Let Women into Combat Units

Official disclaimer: nothing in this post reflects the views of the Department of Defense, the Army, the Marines, etc. This is only the unofficially terrible, wrong and poorly written opinion of one person who happened to have served at some point since 9/11. You have been warned.

Disclaimer #2: In this polemic I reference a blog post or two written by people who I disagree with on this issue. I do not link to these posts because I started writing this a year ago for my own edification and never thought to save the links. Then I was offered this opportunity to express my views on Rough Trade, and it was too late. I tried to go back and find them, but do you have any idea how many military blogs there are out there with a poorly written article on this subject? You’ll just have to believe me that I’m not setting up strawmen to shoot down to make my point, and that these articles do exist somewhere out there.

There has been a lot of gnashing of teeth over the last year or two regarding the idea of women officially serving in combat roles. I have read some very well reasoned arguments supporting an expanded combat role for females, but not so much for the arguments against this service. These arguments rely on a traditional view of gender roles and human sexuality and a misunderstanding of what actually makes a combat unit effective. The same arguments were made against allowing blacks to serve with whites and against homosexuals serving openly. They were specious arguments then, and they are specious arguments now. All-black units were some of the most decorated units in WWII. Gays were already serving; they just couldn’t be open about it. Women are already successfully and honorably serving in combat as the most recent conflicts have no front lines (as we are constantly reminded), but the argument that allowing them to officially compete and train for combat roles is going to somehow break the system that makes combat units so effective is nonsense.

To dispose of the argument that the presence of women will break combat units, we need to determine what it is that makes combat units effective in the first place. Is it a mindset, a decision by those who seek out combat units to pursue a higher moral purpose, to potentially sacrifice all for their comrades and the mission? Is it something inherent in males, a Y chromosome-specific trait that manifests itself in the ability to work effectively with others possessing the same genitalia, towards a goal of killing the enemy in close combat while risking their lives? Or is it standards – are combat units effective at their job because they set higher standards for themselves and weed out those who cannot meet them?

I posit that what actually makes a combat unit effective are higher standards for service and a special mindset towards sacrifice and mission completion. I will approach this from the viewpoint of an infantry officer, as that is my bailiwick.

Infantry units typically have higher internal standards than support units. This does not take into account specialty units like Airborne, Ranger, Special Forces and Delta who have institutionally imposed methods for ensuring only the best personnel can serve in their ranks. You cannot join the 82nd without passing Airborne School, the 75th without Ranger School and Airborne, etc. These training programs function as an official discriminator, ensuring those who wish to serve in elite units can meet the higher standard imposed by these schools.

However, while most combat units do not require any specialty schools for service, they have many informal standards that must be met in order to serve in them. As an infantry officer, I was expected to be Ranger-qualified before I reported to my unit, even though it was a standard light-infantry (then Stryker) unit with no specialty (like airborne). All active duty infantry units share this informal requirement for their officers to be Rangers; those that report unqualified are looked upon as slackers and are not given duty as a platoon leader if a Ranger-qualified officer is available. In addition to cultural norms like Ranger-qualified officers, infantry units typically set a higher physical fitness test minimum score than the Army passing grade of 180 out of 300. My infantry company had the goal of a 250 average. While a soldier scoring less than the expanded goal was not officially able to be cut from the roles or punished, it served as motivation to the soldier to improve and brought him into the sights of his leaders, who would pressure him to get on board with the program and get his PT score up.

A discussion of standards would be incomplete without acknowledging the fact that females in the Army are held to a lower physical standard than male soldiers. For a top score on the Army Physical Fitness Test, females need to complete less pushups and sit-ups and execute a slower run than their male counterparts, even within fully gender-integrated support units. Even those females that can compete physically with their male counterparts, and I have met a few in my short Army career, are held to this lower physical standard. It is detrimental to the Army as a whole to hold females to a lower standard while insisting that they are equals, as we will see.

Infantry units also focus exclusively on close combat-related training like road marches and live-fire exercises that further indoctrinate their soldiers to accept a high level of physical exertion and the absence of amenities; this is lacking in support units. Now, support units have specialized duties in addition to basic soldier duties that require training time, which infantry units do not, meaning they cannot focus solely on combat-centric training. A finance unit has to know how to run a pay inquiry, for example. By definition, infantry units are forward on the front lines in a conflict where a support unit may be in the rear to execute their mission. This difference in mission between the infantry and support units does not explain how a female could not successfully serve in an infantry unit, as support units are gender-integrated and the males in these units are not immediately deemed unfit for infantry duty.

Infantry units inculcate a mindset in their soldiers that by their very service in an infantry unit, they are more likely to meet the enemy in close combat and possibly pay the price in injury or death, which they do and should take pride in. Support units approach combat tasks as a secondary consideration to their specialized skill, meaning that support soldiers will focus more on their specialty skill if they even get to a live-fire maneuver range in their career, let alone confront the possibility of imminent injury or death that infantrymen face daily as part of their culture. If we deny female soldiers the opportunity to serve in an infantry unit, they will never develop this mindset that infantrymen take for granted and is foundational to their effectiveness and identity.

So, what is the solution? How do we meet the goals of allowing females to serve in infantry roles while ensuring that no standards are lowered? There are multiple solutions, each with consequences to the status quo. One would be to hold all soldiers, regardless of gender, to the current male physical fitness standard. This would remove the stigma that females have to currently all-male infantrymen, since it would show that any female serving in the Army in any capacity could meet the basic standards to serve in their unit. A negative side effect would be to shrink the number of females eligible to serve in the Army in any capacity, as females on average have a lower physical capacity than males, which is the onus for the gender-specific physical fitness standards in the first place.

The second possible solution would be to have Military Occupational Specialty-specific fitness standards, regardless of gender. If the lower average physical capacity of females justifies excluding them from the infantry, but this lower physical capacity is acceptable to the mission of support units, then the males serving in support units do not need to meet the same physical standards as those in infantry units. The Army could establish fitness standards for any soldier, regardless of gender, that wishes to serve in an infantry unit. This standard could be identical to the current male minimum, or it could be greater. This would allow all women the opportunity to serve in a combat role if they can meet the standard, as well as still allowing those who cannot to serve in a support role. The infantry community would not be able to argue that they were receiving substandard soldiers as their requirements would still be met. Perhaps there will be very few women who can meet the new infantry fitness standard, but all will get the opportunity, and those few who are willing and able can serve.

There is one consideration that I have not yet discussed that complicates this matter – the misogynist culture prevalent in infantry units. Before I delve into this topic, I should confess that I have taken part in this misogyny myself. I teased my Sapper-qualified friend that completing this school means less than Ranger School because it allows females to attend. I called soldiers failing to put forth a sufficient effort or physical capacity “pussies,” obviously referring to female genitalia and the assumption that women are weaker than men. This culture is what many infantrymen identify as the most defining feature of their units. There was a recent blog post on this subject, where the author defined infantry work as men living in the worst conditions possible, experiencing a prolonged period of celibacy together and channeling their instincts to fight into a brotherhood that would be disrupted by the presence of a female. His argument was that by having a female present, the soldiers would be distracted by their urge for sexual relations with her and their ability to sacrifice for each other while fighting would be diminished. Apparently male soldiers can only focus on either fucking or fighting at one time, and if you want to fuck one of your fellow troops it means you won’t fight as hard for them. Also, it is not clear why having to live in an austere environment in combat should be the sole lot of male soldiers; perhaps females are so delicate that they cannot survive without amenities. However, this is exactly the type of thinking that most infantrymen reflexively identify as the key attribute of infantry service: women cannot serve with us as what makes us effective is our maleness and the lack of possible sexual partners to distract us while we are dirty and fight and face death. Allowing female soldiers to join the infantry who can meet a higher standard will not change this mindset.

Regardless of path the Army decides to take in integrating females into infantry units, this mindset will stand as a barrier to their successful service. This same mindset was prevalent in the racially segregated units of WWII, and we can all look back at how ridiculous that argument was given the performance of black and Nisei units, and the performance of minority soldiers in combat units in later wars. This same mindset is what led to the hypocritical and needlessly painful don’t-ask-don’t-tell policy that required homosexuals to hide who they were in order to serve their country and created endlessly insane labor for the military bureaucracy. Reading some of the justifications for forcing out soldiers for the crime of being discovered as homosexual is an exercise in masochism. DADT led to a dearth of Arabic linguists in the military before we invaded Iraq; this policy was destructive to individuals, the credibility of the Army and, most importantly, to the mission. We should endeavor to avoid the same mistakes in regard to official female combat service, and finally live up to the high ideals that we claim to strive to, instead of just hanging signs about them on the walls of our conference rooms and chow halls.

Dennis Hatherly

(Politics and Military)


4 responses to “Let Women into Combat Units

  • BrainRants

    I was under the impression the decision has been made to integrate women into all MOS’s. I could be wrong. I tend to think – as you point out – that many use the PT standards argument. I don’t like that because it’s an Army-wide test standard (and a dubious one at that). Your idea of MOS-specific physical performance standards would solve that problem. I have no problem with women tankers. If she can load, drive and fire, as well as bust track and do PMCS… have at it.


  • Dennis Hatherly

    The Army has been ordered to integrate women into all MOS’, but has been given a 3 year or so window in which to do so. They just sent the first few women to Ranger school, actually. They’re dragging their feet with their usual “how will this work” slow-roll. This was less of a critique of the brass than of the line infantrymen, who have assigned their MOS this mythic status tied to being male….which is nonsense. I’m with you – if she can meet the same standard as the everyone else in the unit, then she can stop a bullet like the rest of us.


  • SwittersB

    What other countries have integrated women into infantry units and what has been the results in actual combat? What has been the prevalence of complications: sexual assault, relationships, etc.? Any positive examples of female integrated combat units that already worked through all this angst? Informative piece!


  • Dennis Hatherly

    Thanks for commenting, those are really good questions. I didn’t address other nations’ experiences in this because my opinion is that we should do what is right because it is right, not because it may have worked elsewhere. But basically every other western country has integrated women into frontline combat units in some way. Each one is different, but as an example, Israel has women in their most elite special forces units, and they don’t have any degradation in combat effectiveness, otherwise they wouldn’t do it. I don’t have the research in front of me, but from what I’ve read is that they haven’t had any uptick in sexual assault. We already have a gigantic sexual assault problem in the Army, so I don’t really see the possibility of further sexual assault as a reason for keeping units gender segregated – that’s just excusing predators with a “boys will be boys” mentality. We should expect our soldiers to not rape their comrades, regardless of what type of unit they’re in, and we are already an abysmal failure in that regard.


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