How to incorporate women in the infantry

Russian history provides lessons on how to effectively integrate women into ground combat

How to incorporate women in the infantry

(Photo courtesy of Marines.mil)

In 2013 the Department of Defense opened up jobs to women that were formerly male-only, such as infantry and tank crew. Now the first mile-marker in what could be the most significant U.S. military personnel experiment since racial integration has been passed. On 21 November, three women graduated the previously all-male Marine Corps School of Infantry — a place where new Marines are sent to learn the basics of how to be an infantry Marine.

The first steps were to find out:

a) Are women even interested in the infantry? and

b)  Are any women capable of passing the same physical requirements for the infantry required for men?

So far, the answer to both seems to be yes. Three women graduated the Marine Corps School of Infantry already, and more are in the training pipeline and ought to graduate in the coming months.

Since it’s still an experiment, however, the female Marines will not actually be assigned to an infantry unit. And on the officer side, none of the 10 women who attempted to become infantry have yet to come close to graduating the Corps’ Infantry Officer Course in Quantico, Virginia.

Women in combat around the world

While the idea of integrating women into ground combat units isn’t new, the mandate from the Pentagon to make it happen is certainly a recent reality. To answer follow-up questions on how to do so, the Marine Corps is looking at how other countries are integrating women. Unfortunately, there is little current data to study.

Our closest ally, the United Kingdom, decided in 2010 to continue its policy barring women from combat jobs; however, some allies have changed their policies over the past few years. Most notably, after declaring military equality in 2000, Israel formed an infantry battalion made up of roughly 60% females currently assigned to patrol Israel’s borders with Egypt and Jordan.

Canada, Australia and New Zealand either have or are in the process of integrating women into combat units, but are finding only a handful interested in serving in ground combat units. In Australia, for example, as of mid-October one woman is partially through the Aussie version of the Marine Corps Infantry Officer’s Course and another is preparing for infantry officer training.

An Israeli border guard battalion that has never seen sustained combat and a few nascent co-ed integration programs in other allied countries provide few data points to help the Marine Corps decide whether and how it should integrate women into the infantry and other ground combat units. However, there are historical examples of large numbers of women in combat from our occasional ally and former rival: Russia.

How Russian warriors faced challenges

To see how female infantry worked in actual combat on a large scale, I believe the Marine Corps should study the Russian example.

In WWI hundreds of Russian women volunteered to fight disguised as men since women were not initially allowed to fight. From all accounts those women acquitted themselves well in combat, though individual women experienced sexual harassment when their gender was known to their male counterparts. A desperate desire to end the war on a successful note (from the Russian perspective) in the spring of 1917 led the Russians to form the all-female 1st Russian Women’s Battalion of Death under the command of Maria Bochkarëva, herself a combat veteran.

Bochkarëva’s battalion saw sustained combat during the Kerensky Offensive at Smorgon, a small town so hotly contested between the Russians and the Germans it was almost wiped completely off the map. At least 6,000 Russian women served in various all-female units in 1917; the main problem they had was insufficient support from the provisional Russian government.

In WWII about 800,000 women served in the Soviet Army. Not all were front-line troops, but many served as tank drivers, partisans and snipers. Approximately 100,000 were decorated, and at least 80 received the Soviet Union’s highest decoration for valor.

But while Russian women in WWII were able to serve as infantry (they were particularly effective as snipers — Lyudmila Pavlichenko is said to have 309 confirmed kills), they faced extreme gender discrimination in mixed-gender units, compared to their predecessors in all-female battalions in WWI. This discrimination occurred in a military that desperately needed every available soldier.

Female junior officers — women were not allowed to be promoted to senior ranks — were routinely undermined by male counterparts and superiors. The reports of Russian women who were sexually assaulted while in combat in WWII are disturbingly echoed in recent Pentagon reports on the number of sexual assaults in the U.S. military, particularly while deployed to combat zones.

The takeaway: Keep units single-sex

So what should be the take-away for the Marine Corps when studying the Russian experience with women in combat?

First, without question some women are capable of serving in the infantry. Women can fight, and fight successfully, even in sustained combat.

Second, mixing men and women in combat situations is a bad idea. We see it historically, and we have been observing what happens when men and women are in the same units while deployed in non-ground-combat units in Iraq and Afghanistan. Instances of sexual assault increase, as well as false accusations of assault. Good order and discipline are disrupted. While never a good thing, that kind of disruption can be endured to a certain degree in non-combat units. In the infantry that kind of disruption costs lives and battles.

The solution is obvious. If the Marine Corps decides after the conclusion of its women-in-the-infantry experiment in 2016 to allow women into infantry units, those units should be all-female. The Marine Corps already segregates men and women during basic training, which is intended to simulate some of the hardships of combat. To me it makes sense to keep them segregated once in actual combat, like the successful 1st Russian Women’s Battalion of Death in WWI.

The only example I have found of a mixed-gender unit with no reported sexual problems are Kurdish guerrillas in Iraq. The reason? Any sexual contact can, reportedly, result in summary execution. I doubt the U.S. military is ready for that extreme.

Of course the entire issue may be moot, as such all-female units would require sufficient female Marines to staff them. So far we only have three enlisted women qualified to be infantry. If all-female units are not possible due to personnel strength, I can only hope the Marine Corps refuses to allow co-ed ground-combat units.