Women in Combat

There’s an article on the Arutz 7 website about women in combat units. Not just any unit – Elie’s unit – # 55. And not just any women – three commanders and a soldier and the complaint they filed with their commanders…and then leaked to an Israeli reporter. The soldiers are against the army’s handling of some incoming soldiers (a unit of religious soldiers who do not want to serve with women). No, these incoming soldiers weren’t asked and didn’t voice any opposition. Before they even come into the unit, the army is preparing the way by removing the women to other units. The women are angry and feel the men should go elsewhere.

When Elie entered the army, he was asked if he was willing to serve with women. He told them that he preferred not to – serving in a combat unit puts soldiers in very close quarters; the Israeli army is a very physical one. I cannot tell you how many times I saw soldiers pat each other on the back, give a quick hug of greeting or to say goodbye. Hugs when they finished training; hugs when they said goodbye for a week’s vacation after the war ended. It is an amazing site to see, to realize it is done with such affection. This was what Elie felt was inappropriate between a man and a woman and so he opted out of this.

After being in the army for a year, finishing his basic training, advanced training, several months on a combat position and then the Commander’s course, he was asked to command a unit of incoming soldiers. He was thrilled. He trained, he prepared…and then the night before he was to travel to the training base, he was told that his unit had female soldiers.

I wrote about this experience (Two Rights Don’t Make a Wrong), after agonizing how two rights could be wrong. Elie should have the right to his religious beliefs; women should have the right to serve, if the army feels they can. We have a friend whose daughter went into an artillery combat unit. During basic training, she was carrying another soldier (a female). She dropped the other soldier on her leg – both were injured, but our friend’s daughter was hurt more seriously. She shattered the bone in her leg in three places and it took her many, many months of pain and rehabilitation to get back to where she was.

I discussed this article in today’s news with Elie, curious to see how he would react. He was annoyed, impatient. Please excuse his use of the word “girls” here – he doesn’t mean it in a nasty or derogatory way. Elie did not think of these girls in a sexual way but rather as a commander with added complications that, to his way of thinking, did not deliver justifiable value.

That’s not to say that he does not see a place for women in the army – there were many roles that they fulfilled with honor and equaled any of the contributions made by males. But he has little patience for those who feel it necessary to go against the army by leaking their complaints to a reporter, especially the one these female soldiers chose. To Elie, this is a betrayal of an army that has done a tremendous amount to find ways to accept the tremendous service these women wish to give.

Here’s what Elie said:

When I was there, there were three girls in the entire unit – 5 in the whole battalion. And they want to bring in 100 soldiers. Simple math 5 girls or 100 guys. 

Half the times the girls can’t do a lot of the physical things. It’s very nice that they want to be there, but to be realistic, they don’t do what the men do; and they can’t do what the men do. Besides the fact that the commanders have to work 10 times harder to make sure they have what they need, enough separation to ensure their privacy, for 2 girls to have a separate room, separate bathroom. So all the boys – like 100, have to use 1 bathroom so that 2 girls can get their own.

It makes sense to have them in the army, and there are places that you can deal with this and places that you can’t. You have units that are 50% men and 50% women like the one that is “light combat.” (Here, Elie used the Hebrew word and when I asked him to explain, he came up with the term “light combat) and then explained that this includes those responsible for many of Israel’s borders. Doesn’t sound light to me!)

And then, Elie continued, you have units that have no girls at all (which is most). And, most of the girls that go into Artillery combat – most don’t stay in combat. They drop out and then they fight the army to release them after two years instead of the three they needed to promise to complete in order to get into combat.

A few do really stay for 3 years, but often they get hurt and while they’re 3 years in the army, they still have to leave the combat units. And some have the motivation but because of injuries are going back and forth, in and out of combat units because they were hurt trying to do something that was too physically challenging.

Sadly, this Carmela Menashe has become someone that everyone goes to cry to, instead of trying to be realistic and deal with it and then she blows it up.

Elie was called upon to be a Commander of incoming soldiers and both times it was canceled at the last minute because there were women in the new units. There were to have been units that remained only men, enabling the religious soldiers to serve separately, which is their right. The army messed up – it was headed for this problem when Elie was there because instead of designating a single unit that would include men and women (or one for men only), they alternated which units received the women until there were no units left.

There are many places where it is completely possible, from a physical point of view, to have women serve and there are some jobs where it simply does not make sense. Lifting heavy artillery shells is one place where this service is of questionable value as compared to other places that require more brain than brawn.

The army has a fundamental responsibility to respect each soldier and to balance that respect with the needs of others. Where they succeeded for Elie several years ago, they now seemed to have failed. It’s sad to see – even sadder to see that these soldiers chose to resolve their complaint by going outside the army, to a reporter than is known to love reporting all the wrongs of an army that remains, always, at war, at alert.

For Elie, in the simplest of terms, it becomes an equation – the need to bring in 100 soldiers against the needs of these four. He feels badly for the four but the lesson I learned in my first months as a soldier’s mother is that  though the army is made up of individuals, it is the singular need of the army as a whole that prevails.

Harsh, it may be – but necessity breeds the reality in this case. I didn’t argue with Elie – I wanted his opinion and he gave it. Perhaps in a few years, he would put his words in more politically correct or gender neutral terminology. For now, it is likely he speaks for most of the artillery soldiers, whether that makes these female soldiers angrier or not, it is important for them to understand.

According to the article, the female soldiers sent a letter to their commanding officers. The army has not made a final decision – and yet the soldiers felt justified in leaking the contents of the letter to a gossip-loving reporter who read the entire letter on the radio.

What the female soldiers forgot, was what Elie wanted them to remember. Their commanders have worked hard to help them get to where they are; accepted less than what the men would do because he accepted that they did their best. They have made the conditions of the men harder, in order to make their conditions better. One hundred men will use a single bathroom, so that one can be dedicated to women; same with the showers. Where there may be 10 men in a room, there will be only 2 women in the same size area.

The actions of these women in going outside the army, is a betrayal of everything their commanding officers have done to enable them to fulfill their dream to serve in this way. Elie wanted to be the commander of incoming soldiers. He had trained for it, was looking forward to it. It never occurred to him to ask that the army place the women somewhere else. He only asked that he be removed and given a commander’s job somewhere else.

For the good of the army, the unit, the soldiers, Elie moved to another unit. I wish I could believe these women were acting for the same interests.

6 Comments on Women in Combat

  1. Combat = usually goes to Lebanon or Gaza.

    Light Combat (me) = usually doesn’t go to Lebanon or Gaza.

  2. This is definitely an interesting piece about your son’s perception of women fighting in certain combat units, but you seem to be conflating two issues.

    Whether or not the women should be in the unit has nothing to do with whether they should be transfered because of the religious preferences of other soldiers. We have to assume that the army put them there for a reason. Your son can give whatever explanations he wants as to why they shouldn’t be there, and that is a valid conversation worth having.

    But assuming having those women in that unit was a desire of the army, it seems to be a dangerous situation for personell decisions to be made based on religious preferences. As you said “though the army is made up of individuals, it is the singular need of the army as a whole that prevails.” The desire for women to serve in advanced units is no worse than the desire for a man to not serve with women strictly for religious reasons, and probably more admirable.

  3. Hi Mark – thanks for the clarification! Always fun to learn something new.

    Hi Aaron – first, thanks for commenting. I’d like to clarify that it has been a standing policy of the army not to put women in units with boys from the Hesder program. This program was designed to enable religious young men to fulfill their service to the country while still combining religious learning and without compromising on their religious beliefs. The army has upheld this tradition and this relationship for much longer than women have served in combat – well over a generation.

    The incoming boys showed no preference – they were never asked or even told that women would be removed to make place for them. It was the army decision, if indeed it has been finalized as such, to remove these four women in order to enable the unit to absorb 100 or so incoming soldiers.

    No one said anything about advanced units, by the way – simply artillery. The fact is that motivation is as high and commendable among the religious young men as it is among the women.

    Motivation was never the issue. My son, having experienced women under his command (not that he was responsible for training them, but once they were trained, their unit came under his command), was aware of the lengths to which the army goes to enable these women.

    Sadly, the good of the one (to quote my Star Trek love) does not replace the good of the many and yet, when possible, the army does in fact cater to this much smaller group.

    In this instance, as in Elie’s case, there was a conflict. In Elie’s case, they removed him (not the women) and apologized to him for having put him in a position in which he had to stand firm and say that he should not have to make this choice.

    In this case, the army didn’t fix the conflict…

  4. My younger “army” son is currently in a “commander’s” course. There are three groups: one all-male, one all-female, and one “Mixed”. He is in the mixed group. While he doesn’t mind (he is not religious), he says that it stoill is the trickiest group to be in. Because the difference in physical abilities between different members (male/female)of the same group, it is harder. He says that they are expected to do more than an all-female group, yet they need to make accomidations for the women…..

  5. A couple of points. First, I, like many other women of my generation, experienced tremendous discrimination in school, college, the workplace, housing, medical care, and among businesses such as banks, retail stores offering credit cards, and insurance companies. Tremendous and blatant discrimination. Everyone who discriminated against me and women in general felt justified in one way or another to do it. They fought very hard against any change that would treat women fairly and with justice and respect. It is morally wrong to ask these women soldiers to “sit at the back of bus” because of their gender. Instead the military should continue making accommodations for women soldiers until there are enough facilities, resources, etc. to go around. One gender should not be pitted against the other, nor should anyone use false arguments to justify discrimination. Religious soldiers must learn to act professionally and respectfully toward women in the military. Women soldiers are not sex objects to be hidden away unseen. If religious soldiers cannot do this, they should not be in the army, just like their haredi brothers. Second, your own son could not make it as a combat soldier. Statistics show that about 30 percent of male combat soldiers do not make it to advanced training and many because of injuries. Injury and especially injury after much resources are expended on training is not limited to women soldiers by any means. A recent online Israeli newspaper article detailed the numerous back, rib, and pelvis injuries including fractures suffered by women soldiers because they had to wear men’s combat vests and that a new vest had been designed for women’s bodies. This is a step in the right direction. Telling them they are, literally or figuratively, only fit to make coffee is the wrong direction. Third, I’ve never heard of this woman reporter, nor did I read anything about this issue in the artillery. However, why is it only OK for someone to go to the media when it is something you or your side wants publicized, and I mean this question for people on any side of any issue? If everything is hushed up, there can be no reasonable conversation, and nothing that needs changing ever will be because too many people have a stake in things remaining the way they are. I actually think that the IDF is forward thinking and responsive. I hope they realize better than you that Israel is in peril and that there will come a time when many more women will be needed to fight for the defense of the land and the people. Best to do everything possible now to be prepared.
    P.S. My son had women weapons instructors. It didn’t bother him a bit and I never heard him make a sexist or derogatory comment about any of them. I credit myself for this, another sign that I did a good job as a mother.

  6. Speaking from the safety of the United States, I would have to be concerned that women are put in combat units with men for the sheer fact that they do not have male strength.The US military does not allow women in combat units for that reason. It’s also not just about lifting artillery shells,, how about hand=to-hand fighting. Sorry but Jackie Chan movies where women beat up men is just a fantasy.(I have had martial arts training so am somewhat familiar with this issue) I do not think that this is a religious issue vs secular issue. I think this is an issue of whether the individual can do the job required so that everyone comes home safe and sound. Some people need to choose their battles more wisely and maybe a battle that won’t put others unnecessarily in harms way.

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