The problem with women in combat units

In the Danish army men and women serve in combat units on equal terms. I had a female driver in my reconnaissance platoon in Iraq and two female riflemen in my infantry platoon in Afghanistan’s Helmand province.
Does leading women in combat create special challenges?

Danish female soldier in Helmand province Afghanistan

Karina, a Danish female soldier in the Green Zone in Afghanistan’s Helmand province in 2009


Cultural bias

In many countries there is an ongoing debate on whether women should be allowed to serve in combat units. Denmark is an exception to the norm: in the Danish army women have been allowed to serve in the infantry since 1988. In several other counties they are not. The arguments defending exclusion ranges from women not being capable of handling the physical and emotional pressure of combat to arguments that the mere presence of women in combat units would reduce their combat effectiveness.
I think that the idea that women cannot participate in wars is a cultural bias. Some women would not be capable of handling the stresses of war, but on the other hand. some men could not either.


Women on the patrols are an advantage

In both Afghanistan and Iraq having women in my platoon enabled us to communicate with the local women. A Western male soldier searching a female Iraqi or Afghan would probably have caused quite a stir. The local women often asked questions on how and why my female soldiers could handle men’s jobs and they seemed very interested in them.
The Danish women also drew attention from the local Arab or Afghan males. On a few occasions, especially in Iraq, I have experienced younger local males having difficulties accepting orders from a woman. We all knew beforehand that the women could face such cultural challenges because of their sex but we had also agreed that we would not give in to discrimination. An order given at a checkpoint by one of my female soldiers is just as valid as that of one of my males.


Skills are important – not gender

We are not created equal. We do not have equal skills. Not men or women, nor you or I. When selecting soldiers for combat units only skills count. If you are able to meet the physical requirements for the infantry and you are willing to be a part of a combat unit, you are very welcome.


Danish female combat soldier in Afghanistan

Jonna cracking on with the ECM in Helmand Province summer 2009


Gender quotas would reduce combat effectiveness

In an attempt to get more women into combat units it is sometimes proposed to impose gender quotas. But the mere number of women in a combat unit must never be an objective. The only objectives of a combat unit are to be able to solve the tasks at hand. Stuffing units with soldiers not able to meet the requirements does not only hurt the individual soldier, it also reduces the overall combat effectiveness of the unit; thus putting lives at risk.

The enemy does not discriminate: he will try killing you regardless of your gender.


Treat people differently

In my platoon I tried to look upon my soldiers as soldiers. They were neither men nor women; they were individuals all with specific needs and wants who therefore all needed special attention.
Writing this makes it sound easy. However, I was constantly reminded that I had women in my platoon. Not by the women themselves; they never complained and they solved their tasks just as well as my male soldiers and on equal terms. But people around me were constantly pointing them out, probably in good faith
In camps or in the forward operation bases the commander would often approach me and apologise for not having arranged special accommodation for my two women. I think that this was an act of political correctness. I always explained that they did not need it.

I do not think that gender grants you specific rights. If one of my soldiers needs special attention, I will make sure he or she gets it.


Is there a problem with women in combat units?

There are just as many challenges leading women in combat as leading males. By having women in the unit you have to fight prejudices as well. These prejudices are found among your own troops eagerly trying to be politically correct, among allied troops who have not themselves got women in combat units and among the local population.


A final piece of advise

Should you find yourself in command of a combat unit with woman in it my advice would be:

Relax – don’t look upon your soldiers as men and women. Look upon them as soldiers. Treat them all differently but make sure you measure them by the same standards. It is not OK to discriminate.

Update: Carrying the Gun was kind enough to publish my take on how to lead women in a mixed gender unit. The short version: Just as you would lead any other soldier.

8 thoughts on “The problem with women in combat units

  1. Don

    Hi Soren,

    Great post. I’ve been having this conversation with my peers in the US Army. It’s interesting to see a perspective from someone who commanded an infantry platoon with women serving.


  2. Niels Christensen

    Well spoken! You brush the issue that you beforehand had prepared yourself (the platoon) on the possible problems of gender, very good point. I think that more women on equal terms in the army will benfit us all.

  3. Kevin Hanrahan

    Soren. This is an incredibly insightful post from a combat leader who has walked the walk. Thank you for sharing. As we in the States begin our journey into opening up our ranks to all your points on skills, cultural bias, etc, etc are just spot on.
    Thank you for sharing your experiences.

  4. Diana

    Thank you so much for an informed, rational, experienced perspective. I am ripping my hair out over how many people in America seem to honestly believe that women in combat will be deterred by spiders, tampons, dirt, hard work, or fear. I agree about the need to maintain a truly merit-based selection process as well. Having worked with minority quotas as a wilderness firefighter, I can say by experience that quotas do a lot of damage, especially to the very people they are supposed to support.

  5. Jani Muhlestein

    Are women the same as men? No, thank heavens. Are they equally as valuable? Yes. Are all men the same? No, thank heavens. But they are equally valuable. An important point of view, Soren, and one that I appreciate a great deal. As a woman, and as a mother of a 14-year-old girl, who has decided that the US Army may be her future. (I’m arguing for the Navy.)

    But wherever she ends up, she will expect, and demand, to be treated as an individual human being. NOT as a woman, with either political correctness, or with disdain. She deserves better, and her brothers and sisters in arms do too.

  6. fitribintang

    Thank you for writing this article. I am a PhD student researching on the subject of women integrating into the military and very rarely I come across an objective writing such as yours.


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