Athena’s Sentinels: The Presence of Women in Special Operations Forces of Latin America

Athena’s Sentinels: The Presence of Women in Special Operations Forces of Latin America

By Rodney Lisboa
January 12, 2022

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The Greek civilization, which flourished between the years 2000 and 500 B.C., revered the goddess Athena, a mythological deity linked to wisdom and battle strategy, the antithesis of Ares, god of war and violence, giving her attributes such as sagacity and astuteness, while aggressiveness and impulsivity were characteristics bestowed upon him. In the constant clashes between them, Athena’s victories reaffirmed that intelligence took precedence over brute force.

In the history of humanity, war is an undertaking associated almost exclusively with men, except for a small number of women who had to conceal their identities to venture into combat, such as Joan of Arc (Hundred Years’ War, 1337-1453), Frances Louisa Clayton (U.S. Civil War, 1861-1865), and Maria Quitéria de Jesus (Brazil’s War of Independence, 1822-1824).

Although the status of women in society in general has improved considerably in recent decades — enabling them to reach social positions previously reserved exclusively to men, including combat roles in the armed forces of different countries– the participation of women in Special Operations Forces (SOF) remains a controversial topic, mainly due to questions related to women’s ability to withstand physical and psychological stress inherent to the kind of arduous confrontation that troops of this nature engage in.

Until 2016, the year U.S. Special Operations Command (USSOCOM) gave women access to all functions of that unified combatant command, even in the United States, whose culture of defense and appreciation of the armed
forces is advanced compared to other countries on the continent, the presence of women in unconventional combat operations, led by elite military troops, was sporadic. This came about due to conflict demands, as was the case with agents of the Office of Strategic Services during World War II and female service members of the Cultural Support Team, due to the demands of the War in Afghanistan.

However, the progress observed in the U.S. mentality regarding women participation in its Special Operations community is not reflected in Latin American countries. Out of the 34 nations in the region, only Mexico has a woman in its SOF, integrating Command Special Forces, a specialized infantry troop linked to the Marine Corps, part of the Mexican Navy.

It is important to clarify that the resistance shown by Latin American societies regarding women participation in military activities also extends to conventional troops. The presence of women in the medical workforce occurs mainly in conflict situations, such as when the Brazilian Expeditionary Force fought with the Allies during World War II and relegated female service members to non-combat tasks, away from the battlefields.

The current reality of female military personnel shows that Latin American countries still have great challenges to overcome. Whether women are part of the operational command of conventional troops or SOF, their participation in the armed forces of Latin American nations still suffers from the effects of a stereotyped vision that, despite important social achievements in the last 60 years, perceives women as physically fragile and predominantly meant for the family social role of wife and mother.

Concerning women’s ability to withstand the rigors of combat, it is important to point out that because men and women have different anthropometric, physiological, and morpho functional characteristics, there is still a predominant line of thought among service members who judge the female profile as incompatible with the extremely challenging physical and psychological demands of combat activities involving direct confrontation with the adversary.

In this regard, although Direct Action1 missions inherent to SOF favor the typical male structural and metabolic conditions, the neurological and psychological characteristics of women favor them in the execution of Indirect Action missions. However, even when the differences between men and women benefit either gender in the execution of a set of activities inherent to one of the two techniques mentioned above, such characteristics should not be understood as determining evidence to invalidate the performance of men and women in this or that technique.

Another issue that hinders women participation in SOF is how different societies, especially Western societies, perceive casualties during a conflict. Due to SOF’s high-risk activities, there is an understanding that these types of
operations are likely to involve injury and death, and this causes a great emotional impact in different societies. If
the prospect of family men returning from conflict zones wounded or dead causes turmoil, what about mothers, daughters, sisters, and female friends?

Although more developed states also suffer the effects of a social mentality that historically puts women at a disadvantage compared to men, the gradual cultural advance of these nations gave rise to a progressive reformulation of the female role in society, influencing the perception of women participation in military forces.

However, the same is not true in Latin American nations, whose diverse social, political, and economic problems affect the quality of the population’s education/formation, perpetuating a collective understanding tied to past concepts, which are outdated in contrast to present and future matters. The reality of 21st century conflicts imposes on different state actors the responsibility of having to adjust to 5th Generation Warfare, which nebulous state between war and peace demands for the environment to be considered in a three-dimensional way (physical, human, and informational dimensions), requiring a new model of asymmetric operations that combines conventional and non-conventional capabilities to eliminate or reduce the adversary’s advantages. For Latin American countries, many with a strategic defense mentality focused on 3rd Generation Warfare, which is based on the movement of conventional troops on the battlefield, the challenge becomes even more complex due to the need for social/national thinking to adapt before doctrinal and structural adjustments happen within the armed forces.

In the context of current wars, it is essential that politicians and service members discuss the role played by women
in conflicts, since female attributes, as evidenced in previous wars, represent an important resource for conventional or SOF troops to achieve the objectives assigned to them by their respective countries.

However, the quality of female service members’ performance in SOF will only have concrete results when the countries use women without reticence, respecting their specific characteristics and potential contributions, to benefit the nations’ interests to which they dedicate their services, and not just to show society that they are meeting the demands of gender equality.

Particularly in Latin American armed forces, achieving this level of awareness about the importance of women participation in SOF seems to be a rather lengthy maturation process, which involves a substantial change with regards to activities women carry out in 21st century society.

* University professor, postgraduate in Military History; student of the doctoral program in Maritime Studies at the Brazilian Naval War College, analyzing topics inherent to Naval Special Warfare. He is the author of the book “Guardians of Neptune: Origin and Evolution of the Brazilian Navy’s Combat Divers Group” (2018) and co-author of the book “Kid Preto: Historical Evolution of Brazilian Army Special Operations” (2021).

1 Offensive operations conducted by SOF, performed with a high degree of precision, small scale, and short duration, executed as a kinetic action by a different formation platoon, at times, against targets of significant value, located in hostile or politically sensitive environments, with the objective of destroying, ambushing, sabotaging, interdicting, neutralizing, capturing, eliminating, rescuing (personnel or material), resuming, conquering, and identifying targets to conduct land, air and/or naval attacks.

2 Operations involving the organization, development, equipping, instruction, and advice of any type of regular or irregular force (linked to state and non-state actors), in addition to auxiliary forces, to achieve political, economic, psychosocial, and military objectives in war and non-war scenarios. This method is a vector applicable in every confrontation due to its multiplier effect. The spectrum of activities carried out based on the Indirect Action method is very broad and covers: support for local regional progress, promotion of civil-military integration, mobilization of leaders, organization of informant networks, preparation of conventional forces, and training of auxiliary forces.