Military science fiction, and the subject of women in combat

Preface: these comments originally appeared in this very interesting discussion over at the TOR.COM web site. Baen author and US Army infantry veteran Lieutenant Colonel Tom Kratman figures prominently in the back-and-forth. I chipped in with my own thoughts, being the cake-eating semi-civilian Reserve Warrant Officer that I am.

It should be noted at the start that discussions of women in the US military are a lot like discussions revolving around gun laws, abortion, taxes, and other eternally-debated and politicized subjects. I entered the thread being keenly aware of the fact that I had points to make — pro and con — and that I was risking being seen as a “con” when I am, in fact, a “pro.” Albeit a “pro” with (what I consider to be) some sensible caveats. Which I explain below.

For many science fiction (and sometimes fantasy) writers, the question of women in combat is ever-present. This string of commentary is my particular take on the challenges faced when we as a modern 21st century liberal society demand integration of our armed forces. LTC Kratman’s ultimate question — do women in the military detract from capability and readiness to such an extent that their presence is dangerous or futile? — is not a matter I think I can resolve with any surety. There’s still a lot we don’t know about fully-integrated women troops, especially if the United States (or its allies) were to ever go to war with a matched opponent — which hasn’t happened since World War II.

I am merely trying to flesh out the positives and the not-so-positives, as I have seen and experienced them to date, combined with speculations on how future technologies and sensibilities may (or may not) mitigate the (often real) concerns over integration, female soldiering, and females on the front lines.


…LTC Kratman’s experience is from the [United States] infantry, and it should be noted that the infantry is almost a world unto itself, especially as one ascends through the hierarchies of the skill badges and tabs: Airborne, Air Assault, Pathfinder, Ranger, Special Forces, et cetera. These designations — and the schools that produce them, and the units that keep them employed — breed an attitude of exclusivity that is hard to separate from combat arms. Ergo, it’s not just women who are on the outside. It’s anyone, male or female, who isn’t sufficiently badged, tabbed, or blooded.

Having said this, there is more to the military than just the infantry. My two mentors were both tough, professional, highly-competent female CW3s who helped boost me out of the NCO ranks by challenging me to reach for something more — because the Warrant Officer’s job is usually a technical job, and for technical jobs you don’t always need brawn, but you do need brains. And this is why the modern US military could ill afford to lose its women due to the number of technical positions they fill — and, often, excel at. I have witnessed this with my own eyes and would go to the mat stating that the competent woman technician has earned her place.

Moreover, future warfare is liable to become ever-more technical, thus women will become still more enmeshed with combat equipment, weapons, and systems.

The challenge then becomes: how do we keep these women and the men around them from doing what men and women usually do when they’re bored, horny, afraid, stressed out, or all of the above? Sex won’t ever go away in this scenario, and neither will the power games that often come with it. Thus LTC Kratman may seem pessimistic in his appraisal, but he’s also being a realist. Gender integration at the company, platoon, and squad level hasn’t been foolproof. Indeed, it probably never will be. And to simply assume that a couple of extra centuries will ‘grow up’ the human race such that sexuality ceases to exist in a military context, is very much a fantastical notion to my mind.

Segregation, as unpalatable as it sounds to the 21st century American, is one way to go. (Note: read LTC Kratman’s book Amazon Legion to view his extrapolative take on a future, segregated woman infantry force; or you can always take a look at his somewhat controversial article at the web site.

The other way is probably to just keep on doing what we’ve been doing: living with a certain percentage of fooling around that erodes morale, undercuts chain-of-command, creates distractions, and consumes time and resources in the form of complaints, investigations, and prosecution, to say nothing of pregnancies and the entanglements of child care, divorces, custody battles, etc.

In 2011 I personally watched a poorly-handled sexual harassment complaint obliterate a deploying unit’s morale, command structure, etc. Before that unit ever left the States. People take sides in those kinds of fights, grudges then develop, and this often manifests as passive aggression… it can get very ugly very fast.

As long as we’re going to put young men and women together the way we put them together in the modern US military, these problems will persist.

Whether or not they pose a dire threat to the readiness and effectiveness of the military as a whole is a matter of some debate, not only with the infantry stalwarts, but across other specialties and occupations as well. The “solutions” to this issue, if it’s decided the problem is too damaging to be permitted, may not be to our liking in our era. But here again science fiction — speculation about the possible — is not obliged to adhere to 21st century liberal American sensibilities.

Civilians can easily miss all of this, or assume it’s simply “Boys’ Club” scaremongering.

But I’m a booster of women in the military and even I am sometimes concerned by what goes on, at my decidedly small and limited level. And it’s not always the males who are perpetrating. Plenty of females have been getting caught with their hands in the cookie jar. And it’s not an issue that can be wished — or legislated — away. It’s affecting the real world right at this moment.


Having read a lot of the back and forth between LTC Kratman and others, I think it may be worth it to point out that even though a thing might be possible, this doesn’t automatically make the thing probable. I think because gender integration is now accepted — indeed, mandated — in almost all walks of civilian life, that civilians tend to regard the military as just another male-dominated echelon of the civilian sector: overdue for wide-spectrum integration, and infested with too many stodgy old chauvinists who don’t want to let the girlies play the game with them.

Before I joined in 2002, I certainly believed this. It was conventional wisdom — the military was an Old Boys club and women were going to break down those barriers and “win” just as they’d done in various other jobs and roles across the civilian work force.

Let me quickly tell an interesting story: my wife (the über-feminist) had a retired US Navy CPO (Chief Petty Officer) for an instructor in one of her college classes. Since they were both PoC (People of Color) they could talk about discrimination in ways even my wife and I sometimes can’t — because they shared an overlap of experience, on the receiving end. Anyway, one day they got to talking about women in the military, and my wife and her college instructor went 180 degrees opposite. He was firmly of the belief that full gender integration was both dangerous and futile. My wife, then a bit hot with her tongue, demanded to know why he — who had faced discrimination as much as she, for his ethnicity — would be willing to see it done to women for their gender.

His answer? “If I am laying unconscious on the deck and the boat’s burning around me and the only person who can attempt to pick me up and fireman-carry me to safety is a woman half my size, half my weight, and half my strength, I am as good as dead.”

Even my wife (the über-feminist) had to stop and think about that one for a second. Because he was right. Integration doesn’t just bring sexual problems to the force, it also brings practical problems. In our modern military there are still many, many jobs and situations for which there is no replacement for raw, brute strength.

How many women can lone-carry an M2 .50 caliber machine gun up a hill? That’s an infantry task that’s tough for even the biggest, toughest men. A 5′-2″ 105 pound female? Even if she’s not already burdened with tens of pounds in load vest, SAPI plate, ACH, personal weapon, ammo, etc, she’s going to find the M2 practically impossible to lug for any reasonable distance because the weapon weighs almost as much as she does.

LTC Kratman pointed out artillery in his own example. Howitzer shells are heavy! Most 21st century civilian men (who work a desk job) would find them near-impossible to lift. Anyone here ever lay cement? I have. How easily can you lug 60 or 80 pound bags of concrete? Now add 20 to 40 more pounds. Even if you’re in very, very good physical shape and lift weights and are conditioned to lug 100-lb loads on a bar at Gold’s Gym, it’s physically taxing. Perhaps a large and extremely fit woman could do it as well as a similarly large and fit male. But these kinds and types of women are vanishingly hard to find, and thrusting women without the size and strength to fill the role, into the role — for the sole sake of gender integration — is not only unfair and dangerous to the female soldiers, it’s unfair and dangerous to the men around them who will (as LTC Kratman noted) be forced to lug the burdens their female counterpart(s) cannot.

In our future hypotheticals we will, of course, conjure power armor or other exoskelatal assistors — like the now-famous loader from the movie ALIENS. Such mechanized strength multipliers will offset the brute strength requirements of the infantry and artillery and numerous other jobs. But one thing a modern mechanized military must always assume is that the equipment can and will break down at the worst of times, thus it’s up to human muscle power to get the job done. You have to be able to trust that when the machines aren’t working, human brawn will make it happen anyway.

So, what other possible solutions are there?

More exotic even than power armor would be “juiced” female troops — shot through with hormones and drugs to force their bodies to “amp up” to or beyond male levels. Or perhaps endoskeletal solutions in the form of cyborg-like implants? How many women would desire or even permit their bodies to be altered in these ways, so as to eliminate the natural physical limiters that might prevent them from “manning up” to the level of the men?

Science fiction allows us to run away with these hypotheticals, because they are — in our time — conceivable.

But as I said at the start, this would not necessarily make them inevitable. Nor desirable.

Currently, our social and political climate demands that we think of men and women as interchangeable in all situations and under all conditions. It’s a requirement of polite society: one must never under any circumstances question the capacity or ability of any woman to do anything a man is doing, or might do.

Nominally, that’s a good thing, because in most respects, it’s true. And I would never suggest that women who have come into their own and proven themselves in a multi-faceted work force be removed from it or prevented from expanding their horizons or taking on new challenges. I welcome this.

But I also welcome some realism, where a few, very specific kinds of roles are concerned.

Infantry? If we’re going to integrate, can we please require that women entrants meet all the same strength, endurance, and durability requirements as men? Because infantry is something even most men in the Army don’t do, or won’t do. That’s why many of us are not infantry. (g) Infantry is a tough, hard, often brutal job that requires tough, hard, often brutal people. For those females brutish enough to cut the mustard, fine. Maybe we can try it out and see if the doubters are wrong.

But I think there are so few women like this — truly physically imposing, and with the heart and attitude to match — that it’s almost a self-defeating question.

Which is probably just my much-too-wordy way of saying what I said before: there are jobs and roles in which women can do wonderfully, and these are often technical, require brains, and are not necessarily in the rear or outside the possibility of combat.

I am just not sure pretending that all jobs in the military are equal — and that all women in the military are equally suited to tackle them — is realistic. Now, or for the future.


  1. My concern with your caveat is that those kinds of massive-load scenarios are getting more and more rare; I was a grunt in the Corps (admittedly, Reserves as well), and we almost never went anywhere carrying more than our combat load, unless it was an actual conditioning hike. And, as any grunt should be able to tell you, how well you do on hikes has eff-all to do with your raw physical strength. When I was in the School of Infantry (and training, specifically, to be a machine gunner), we went on a ten mile hike carrying M2 receivers–the only time I had to carry one of those more than twenty feet, incidentally, and no one carries those things fully assembled–the dude who did the best on that hike was smaller than the average female.

    So, personally, I think the raw physical strength is one of those things that gets trotted out as a sort of last bastion argument–everybody knows that men, on average, can lift more than women, on average, and thus it’s a safe redoubt. But the reality is, raw physical strength has very little to do with actual combat conditioning, and using one to stand in for the other is… misleading at best. 99th percentile sorts of arguments (that is, creating scenarios where a 225lbs Marine’s life depends utterly and solely on a 98lbs female corpsman) don’t really serve the larger questions of opportunity equality.

    I don’t think any kind of special requirements are necessary. The School of Infantry (or AIT or whatever) should prove a decent litmus test as to whether or not female Marines and soldiers could handle combat arms, at least on the grunt side. You make it through, your first unit will make sure you stay in conditioning. You don’t make it through… then, cool, off to Motor T or whatever with you. But let’s stop with the raw physical strength measure. It has nothing to do with how effective a rifleman you can be.

  2. Brad, I assume when you speak to the sexual issue if troops are not segregated you are simplifying to heterosexuality for the sake of argument. Given the historic military attitude toward homosexuality, I doubt there are data on the effect sex among troopmates has on performance and morale, but such data would perhaps be useful in gauging the drawbacks and benefits of a Joe Haldeman approach to sex in a mixed military vs a prohibitive and segregated approach.

  3. As for the rest: I fully agree on placing the same physical demands on women who will see combat. Those demands are what the job requires, not sexism at work. It’s at best naive and at worst idiotic anti-ism-ism for the sake of anti-ism-ism to suggest all people are equal in all possible ways. Taken to its extreme, that way of thinking would lead to outrage that men are never allowed to carry and bear children.

  4. Dave, in terms of shooting, I agree, strength has almost nothing to do with a rifleperson’s (hah!) effectiveness. Small case in point: my unit is postal, and we had a female 1LT who was an absolute dead-eye at the range. Far better than 80% of the rest of us males. And if all an infantryperson (hah!) had to do was shoot and do 3-5 second rushes, squad tactics, etc, then I think you’re 100% correct: the physical size and strength of a troop has no bearing on said troop’s effectiveness in a field environment.

    But I do think there are times when strength — the ability to heft and haul — leave the question open for debate. Modern progressive dogma stipulates that gender has no bearing on military effectiveness under any circumstance; that the only reason women are not fully integrated now is that the military is rife with chauvinists. Having observed and participated in Basic Combat Training, Advanced Individual Training, Warrior Leader Course (used to be called Primary Leadership Development Course,) Basic Non-Commissioned Officer Course, Warrant Officer Candidate School, and finally, Warrant Officer Basic Course, I can’t say with 100% surety that size and strength limitations aren’t an issue, where females are concerned.

    I think the best thing we can both agree on is: keep the standards the same for both genders, and let both genders pass muster. I knew plenty of men — some of them sports athletes in High School — who washed out of BCT, or AIT, or who failed at some of the other courses I passed through. Often, the failure was mental, but sometimes it was physical too. So not all men get a free pass into all military occupations just for having a penis and testicles between their legs.

    I am fully prepared to believe that in the fullness of time, the fears of someone like LTC Kratman may appear unfounded. But I am also prepared to believe that some of these fears have logical, pragmatic underpinnings, and that gender integration in the military will always be a thorny question due to uneven standards, and the trickling distraction of sexual harassment, sexual enticement, the playing and bartering of sexual favors, etc.

    As a nation we seem content to just live with these things, on the moral stance that it is unethical to deny women entry into every military role previously occupied by men only. For me personally, I’d like to think men and women could be (and would be) mature enough to keep their pants up. Unfortunately, this seems to be where my idealism parts ways with the realities, both in cantonment and in the field.

  5. If ever we have enough openly-gay infantrymen in the Army or the Marines Corps to test the historical theory that companies or platoons composed exclusively of homosexuals were every bit as effective — or more effective, at fighting — than formations of heterosexual males, we may put paid to the idea that sexual attraction in the ranks is a problem for the modern military. But this then presents the same problem as segregation of females: would our progressive ideology allow us to differentiate in this manner, or more importantly, would we allow ourselves to accept the results — whatever those results might be. There would be a lot riding on it, both political, and emotional.

    I do know that I’ve seen male and female Army personnel behave in very unethical and morale-damaging ways, where sex and sexual attraction is concerned. We might conclude that this is simply a character failure on their part, and that the solution is to cashier anyone caught with his or her hand in the cookie jar. For being un-military. I personally wouldn’t mind this because I think if perpetrators of sexual fraternization knew it automatically meant the death of their careers, maybe they’d think twice?

    Or maybe nothing would change? I have noticed that sexual fraternizers often are too young to see the bigger picture, nor do they care about what may or may not happen to them. All that matters in the moment is that he or she sees a sexual opportunity, and he or she is content to ignore the rules — even if the eventual fallout can have long-lasting, negative consequences for their squads, their platoons, their companies, and so forth.

  6. Give us a few more decades of medical tinkering, and I think you’ll begin to see outrage that men are never allowed to carry and bear children. (g) More seriously, I think my personal opinion very much rests on women and men both meeting the stand standards: professionally and physically. If Military Job A requires a recruit to pick up and carry Heavy Load B for Distance C, then everyone who can meet that standard — male or female — should be allowed to occupy the role. I believe grown-ups are capable of keeping their pants up. Unfortunately, due to the youth and sometimes immaturity of many troops, expecting this level of behavior is sometimes problematic. The military demands a lot out of a person, but sometimes biological need may override even a very-disciplined person’s better judgment. We see this every time some male officer or non-commissioned officer get busted for having sex with subordinates. It happens with female superiors too. I seem to recall a female lieutenant getting busted for something similar lot long back, though I can’t point to a specific link.

  7. Brad, I think everyone agrees on the “meet the requirements or don’t” issue – that is, as long as the requirements are actually job requirements, and not merely set to keep the broads out.

    The burning-deck scenario is, I agree, a complete red herring. Because it means that we are fine with excluding a woman from combat who is 6′ and was champion weightlifter in her state before she enlisted, and who could pick you up off a burning deck with one hand, but we’ll happily open the doors to a soldier whose standards are lower due to his age and would need a block and tackle to rescue you. But at least he’s not a girl!

  8. You wrote: “More exotic even than power armor would be “juiced” female troops — shot through with hormones and drugs to force their bodies to “amp up” to or beyond male levels. Or perhaps endoskeletal solutions in the form of cyborg-like implants? How many women would desire or even permit their bodies to be altered in these ways, so as to eliminate the natural physical limiters that might prevent them from “manning up” to the level of the men?”

    No, because the men will have access to the same techniques, for a higher base starting point, so will therefore be able to be enhanced even more. Which means the basic loadout of the troops will increase to match the new “normal”, and women will still be left in the dust.

  9. This too is quite possible, assuming there aren’t practical limits to how far males or females can be “juiced” before their bodies can’t take it anymore.

Comments are closed.