Army colonel: Physical strength not the end-all, be-all of combat service

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An Army officer writing in a prestigious journal says the services should not overemphasize physical strength when deciding whether a woman qualifies for direct ground combat.

Col. Ellen Haring, on the staff of the U.S. Army War College, says commanders need to downplay obstacle courses and judge a service member’s ability to stay calm and think quickly.


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The Pentagon has lifted its ban on women serving in the infantry, tanks and special operations, and the branches are examining all their physical standards in preparation for introducing women into these units in 2015.

Some military analysts fear the Pentagon will discard some standards to ensure that a significant number of women qualify.

“Perhaps it is time to take a hard look at what really makes a competent combat soldier and not rely on traditional notions of masculine brawn that celebrate strength over other qualities,” Col. Haring says in the current issue of Armed Forces Journal.

She cites World War II hero Audie Murphy and North Vietnamese insurgents as examples of small people who came up big on the battlefield.

“If the going-in assumption is that physical standards are the only thing that needs to be examined, then we are also assuming that we have everything else just right,” she wrote. “This is belied by our less-than-optimal performances in many instances during the past 12 years. Fixating on physical standards is a tactical-level approach that misses a strategic-level opportunity.”

Col. Haring, who had sued the Pentagon over its old exclusion policy, said that Murphy perhaps could not have passed the Marine Corps’ infantry officer qualification course.

To date, all six female Marine officers who have tried the course have flunked or withdrawn due to injury.

“We can’t be sure, but odds are that Murphy would have washed out here, as well,” Col. Haring said. “An obstacle course that relies on physical prowess tests none of the important qualities that Murphy possessed.”

In focusing only on physical strength in violent situations, she said: “We diminish the importance of what are probably more important traits in soldiers: the ability to remain calm, focused, creative and quick-thinking in times of extreme duress. These are the traits that we should be measuring as we assess soldiers for combat specialties. Physical strength is important, but it shouldn’t be the most important trait that we assess, and it certainly shouldn’t become a way to filter out the Audie Murphys of our population.”

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