Women at War: Israel’s Caracal Battalion

The harsh rays of the desert sun beat down relentlessly upon the armored and armed men that rest at the borders of Israel. For the moment, the field is quiet, devoid of violent weapons fire. The soldiers sit within their camps, their weapons resting by their sides. An easy air of camaraderie drifts throughout the base. Upon each of these warriors’ shoulders weighs an immense weight that Israel has borne for decades: to keep her borders and her citizens safe from the surrounding field of enemies. A mix of deep umbra browns and forest greens interlaced with absolute blacks mask the faces of these soldiers. Each individual isn’t judged for being a male or female, but as a warrior, a fighter, a member of Caracal.

The peace doesn’t last for long, and soon a hail of bullets from another patrol reach the unit. In an instant, the soldiers’ feet hit the ground, and the arms that had previously been idle rise at the ready. The unit heads out into the desert, a terrain that has long since become familiar, and the thick tires of the vehicles trundle along the dirt roads towards their destination. As they approach, the distinct sounds of battle carry upon the heated winds, and the border erupts into gunfire.

The battalion sights the intruders, a group of terrorists attacking from the border of Egypt, and the unit springs into action, trading gunfire as they fight to neutralize the unwelcome invaders. One soldier, slender of build yet grim in determination, holds one of the terrorists within the rifle’s sights, tracing the man as he peers from his cover, an AK-47 clutched tightly within his hands. He looks again, drawing the rifle up from his position and spouts a hail of bullets towards the Caracal forces. The slender soldier sees an opening with the terrorist momentarily distracted. With swift and practiced ease, the soldier sights the terrorist and squeezes the trigger, sending a lead sentence into the man’s chest. The man collapses.

The fight ends not long after, with one casualty on the Israeli side, but four downed terrorists on the other. The soldier, a woman, falls back into line with the rest of her unit as they clear the field and return to camp.

Women are an unknown, or rarely acknowledged, part of warfare, as the battles are usually attributed to men’s work alone. However, women have been involved in combat and played the role of soldiers throughout the course of history in a number of ways, ranging from dressing as men to forming discrete units intent on fighting unseen upon the battlefield. Luke Carroll, the author of  the article “Raising a Female-centric Infantry Battalion: Do We Have the Nerve?” points out that women were present in major wars like the American Civil War, the battle between the French and West Africa’s Dahomey, and the World Wars, using the previously mentioned methods. In more modern times, countries located in Europe and the Middle East have worked to integrate women into combat positions, countries such as Australia, Canada, Denmark, Finland, France, Germany, Israel, Netherlands, New Zealand, Norway, Poland, Romania, Spain and Sweden. Of these nations, the most notable and public example of women in close combat positions is Israel’s Caracal Battalion.

The battle above illustrates Caracal in its entirety: a unit comprised mostly of women who fight with equal strength and efficiency as the men. The unit, relatively young in the course of Israel’s military history, was conceived in the year 2000 and was designed initially as a way to introduce and ease women into combative roles. At its earliest stages, the Caracal battalion patrolled the borders shared by Egypt and Israel, a relatively quiet area that saw little activity.  In recent years, that has changed, as terrorist groups move into Egypt and threaten Israeli borders. Now, the unit has become one of Israel’s main defenses against terrorist invasion, smuggling and infiltrators, shifting the Caracal unit into a far more active role and displaying its effectiveness despite its mixed composition. For the most part, the unit has succeeded in its role, and that success is gradually encouraging more militaries to consider involving women in combat positions. The Caracal Battalion presents one of the most significant steps in integrating women fully into combat, and its structure will become a template for militaries around the world.

Several points must be addressed to underscore how enormous a change this is. The Caracal Unit, while a unique and successful endeavor, was still affected by universal perceptions held by militaries around the world, including the U.S. These perceptions relate to the psychological, social, and structural aspects of the military, and how that affects combat soldiers, both male and female in any military, including Israel.

The perception of women in battle has been convoluted throughout history. This is in no-small-part due to the psychology behind it, which is integral to the stability of the armed forces. In recent years, Post-Dramatic-Stress-Disorder (PTSD) has become one of the foremost concerns for returning and active-duty soldiers. It remains one of the largest arguments in regards to women in combat as well, and this has led to a series of psychological studies. The situation presents quite a conundrum in the U.S. military, as Christopher Munsey acknowledges in his article “Women and War.” He states that “the emerging psychological research presents a mixed and still incomplete picture, but has yielded some interesting findings.” These findings offer contradictory implications, at least in terms of the U.S. military, and they do not present a conclusive solution.

Some equate women in the military with the issue of sexual assault and the effects it has on female soldiers. Militaries throughout the world remain male-dominated, and with this comes harassment of non-male members. This, in turn, affects or has the potential to affect female soldiers who have been victims of assault or harassment, either during or prior to their military careers. As Munsey points out, “women who experienced sexual harassment or trauma before or during their military service are more likely to suffer post-traumatic stress disorder than those who were not sexually traumatized.” This calls into question the mental stability of female soldiers and their ability to cope with the dangers of the job.

Curiously enough, the research Munsey conducted, while admitting the potential for mental illnesses of women who have been traumatized prior or during their service, does not address women who have not experienced such traumas as at risk for mental illness anymore than it does men. Despite the claims of dissenters, women hold the potential to deal with the mental pressures of combat just as well, if not better, than their male counterparts. Munsey refers to Army Colonel Carl Castro, who followed and documented the mental effects of combat on two groups of women deployed in Iraq in 2004. The Colonel’s findings reveal that within those two units, there was no noticeable difference between the sexes’ ability to cope with combat conditions. Thus, contrary to Munsey’s conclusion, findings show that while women may start out with a higher likelihood of having PTSD, this does not translate to women developing the condition more than men.

Thus far, the discussion has detailed the psychological aspects that relate to women in the military, specifically the U.S. military, and while this signifies a considerable portion of the controversy, it is not the only part of it. Of equal concern is the social impact of women in combat. War has been a mostly a man’s domain, as I mentioned before. What, then, are some other implications of introducing females into the equation? Major Marc Alderman examines the positive influence women have contributed to the United States military in non-combative roles, stating that because of women’s involvement, “Today’s Army is the best educated and most disciplined in our nation’s history.”

But while women have done well in the military as non-combative personnel, debates remain about furthering women’s roles in battle. Many of them hinge upon the social differences that exist between men and women within the military environment. Alderman presents a number of arguments in his introduction as they relate to women in combat, most notable among them being the cohesion and morale of small units. The military, at least in the U.S., revolves around and has been built upon a concept known as “the band-of-brothers hypothesis,” which describes the concept of sex specific units and how that augments cohesion among the members. By contrast, the push to integrate women into combat units threatens to undo this cohesion and ultimately degrade the effectiveness of the unit. It is a problem that has the potential to compromise the structure of combat units. A unit’s success on a mission depends on the trust and cohesion of each member in that unit, and even one soldier’s fault or hesitation could cost the unit dearly. This trust, this bond, has been forged throughout the centuries in the male gender, but social roles and perceptions have blocked the creation of a similar one among both males and females.

This speaks to both psychological and physiological issues. Men understand each others’ capabilities in terms of what their bodies are able to do; hence, in combat units, there are no questions of whether a member can handle it or keep up. As Alderman describes it, “The crew must have the biophysical capability to effectively operate and sustain the system to develop this element of cohesion.” Women are not as physically powerful as men, with few exceptions, and this alone can deteriorate the confidence of the unit. The difference in musculature holds the potential for unaffordable mistakes in battle. Women face a monumental challenge in demonstrating their strength and proving they can handle the rigors of combat.

Another noteworthy issue is women’s menstruation cycles. A former Marine, Jude Eden, describes her experience in an interview about her combat experience and remarks upon how a woman’s strength is affected in the days leading up to her monthly cycle. She states that a woman “loses half her strength, to say nothing of the emotional ups and downs that affect judgment.” This addresses an understandable concern regarding a woman’s physical condition and the challenges that she faces that her male counterparts do not. Concerning unit cohesion, this lapse in strength, along with impaired judgment Eden describes, could damage the unit’s ability to function reliably under pressure.

Given the potential psychological, social, and physical challenges female soldiers face, it is a wonder that the debate exists at all. Even within Israel, where men and women are conscripted into the military at age eighteen, these issues are prominent, despite the fact that the country holds one of the most successful mixed gender units in the world. What, then, makes the Caracal unit a success while countries like the U.S. still struggle? Much of the answer lies in the physical examinations and requirements potential recruits must undergo in order to join the battalion. Physicality, contrary to what ideology would have us believe, is a vital part of military success, for it not only dictates how strong and durable soldiers are, but it helps define the ability to trust the strength of others, as was discussed earlier. Recruits of the Caracal Battalion, regardless of gender, must meet one set of standards that does not shift or adjust for either sex. According to William Denn, a contributor to The Washington Post, it is one of the few points that militaries around the world agree on. He states that “the military’s physical standards must not be compromised to expand women’s access.” To do so would sacrifice the military’s effectiveness, a result no country can risk. Thus, the women perform the exact same physical tasks men do, and their performance in this determines whether they are accepted into Caracal.

In having one set of standards that all of the recruits must perform, the question of trust in women’s capabilities becomes more answerable. If the woman has proven that she can contend with the demands of the physical stresses by demonstrating it alongside her male counterparts while, say, walking “20 miles hauling 50 pounds of equipment,” as Denn describes it, then what reason is there to doubt her abilities? Ruth Eglash, another Washington Post contributor, discusses the difficulties some women face with regards to their fellow male soldiers. She refers to a former member of the Caracal Battalion, Sapir Yehudain, who now serves in Israel’s reserves. Yehudain states that “when they saw that we’d gone through the same training as them, they understood that we could do everything they could too.” Men see the women working with equal efficiency during training, and thus, the question of strength becomes irrelevant.

The acceptance or acknowledgment of women’s physical capabilities paves the way for psychological and sociological harmony within the Caracal Unit. Seeing that a woman is strong enough to cope tears down psychological barriers relating to women in combat. To return to the PTSD issue, as we discussed earlier, women who have not experienced such trauma are less likely to develop the mental disorder despite their combat experience. The issue, then, has to do with the mental state of the woman applying for a combat position, not the effects of combat stress. As an answer to this problem, the Israeli Defense Force requires “women to go through two days of mental examinations and physical challenges before joining,” as Aluha Balofsky states in the article “IDF Increasing Number of Co-Ed Battalions.” This procedure improves the changes of recruits being able to handle the stresses they are sure to face.

The threat of capture is yet another obstacle that intensifies the debate. Caracal has no sure solution for this, and neither does any other military. Sexual trauma, as Munsey states, results in a variety of debilitating affects upon the female psyche, and this more than anything is the greatest threat posed to female combat soldiers. Does this affect how men react to their female comrades-in-arms? Yes. It is one psychological barrier that will remain, despite efforts to protect women from capture. Balofsky refers to a military source that addressed this particular threat in a previous operation by issuing strict orders “not to allow women soldiers to go anywhere without male accompaniment.” As Balofsky points out, this can affect the mindset of battle units, inciting more concern for the female members of the unit. The most that can be done is for everyone to accept the potential danger women face, as the military does with men, when presented with the threat of capture, and work to avoid placing either gender in that situation.

Finally, Alderman notes that unit cohesion depends heavily upon the bond that the unit members share between each other, e.g., the band-of-brothers hypothesis. Caracal, by design has fulfilled the band-of-brothers hypothesis in its ratio of women to men. Training and spending so much time with a mono-gendered group creates a unity and understanding among the members, a mindset formed through all of the exercises and obstacles the members work together to overcome. It is its own social microcosm developed by the environment of battle. Jodi Rudoren of the New York Times identifies the Caracal Battalion as two-thirds women. A camaraderie exists between the women as much so as we see in male-exclusive units. This forms the moral cohesion that Alderman emphasizes in his monograph and negates the cohesion degradation that militaries fear.

Moreover, the ratio of the Caracal unit serves another purpose. The skeleton of the battalion clearly displays the difference between the two categories of unit cohesion. Ellen Haring identifies these two categories as social cohesion and task cohesion. She defines them as follows: “Social cohesion is the extent people like each other, task cohesion is the shared commitment group members have toward accomplishing a goal.” The Caracal Battalion puts a lot of weight on the importance of task cohesion, as the men of the battalion must work constantly with the women; therefore, men have to join their collective goals with the women’s in order to accomplish their missions.

With an emphasis on task focus, socialization improves with the recognition shared by the members based on their accomplishments. An instance of this is reflected in the actions of Staff Sergeant Noam Dan. Her conduct during the Israel-Hamas war demonstrated the collective goals her unit fought for, thus strengthening social cohesion within the unit. The Staff Sergeant reportedly “lived out of a tank for a week straight during the Israel-Hamas war, treating injured soldiers.” Dan’s actions in this instance displayed her determination and focus on playing her part in her unit, and as a result, she maintained the trust and respect of her team. Eglash cites an event where another commander challenging Dan’s right to be in a combat unit, and how another officer from her unit responded to it, declaring that “She fights better than any of you.” These actions prove that Israel’s Caracal Battalion has successfully bridged the gaps of mixed gender cohesion while serving as an effective close-combat unit.

The Caracal Battalion represents a major success in the transition of integrating women into combat roles, and as the most publicized of the mixed-gender units, it stands as a role model for militaries around the world to follow. In particular, the U.S. Military can benefit by emulating the ratio standards of the Caracal Battalion, which works to create high morale while building confidence between the men and women serving on the battlefield. The standards of physical and mental ability would not and should not change to accommodate women, but by the same token, women who prove that they are capable of meeting the standards set by men should be able to serve and reach an even more involved role within the military.

***

ErinErin Maloy is a college student interested in ancient history, music, and law enforcement. In her free time, she swims and bikes.