Do women have what it takes to fight side by side with men? WAR IN THE GULF

WOMEN AT THE FRONT

February 25, 1991|By Susan Baer | Susan Baer,Washington Bureau of The Sun

Do women have the physical strength to operate an M-16 rifle, load bombs onto aircraft, put up and strike tents, change tires on large trucks? Do they have the aggressiveness, the stamina, the ruggedness?

The Persian Gulf war, in which women are a greater presence in a theater of conflict than ever before, raises again the long-debated question of women's fitness for combat.

Many, including Scott Pengelly, a sports psychologist and former Navy officer, believe differences of physical strength are minor, and not discernible at intense levels of performance such as combat.

"The biggest difference is going to be sociological and psychological," says Dr. Pengelly, of Eugene, Ore., who has worked with male and female Olympic athletes.

He says there is a 10 percent difference in muscular strength -- most notably, upper body strength -- due to the higher levels of the male hormone testosterone in men. But he adds that women, because of their neuro-hormonal makeup, metabolize energy sources with greater efficiency and thus have greater endurance over the long haul.

Estelle R. Ramey, professor emeritus of physiology at Georgetown University Medical School, believes there is "no good physical reason why women in combat -- [which] does not require excess upper body strength -- should respond any differently than men."

Although she acknowledges that women may not be equal to men in strength, she adds that in today's military, "most combat is not a test of musculature. It's sitting in a tank."

But Brian Mitchell, a former Army officer and author of "Weak Link: The Feminization of the American Military," refutes the theory that strength is not as vital with today's high-tech weaponry. "It's a nice notion, but that's all it is -- a notion. That high-tech equipment is very heavy and has to be manhandled to be put into place . . . It's pretty plain that women don't have the physical strength to perform many of the tasks required in the military."

Mr. Mitchell cites a Marine Corps study in which a high percentage of women couldn't throw a hand grenade far enough to avoid hurting themselves, and refers to Navy research on a firefighting unit in Alaska, which had to assign five women to engine companies that required only four men. He says Army officers have told him about instances in which women in their units couldn't pull back the bolt required to operate their M-16 rifle.

But, he says, physical strength "is only half the problem." According to his research, women in the military seek two to three times the medical attention as men, have higher rates of attrition, lower rates of deployability (because of pregnancy) and, most important, are less aggressive.

"Women won't have the extra edge in combat that men will have -- and that the men they're up against will have," he says.

Dr. Pengelly agrees that "given no training, men are typically more aggressive than women under challenging circumstances." But he argues that with military training, "there is no noticeable difference. Women wouldn't have gotten to this point [in the military] without that being abundantly clear."

And Dr. Ramey says studies prove that "women will fight, and they'll fight very hard, violently and viciously, to protect what they consider to be valuable. When men and women are both fighting for their lives -- and the lives of those they care about -- data show that men and women fight with the same degree of fierceness."

She, like Dr. Pengelly, believes sociological expectations play a part in

perceptions about women's fitness for service. "Is it more difficult for society to see a picture of a dead female soldier than a dead male soldier? The answer is probably yes. Somehow we have that mythology behind us that we have to be nicer to women and children. Women themselves incorporate that into their psyche."

Many believe the gulf war will go a long way to determining the future role of women in military operations. "This war is the first time the services will have a real life experiment, a real life test case, to look at," says Mr. Mitchell.

He believes the war will show plainly that roles should be greatly restricted, except in medical areas, for women. "We're already seeing that with regard to mothers," he says. "Women are not as deployable as men."

But others, such as Dr. Ramey, believe that women will prove themselves to be "very sturdy creatures" -- ironically, she adds, with greater resilience to stress than men.

"Women are very strong biological specimens," says Dr. Ramey. "How else would women survive childbirth? How else would women survive in a world of men?"

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