Today’s guest post comes from Barefoot Boomer. Boomer is a career Army officer and strategist. He is also a historian with an emphasis in American and German military history. The content and opinions of this article are the author’s only and do not reflect the opinions of the United States Army or the Department of Defense.
Prologue: I wrote this article supporting women in combat arms roles in the military long before the Marines United scandal broke. Yet the problems women face breaking into a previously all-male club like the infantry are the same that women face every day in the military. The Marine Corps incident is not a one-off thing or even just a couple guys being guys; it’s a cultural issue, one at the heart of the male-dominated, misogynist, “alpha male” military and one that prevents women from succeeding. And one that needs strong leadership to overcome and stomp out.
When my daughter was younger, I had the opportunity to coach her soccer team. It was co-ed, as youth sports in the military often are, and I had a great mix of both talented girls and boys. As their coach, I tried to treat them all the same and use the talents that each kid brought to the table to build the best team possible.
And while I coached I found that it wasn’t hard for me to treat both the boys and girls equally, both in practice or in the games. Sure, each individual player had their own style and talents, but I was their coach and they were my players, regardless of gender. I coached them as a team, not individuals or genders, and we succeeded as a team. As with my daughter’s soccer team so can it be with women in combat arms branches.
To be successful, the same mental model that worked with my daughter’s soccer team has to be implemented with women in combat roles in the military. If we as leaders coach, teach, and mentor, and most importantly tell them they can do it and show them they’re wanted there, then they will succeed.
In late 2015, then Secretary of Defense Ash Carter rescinded the ban that precluded women from joining combat arms units and enlisting in those specific jobs. Women have been fighting and dying in combat operations for decades and were now allowed to formally join the fight. But with the current administration, that policy may be in jeopardy. Women who have sacrificed and bled for the chance to join the infantry or armor may be told, by men, that they can’t do it – again.
We have a history of telling women that they can’t or aren’t allowed to do things. It’s a cultural and social model that stems from our Puritan beginnings that identify women as weak and place them in a certain status in American society. A woman’s place has – in this narrative – historically been in the home as wife and mother, and any attempt to try to move outside this realm has met with strong objection from society. Women have been marginalized, rejected, and held back from doing most things considered a “man’s job.”
The idea of a woman being a combat arms service member is meeting with the same resistance. While American society has opened up to allowing women more freedom, there is still virulent opposition, inside and outside the military, to women serving in combat roles. It is a cultural and patriarchal problem that both the Department of Defense and women are trying to change.
Women have fought the stigma of not being good enough or strong enough to defend our country for years. Fighting has always been perceived as a man’s job; one of the most “gendered” activities known to humankind, as Barbara Ehrenreich notes in her book, Blood Rites: Origins and History of the Passions of War. Slowly, women have gained the opportunity to serve and have finally been able to at the highest levels of America’s military.
The Argument Against Women in Combat
This latest round of anti-women rhetoric began after the Department of Defense instituted policies geared towards opening up opportunities previously off-limits to certain groups of people. DoD has now established standards allowing LGBTQ Americans to openly serve and for women to serve in combat Military Occupational Specialties (MOS) that have previously been only available to men.
Those in and out of the military who are opposed to the new policies have labeled them “social experiments.” They claim that having women serve in combat jobs will reduce the military’s effectiveness or will reduce their readiness. They also say sexual assaults will increase or sex among personnel in mixed units will hinder cohesiveness. But at its base the argument against women in combat arms jobs has more to do with cultural, moral, or religious objections than “readiness” of forces or sex.
The arguments people make against women in combat can be boiled down into one overarching theme: women in combat isn’t about improving the force or equality but is a social experiment and will get men killed. Every line of discussion bends towards that final conclusion. Whether it be women’s lack of physical prowess vice men, their increased susceptibility to injury, or their uncanny inability to prevent themselves from having babies, every talking point people use to prevent women from serving in combat comes down to biology and their “proper place in society.”
Rarely ever do they discuss what women can do.
The Freedom to Fight
Women on the front lines is not a new phenomenon in warfare. In some cultures, women have been known to fight alongside their male counterparts. Countries like the United States and the United Kingdom have been slow on the take to fully integrate women into their militaries, while some – such as Israel and many NATO members – have been doing so for decades.
These countries have made it a priority to include women at all levels of service and in every military specialty. They have collectively seen the benefits of gender integration and have made moves to take advantage of the skill sets and unique abilities that women bring to their combat units.
While the U.S. has been slow to allow women to legally join combat units many have already shown that they are more than willing, and able, to be in the fight. And they have been. Women have been in combat, fighting and dying alongside men, since 2001 in Afghanistan an Iraq and have proven they are more than up to the challenge.
Women like Sergt. Leigh Ann Hester. Sergt. Hester is a Kentucky National Guard Soldier who deployed to Iraq in 2006. While there as a Military Policeman, Sergt. Hester was guarding a convoy of Army vehicles as it came under attack by Iraqi insurgents. While taking fire, she and her squad leader maneuvered against the enemy, bounding up and engaging targets with their rifles, and throwing grenades, killing or wounding the insurgents. For her bravery and heroism in combat action against the enemy, Sergt. Hester was awarded the Silver Star, our nation’s second highest award for valor.
Years of war have shown that women bring unique abilities to the fight that men cannot. Fighting in societies where male interaction with women was forbidden, getting information from and interacting with female locals was almost impossible. So both the Army and Marine Corps began to integrate women into front line units to act as go-betweens and by all accounts it was very successful. These women lived, worked, and fought alongside their male counterparts every day and did a fantastic job. Programs like the Marine Corps Field Engagement Teams (FET) and Army Civil Support Teams (CST), as well as Norway’s all female special forces Jegertroppen (Hunter Troop) have shown that women are vital in every way on the battlefield.
While opening more combat arms positions to women may lead to more women serving, the idea that women will fill a preponderance of combat roles is very unlikely. But mitigation and adjustments to entry and concurrent training will ensure that the women that do make the grade continue to match combat standards like their male counterparts.
The Fix – Make Leaders Lead
The counter to all the arguments opponents of women in combat make comes down to one idea: leading. Commanders and leaders, at all levels, must do with their platoons, companies, and battalions just as I did with my daughter’s soccer team. Treat everyone equally, as a valued member of the team. We need leaders who train, mentor, and actually want women to serve with them and who will ensure that those who do will be successful.
The whole idea of commanding Soldiers or Marines is to command them. Lead them. A good leader can lead anyone, male or female. Don’t treat your Soldiers differently just because they are different genders. All Marines are supposed to be infantrymen, so treat them as such. Your mental bias as a leader defeats a woman’s chance of success before you even let them try. If they’re there, they met the standard to be there. It’s your job as a leader to keep them there.
Also, set the standards you want to see in your unit and make sure your Soldiers or Marines know what those standards are, and that there will be repercussions if they break them. Spell out to your unit that fraternization will not be tolerated and outline the consequences. Ensure all your troops meet readiness and physical standards and keep them. Train as a unit so you fight as a unit. But most importantly, make sure your unit knows everyone is a teammate, a battle buddy, a player, and that they’re a vital part of the unit.
Be a leader. Plain and simple.
The problem is not the inclusion of women but men not supporting their female battle buddies and their Senior Leaders. The problem is people not willing to give women who can meet the same standards as men the opportunity to serve and succeed due to their inherent biases or religious stigma. The problem is outdated Puritan mental models of subservient, weak women who are told they can’t do something and then become shaped their entire lives to not try or fail.
Opening up combat arms positions to women isn’t about some vast social experiment, and it’s not about trying to lower standards so more women can make it (while that is a valid concern). It’s about giving women who want to serve their country and be infantry or armor or cavalry Soldiers the chance to do it. Even if a very small number can actually make it, at least they were given the opportunity.
Slowly but surely we’re getting there. Both the Army and the Marine Corps are executing plans to ensure gender-neutral standards across their organizations, and women have already successfully graduated from combat arms schools. These women now wear Ranger tabs and the crossed rifle insignia of the infantry. Hopefully, in time, more women will be given the opportunity to follow in their footsteps to fight if they choose to.
Our job as leaders today is to ensure that America’s ground forces are the best and most capable they can be so that, if called upon, we can win our nation’s wars. But it’s also our job to ensure that the future is better than today when it comes to Soldiers and Marines and to ensure that everyone, men and women, who make the grade can serve and fight. It’s time to stop telling women they can’t do something and, even if few can, give those who can the chance to do it.
My daughter, and all of our daughters, deserve it.
 Ehrenreich, Barbara, Blood Rites: Origins and History of the Passions of War, Metropolitan Books, New York, 1997, pg. 125.
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