Monday, February 4, 2013

Humans in Combat

Since the announcement that the exclusion policy for women in combat units will soon be lifted, the milblogosphere has been assailed by depictions of brutal ground combat conditions. When you ignore the gender issues, what is striking is the superhuman expectations we have of humans in combat. Kings of War has a good roundup and other notable additions include the New York Times At War blog and Bing West’s take at the American Interest.
What most critics of the policy change share is an attempt to use the physical rigors of combat tp make their point, surely with varying degrees of embellishment. Most include either long descriptions of filth, fear, and physical stress or weird analogies to unrelated things. These human factors have long been recognized. Clausewitz, Ardant du Piq, J.F.C. Fuller, and John Boyd, amongst many others, discussed them. Even Thucydides, who wrote over 2,000 years ago, recognized the limits of human mental and physical endurance and their profound effect on combat. 
While none of them realize it, the critics may be making an argument for better leadership of ground combat units and better management of these long recognized human factors. The book Black Hearts: One Platoon’s Descent into Madness in Iraq’s Triangle of Death by Jim Frederick depicts a US Army brigade that ignored the human factors that played upon its personnel with disastrous results:

The men of Bravo stayed in a combat zone, went “outside the wire”- onto the front lines- every single day for eleven months straight. In the case of the TCPs, they lived outside the wire twenty-four hours a day. And they experienced some form of enemy contact almost every single day.- page 172
“There were three rotations,” Gallagher [a Company First Sergeant] said. “There was the JSB rotation, there was the TCP rotation, and there was the mission rotation. But there are only three platoons. There was no downtime. Everything was a constant on. The guys lived outside the wire three hundred and sixty-five days a year...”- page 185.
On Combat and On Killing by Dave Grossman take a more academic view on the issue. Grossman’s books are staples in the military and make the science behind combat stress accessible to Marines who may lack a scientific background. Still, if the critics women in combat can be believed, commanders refuse to take human factors into account.

The mental aspect is not the only factor that the US Military routinely ignores. As Zenpundit mentioned when I discussed this on twitter, studies have shown the adverse effects of loading down humans with too much weight. Yet, regulations in both OIF and OEF ignore the troop welfare and operational effectiveness in favor of overwrought force protection. Of course, sometimes infantry units must be pushed to the limits of human endurance, but this should be a last resort. The most powerful military in the world should be better able to manage the human factors that inevitably play upon humans in combat. Yet, current US policy ignores centuries of knowledge. It wasn’t always this way. During World War II, when the stakes were much, much higher than they are today, policy stated that front line combat troops were to be relieved after eighty days. Of course, this wasn’t always possible, but when it was possible troops were transported to Australia or England for weeks or even months of R&R. During the height of OIF and OEF, combat units faced the uncertainty of combat every day for at least six months and sometimes twelve or even eighteen months. Despite the plush accommodations of the mega-FOBs that the US built, the mental strain of combat takes time to pass. For all the safety of the FOB and the Burger Kings, X-Boxes, and Spaware stations, the most important mitigating factor for mental strain is time. Time is something we have rarely afforded our infantry units.

Perhaps the best lesson of the various articles arguing for the continuation of the exclusion policy are the inhuman expectations placed upon ground combat personnel. Every major vehicle in the US inventory must undergo maintenance after a certain number of operating hours. Every major weapon system must be examined after a certain number of rounds fired. Every pilot can only fly for a certain number of hours and must get enough time to sleep before a mission. While ground combat is too fluid for such stringent regulations, their absence has allowed commanders, in some cases, to completely ignore the mental strain of combat on human beings. Before we turn our guns on a policy change concerning women, perhaps we should instead examine whether our current policies are even sustainable for human beings.


  1. We are missing the point here and it seems that the author is building the foundation of a case for lowering standards to accommodate women in combat arms MOSs.

    The real issue here is the sordid and longstanding practice by USMC senior leadership of systemic discrimination against men in favor of women in physical fitness tests for promotions, meritorious boards, and competitive rankings of all kinds.

    Eight pull ups for women must be changed to the men's standard of 20 pull ups. The 3-minute bonus for women on the 3-mile run must end. The combat fitness test must be changed so that women are scored the same as men.

    Women demand the right to serve in combat arms MOSs and call this the opportunity to serve their nation equally and the opportunity to have the same career paths as men. The word so often used is "equality."

    I find it very odd with all of this talk of equality that I have yet to read or even hear about one argument from a woman for equality in all of the physical standards by which Marines, Marine Officers, Marine recruits, OCS candidates, and USNA midshipmen are competitively ranked.

    At some point, our senior leaders promised the nation that women would be treated equally with men and that the standards at USNA, TBS, and Parris Island would not be lowered for women. This is patently and unequivocally false. Women are weaker and slower than men and women's physical fitness standards reflect the physical inferiority of women to men.

    The rightful and judicious concern of the combat arms combat action veterans is that, once again, USMC senior leaders will promise that standards will be upheld and once again those promises will fall woefully short of being true.

    Integrity demands that equality means equal standards. Period. Let's see it- gender neutral physical fitness standards for all competitive rankings.

  2. Mr. Voss,

    You said that "We are missing the point here and it seems that the author is building the foundation of a case for lowering standards to accommodate women in combat arms MOSs."

    Are you suggesting that Capt Friedman, a student at EWS, is writing for some sort of higher Marine Corps agency, attempting to propogate and socialize an idea that argues "Standards are too high already for men, let alone for women, so we need to lower standards?" It sounds like that is what you are suggesting, and that is, no offense, quite the ridiculous consiparcy theory considering what Brett actually wrote.

    His article was a comparison of how much attention is spent on changing an existing policy that may end up being detrimental (or not) to our combat efficiency, while a completely different policy that is proven to be detrimental to the good of our troops (and arguably our force at large and their efficiency), is wholly ignored.

    No offense, while it is obvious to everyone the disparity in physical standards, and the resulting irony of what's being done in the name of 'equal opportunity' without an equalizing of those standards, your complaints have nothing to do with your criticism of this article, your criticism is you jumping at shadows where there are none.

  3. You don't have to do 20 pull-ups to get yourself killed in theater. All that is required most often is to be the person in the vehicle destroyed by an IED; or be the sad sack that walked close enuf to the device denoted by some dirt bag that saw an American uniform. Truth is a lot of modern combat requires integrity, more so than physical strength. There's not a lot of cannon balls being lifted around anymore. I did my 20 years and saw the transition from very few women enlisted to lots more of them around. I understand the reluctance to see the character of the organization change (can't have as much porno around). But, people can't or won't really say what they mean. I for one am happy to see the MOS's being opened for female enlisted. If someone has the guts to step up to the bar, they should get their drink, for good or ill.