Jewish World Review Jan. 30, 2004 /7 Shevat, 5764
Drs. Michael A. Glueck & Robert J. Cihak
Women, the Military and Medical Misconceptions
Some great American philosopher (Will Rogers, if memory serves) once
remarked that it's not the stuff that we don't know that gets us into
trouble. It's the stuff we know that just ain't so.
Subject currently under consideration: women and muscles. Specifically:
military women and military muscles, and what's turning out to be "just not
Nearly 40 years ago, the military began the long, arduous, and too often
artless and hypocritical process of opening service, including combat
service, to women. Resistance has been fierce and unrelenting; opponents
have seized upon any reality or appearance of favoritism or double
standards to invalidate the inclusion.
And nowhere has the resistance and resentment been greater than in the
matter of physical strength. From boot camps to think tanks, opponents have
argued that women are inherently weaker, and that their lesser standards of
physical fitness decrease combat readiness.
But now, we're beginning to find that it ain't necessarily so.
First of all, just as there is a fundamental difference between physical
fitness and medical fitness a star athlete can be medically unfit there
is a difference between physical fitness and physical readiness for combat.
Physical fitness tests set arbitrary standards for things like pushups and
runs, and are conducted in jock gear. This has little to do with the actual
demands of service and combat, which require carrying capacity and lots of
low-grade endurance under stressful and fatiguing conditions. Pushups no
more determine success in combat than they do in football.
The old Marine Physical Readiness Test (PRT) was done with helmet, pack,
rifle, and in boots. All the services ought to institute PRTs, with
requirements set according to age (not gender) and by unit. An Army
infantry battalion should have much higher standards than an Army or Air
Force maintenance unit.
But if Iraq has taught us anything, it's that being labeled "non-combat"
doesn't count for much anymore. In the Army and Marines, especially,
everybody needs to maintain appropriate levels of physical readiness for
Could women reach unisex standards that rationally relate to the
requirements of carrying capacity and endurance? The emerging answer seems
to be yes. A simple way to improve the chances of success would be to
rethink yet another arbitrary construct: height-weight limitations.
Muscle weighs more than fat. So do dense bones, which are produced by
exercise and diet as well as by testosterone. Women who seriously condition
themselves often exceed their weight standards.
Notes Erin Solaro, a Washington, D.C.-based writer and former Army reserve
"When I was commissioned at 21, my height was five-five. I normally weighed
130. I was working out 3 times a week with my unit, and that didn't include
marching or field problems, my own workouts, and a lot of cycling and
running. I didn't do weight training, but if I had been allowed to enter
the infantry or armor, I would have done that like most men in those
branches. Unfortunately, that would have brought me up against the weight
limit. The most I could weigh for my height was 137 pounds. A male my
height could weigh 155."
The lesser height-weight standards may produce more "attractive" women. But
they have little to do with combat. As Solaro points out:
"Whether one is a small woman or a large man, the distance traveled is the
same and the weapons weigh the same. Proper conditioning, including
infantry marching, 2.2 miles an hour, carrying a rifle, pack and equipment
builds precisely the strength, bone density and muscle mass needed."
But can women not some ideal, but the real women who enter the real
services be conditioned as a group to meet these standards? The only
honest answer is that the evidence is mounting that they can be.
One reason is changing social beliefs and educational practices. More girls
are taking athletics seriously. The old belief that a "real girl" should
give it up after puberty is fading. This means that, as a group, young
women will be starting from a higher level of fitness.
Further, over the last few decades we've learned an enormous amount about
female capabilities and conditioning. In part, this is due to female sports
medicine and sports physiology, especially at the higher levels of amateur
and professional competition.
The military and the space program have also provided splendid "gender
laboratories," especially in flight medicine and the study of performance
under extreme stress. So have Afghanistan and Iraq.
It's starting to seem that, whatever the "inherent" female limitations,
we're nowhere near approaching them. Some of the new training techniques
and equipment may be time-consuming and expensive, but no one objects when
the guys derive the benefits of improved practices and technologies for
Women now constitute 15 percent of the military. If we're going to send
them in harm's way, we owe them the best possible preparation. We also owe
it to the men who serve with them, and depend upon them. And we owe it to
the nation whose daughters and sons they are.
Michael Arnold Glueck, M.D., is a multiple award winning writer who comments
on medical-legal issues. Robert J. Cihak, M.D., is a Discovery Institute
Senior Fellow and a past president of the Association of American Physicians
and Surgeons. Both JWR contributors are Harvard trained diagnostic radiologists.
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