Wednesday, December 05, 2007

Women in Combat

Over at the Volokh conspiracy, guest blogger Kingsley Browne opines that women don't belong in combat. Lawyers tend to open with their strongest argument, in this case strength. Browne follows up with a post about the fragile psychology of the fairer sex. He has yet to get to the "you can't have women among a bunch of horny guys" argument, or the "women might be sexually abused by the enemy" argument, but I'm quite confident that he will.

Apparently this stuff falls under the guise of "evolutionary psychology", which is a legitimate field of discipline but in the hands of somebody like Browne seems to become justification for taking all of his sexist preconceptions and calling them "science". Given that he has actually published a book on this subject, his reasoning is surprisingly weak and relies far too heavily on anecdote. For example:
Some assert that these large physical differences can be overcome through training. In fact, however, training often increases the sex difference.
If you take a man and woman of equal strength, and give them similar training such that the woman meets a strength standard, it may well be that at the end of the training the man exceeds that standard. But that's not even slightly relevant to the question of whether the woman meets the standard - she does.
When a Navy EP-3E reconnaissance plane collided with a Chinese fighter plane over the South China Sea in April 2001, the muscular pilot had to “wrestle” the plane down to a safe landing on Hainan Island. He reported that it took “every ounce” of his strength to keep the plane in the air until he could land. Perhaps there are many men who would not have been able to meet that challenge, but it is unlikely that any female pilot could have.
In another context Browne asserts that the pilot was a 220 pound man - maybe he thinks that the minimum weight for pilots should be 220 pounds, just in case? Or would he recognize arguing from the anecdote as absurd within that context?
Similarly, if a ship gets struck by a bomb, missile, or mine, all hands may have to turn to the tasks of damage control, such as fire fighting, flood limitation, and evacuation of the wounded. In 1988, after the guided-missile frigate USS Samuel B. Roberts struck an Iranian mine in the Persian Gulf, it came closer than any other U.S. ship since the Korean War to be sunk due to hostile action. Sailors of all specialties turned to fighting the resulting fire and flooding.

Because the captain of the Roberts was concerned that shells would “cook off,” he ordered one of the magazines cleared of ammunition. A “bucket brigade” of fifty sailors – twenty percent of the ship’s crew – passed the fifty-pound shells from man to man. Although the regular job duties of many of these sailors did not require heavy lifting, if the sailors had been unable to perform when necessary, the Roberts would almost certainly have sunk.
I would expect that, even within this emergency context, some thought was given to which men would be best suited to the "bucket brigade". I doubt that the Captain called upon fifty random people to take this task. Even if we assume that no women on the ship would have been suited to man the "fire brigade", what percentage of women would have to be on board before you could no longer call upon fifty sailors able to heft the shells? To Browne, that number appears irrelevant, but practically speaking I doubt that under current Navy policies it could reach a point where the Captain could not adequately man his "fire brigade". If we're going to get into a series of "but's"... "But the military could change its rules and allow more women," then that's when the argument about physical strength should be made.

Browne is concerned that even in support roles, women may have to engage in combat.
Hand-to-hand combat (yes, it still happens) is the last resort of all war-fighters, as well as of those occupying support positions, whether signalmen, clerks, cooks, or truck drivers.
Even though he acknowledges that women perform in many combat support roles, and cannot point to even an anecdote where disaster resulted, this vision of "hand to hand combat" is enough in his mind to disqualify all women from combat support.

I am going to give him his due - there are positions in the military which require significant physical strength, and whether you are looking at the population at large or within the military itself, you are likely to find far more men who are capable of performing those positions than you are women. But there are many combat support roles which require less physical strength, and there are many women who can perform feats of considerable strength. Although Browne concedes that women can be tested for their physical capacity, he deems this irrelevant as he consider gender an appropriate proxy for " predicting whether one has what it takes psychologically to be effective in combat ". Which takes us to his second, weaker argument.

One of the dangers in the field of psychology is that somebody will hear a general rule of human behavior and assume that it must apply to everybody. More commonly, even a good a rule of thumb may apply to only 80% of the target population. So when Browne asserts that women are more risk averse than men, or have higher fear levels, even if we assume the validity of the studies behind his assertions, if he knows what he's talking about he should be aware that he's not actually describing all women. Add to that self-selection - the fact that women who do not have a psychology that disposes them toward combat and combat support roles are not likely to seek out that type of military career - and the rule of thumb may become nearly or wholly inapplicable to the self-selected population.

The same holds true for his broad statements about "physical aggression and dominance". When he starts extrapolating further, telling us how empathetic women are and how they are predisposed to feel "heightened guilt and anxiety... about acting aggressively " It's simply not true of all women. To get to the point where Browne wants to take us, we have to assume that women who are interested in combat and combat support roles have higher levels of anxiety, guilt, empathy, etc., than an average man - something he has failed to even attempt to show. And we have to assume that military training cannot help people overcome squeamishness at such acts as pointing a firearm at another human being and pulling the trigger, or running toward somebody who is shooting at you and trying to kill you - yet it does. If he's trying to imply that it is more difficult to train females to face their fears, anxiety and guilt, he should present his evidence. (Browne admits, "Some women possess more physical courage and willingness to kill than some men.", but gives no apparent thought to why that's the case.

He also argues that women withstand pain less well than men. I suspect that if you look behind that claim you will find that for all people, your ability to withstand pain is related to your prior experience with pain. A high school student who plays football or joins the wrestling team is likely to experience physical pain and stress as part of his sport of choice, and to gain tolerance for that pain as a result of practice and competition. The military seems to understand this, and it no doubt plays a role in why boot camp is physically gruelling. The question becomes, are women in combat and combat support roles insufficiently able to withstand pain to reliably perform their duties? Browne, as you might expect, presents no evidence on that question.)

With no offense intended to Professor Browne, my guess is that if you picked an average woman out of a combat support role, she would outperform him physically, on the mental issues he deems crucial to combat, and in tolerance to pain. That's fine - his personality led him to hang out in law libraries, study and become a professor, despite the constant risk of paper cut, and hers led her into the military. It's what you should expect.

Update: Browne responds to comments over at Volokh (which I haven't read), and some of what he says relates to points I have made. He confirms that I was correct in anticipating a "that's different" defense, in relation to his anecdote about the 220 pound pilot:
The point of that story was not that all military planes present equivalent strength demands but that strength demands can crop up when things go wrong, even if a job does not require strength when things go right (which is the same point made about the USS Samuel B. Roberts). Moreover, no matter how high-tech the aircraft, once you are shot down, you are essentially an under-armed infantryman whose obligations are to survive (and assist fellow crew members in doing so, perhaps by dragging them from the wreckage), evade pursuers, resist potential captors, and escape from captivity.
The first point begs the question - if the answer is, "you can never be too strong," then we need to increase strength standards across the board. If we don't, strong enough remains strong enough, whether any given man or woman might benefit from additional strength in times of crisis. As for his implying women are too weak and craven to survive behind enemy lines, again he's arguing from his own biases, and he makes no effort to support his new claim with any evidence. Did he even stop to ponder that there were three women on the EP-3E crew at the heart of his example?

He argues that men are more likely to have personality characteristics "to overcome fear in the face of mortal danger, to be willing to take the fight to the enemy if the mission demands it – risking their lives in the process – and to inflict lethal violence on the enemy..." and thus,
That’s where the lack of predictability comes in. It is a staple of the combat-behavior literature that it is often a surprise who turns out to be an effective fighter (and who doesn’t). Because some people do very well in training but bomb out in actual combat, you can’t count on training to weed out those who won’t do well.
Perhaps it hasn't occurred to Browne, but the finding he cites relates primarily to men. After emphasizing (perhaps caricaturing) the psychological difference between men and women, when it is convenient to his argument Browne assumes them to be the same.
One or more of the commenters made the valid point that women who want to serve in the combat arms are not going to be the “average woman.” That is true, but the men who serve in the combat arms are also not “average men.” There will be a selection bias operating in both groups, although no doubt the female combat volunteer would deviate more from the female average than the male combat volunteer would from the male average.
Another argument of convenience. Browne is happy to compare the entire population of women to the entire population of men. He is happy to compare the entire population of women to the act of a single man in an isolated situation. But when you ask that he look at the actual population under discussion - women who want combat and combat support roles in the military - he implies that the comparison should be to men who are seeking combat roles. So much for using gender as a proxy.

1 comment:

  1. Take it for what it's worth . . .

    Although I will grant you my experience in the military has all been related to the Air Force, by far the "least" military of the services, I have not heard anyone on active duty have major concerns about the role of women in combat.

    Although we do not have "per se" infantry in the Air Force, I served at Little Rock AFB where, at the time, we ran the ground combat training school for security force personnel (Air Force police who double as light infantry to protect forward deployed air bases). The duties of security force members include conducting offensive sweeps of areas near the forward bases as well as simply “defending the perimeter” of the base; so they truly do function as light infantry. Females are allowed in the security forces and train and deploy for the air base defense mission. To the best of my knowledge, and military members are not generally averse to grumbling, I have heard no complaints about how females have performed.

    I am prepared to concede (I have not seen any raw data on the subject) that there may be problems with deploying females in fire teams and squads in the Army or Marines. However, for the combat support and even "security" roles in which they currently serve they seem to be suited for and successful at what the Air Force needs them to do.

    To a greater extent than ever before in combat, superiority of physical fitness isn’t as important as it used to be; don’t get me wrong, I’d still rather have it than not have it, but it isn’t necessary. The very reason that you can have “child soldiers” in revolutionary movements fighting against “regular army” units is that it doesn’t take all that much strength to lift or fire an assault rifle. One might argue that for a lot of “pure combat” purposes, preteen and teenage troops have a psychological advantage over adults . . .