With the graduation of 18 women from the U.S. Army’s Infantry basic training last week, another landmark has been achieved as the Department of Defense seeks to integrate women into combat occupational specialties that had previously been off-limits to female service members.
— US Army Fort Benning (@FortBenning) May 19, 2017
Beginning with a directive issued in 2015 by then-Secretary of Defense Ash Carter, the Department of Defense has gone through a lengthy review and approval process for opening up jobs previously reserved for men, where the service chiefs from each branch would have the opportunity to recommend for or against gender integration. Perhaps not surprisingly, only the Marine Corps officially objected to the historic change in America’s military, and ever since the topic of women serving in combat jobs has been a lightning rod for controversy, particularly in the infantry and special operations communities.
Up front I should say that whatever my own opinion may be, though it is informed by my own career as an Army infantry officer, will do no good in convincing anyone from their own position on the matter. A great example of this dynamic is over the handful of women who have graduated from the U.S. Army Ranger School. I personally know men who were in the same squad as the women graduates, as well as Ranger Instructors, Officers and NCO’s alike, who all can attest that no standards were changed, and the women earned their tabs in the exact same way as every male student who has ever attended.
But that does not matter, because for every guy or Ranger Instructor I know, a guy in the comments section knows 20 more who can ‘verify without a doubt’ that standards were lowered. At this point it’s beyond beating a dead horse to go back and forth over this issue, but it’s worth mentioning to add context to how deeply controversial women in the infantry and special operations has been, and remains.
My goal here is to instead flesh out issues and problems that will arise when these female infantrymen arrive at their units, and how that will affect the dynamics of an infantry platoon, hopefully to encourage the kind of thoughts and discussion that should have been part of this integration effort long ago, but was pushed aside in the interests of quickly integrating combat arms positions.
Maintaining different standards will doom the integration effort from the beginning
At its foundation, life in the infantry is a physical experience. Essentially, your entire worth as an infantryman centers on your ability to perform your job under physical and mental extremes. We can’t often replicate the exact conditions of mental stress one experiences in combat, but we can relatively easily induce the physical stress. As a means of proving you are qualified to do that job, we conduct physical training tests to validate that ability. Since women were integrated into the military as a whole many decades ago, there have been different standards between the sexes. What is baffling to me is who in the Pentagon thought it prudent to force women into combat arms units, which are objectively different subcultures than the “soft skilled” areas of the military (administrative, logistics, support in general), without creating a single physical standard. Want to know the fastest way to build resentment in a unit? Treat soldiers differently, to include criteria for promotions, awards, and other incentives, solely due to their gender. If you let a woman get away with doing only 19 push-ups on a physical training test, but will flag and separate a man for doing 30, those women will never be accepted as part of the unit.
Supposedly there are changes coming to the PT test, which will effectively create a single standard based on the MOS, not gender. Why that wasn’t implemented and validated before introducing women puzzles me, as it only sets these first women up for total failure.
Men will treat women differently to avoid being accused of sexual harassment/sexual assault
Men and women are different. Shocking, I know, but sometimes the realities of biology get in the way of lofty ideals like complete and total ‘equality’ of the sexes. The military is also a reflection of our society, with all the accompanying societal norms and customs, be they good or bad. Men treat women differently than men treat other men. This has been the case since there was such a thing as men and women. Combine that with the Equal Opportunity and Sexual Assault/Harassment-focus that our military has assumed (how many Commanders have said “My number 1 priority is Sexual Assault prevention?”) and you will have men that will take every opportunity to avoid interacting with their fellow female infantrymen, a detrimental effect on a combat unit. Again, an unfortunate reality, but a reality nonetheless, is that an infantry platoon is different from the administrative clerks in the S1 shop. A woman can do just fine in that environment, as the expectations of behavior and performance are different.
On principle, I never want to argue in favor of a limitation. Meaning, just because men treat women differently (and in many ways very poorly) in society does not mean that’s a reason to exclude some women who are capable the opportunity to serve in that capacity. That’s like saying in the 1950s: whites and blacks simply don’t mix; racial integration is a bad idea. History has shown that logic to be false. But there are serious differences between men and women in our society, and going back to the first point, the military has done little to set women up for success before tossing them into the infantry culture
Women will require special accommodations. Requiring special attention = weakness. Weakness = liability
Another reality is that women in the field require accommodations that men do not. Whether or not they actually do is irrelevant, the Army treats them such that they do. In the subculture of the infantry, requiring special attention and having special needs is a weakness, and weakness is a liability. That is how infantrymen think, whether we like it or not. If someone disappears to conduct extra hygiene, or goes to breast feed, their peers will end up shouldering a heavier burden than they otherwise would. This is the case for men who have special needs as well, so this is not gender exclusive. But again, with a preponderance of unequal treatment and special needs that are granted to women in the military, they are again set up for failure for when they arrive at an infantry unit.
This list is by no means exhaustive. There are many second and third order effects that will be only be revealed with time. Without a doubt, junior leaders at the company, platoon, squad, and team level will make this gender integration work, no matter the circumstances. Like all challenging missions handed to them, they will find a way. But there will be a cost associated with rushing towards an end state without the requisite analysis and planning that ensures success.
Image courtesy of the U.S. Army