will tend to have more of her muscle in her lower body. This is arguably good for marching long distances with 70 pounds on your back, not so great for throwing a grenade past its blast radius. But it seems to me that any case where it would make a difference would be covered by the simple requirement to meet the physical demands of the role.

Women also tend to have a lower center of gravity than men. Bad for climbing over walls and fences, good for not getting knocked on your ass. Again, I can't see how it straightforwardly predisposes women towards greater casualties.

I'm not even sure what he means by "recovery from physical exertion". Returning to resting heart rate? Repair of damaged muscle fibers? Replenishing muscle glycogen? I'm sure that there are sex-related differences in lots of these factors, and I should really go look at the research. On an anecdotal level, I'll say that runners and weight-lifters are pretty obsessive about post-exercise recovery, and if there's extensive knowledge out there about sex-based differences in recovery, it hasn't percolated down to your average well-read recreational athlete yet.

I went to the Australian Defense Association website to see if they had more info, but all I've been able to find so far is a letter to the editor saying that in training, women in the Australian military suffer load-bearing injuries at something like 5 to 7 times that of men. That seemed high to me. However, I did find this report on the U.S. military that indicated that women are injured in basic training at about twice the rate of men, and suffer stress fractures (which is definitely a load-bearing injury) at up to 10 times the rate of men. However, this difference basically disappeared when you corrected for aerobic fitness as demonstrated by their times on the two-mile run test.

In conclusion:

  • I wish people would cite their sources.

  • I'm guessing that a general lack of physical fitness among female recruits is a bigger problem for female readiness to serve in combat roles than specific physiological differences between the sexes, with the exception of those roles that do really require a notable level of upper-body strength.

  • It always surprises me that no one ever cites real-world data from militaries that already allow women in combat roles. The Israeli Defense Force has a combat battalion that is 70% female. If they were suffering casualties at a disproportionate rate, you'd think someone would have noticed.

Tags: feminism, fitness, science!

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