Living and working on a military base, I talk to umpteen men and women in uniform every day; hot button military topics are fodder for small talk as much as the weather. So, naturally, when Defense Secretary Carter opened all opened all combat arms jobs to women, everyone had something to say about it.
I know what you’re thinking: “That’s awesome! Equality for the win!” So I may have thought, once upon a time. Now? I’m not so sure.
To begin with, it’s worth noting that “women in combat” is a misleading phrase; women have been serving in combat for many, many years. What has been dubbed the “women in combat” debate is, more specifically, over American women serving in combat arms specialties. With Carter’s historic move, in January 2016, all branches of the military will open such positions to women for the first time; occupational specialties such as infantry, tanks, artillery, and special operations.
This was not a snap decision on Carter’s behalf; the military has been discussing this issue for several years. In 2013, the services were ordered to study the issue and develop a plan to integrate women into all combat arms positions. What is curious about Carter’s move is that significant portions of evidence collected in the two-year study suggests that certain occupational specialties have been exclusive to men for a reason.
I recall a long, wine-fuelled conversation I had with a very good friend of mine, one of the female Marines I met through my husband as he went through TBS (The Basic School is the mandatory, seven-month training for newly commissioned Marine officers; yes, they dub themselves Basic betches). At the time, the Marine Corps was conducting a study in which female officers were given the chance to cycle through IOC (Infantry Officer Course), a “legendarily tough,” 86-day training course for infantry Marines. Tasks include climbing a 25-foot rope with a backpack full of gear, a week called “human factors” (where the Marines are effectively starved and deprived of sleep), and the grueling Combat Endurance Test, where many are eliminated from the beginning.
I asked my friend if she’d considered IOC, which she met with a resolute “no.” In fact, every single female Marine I spoke to was of the same mind. I’m fully aware that my anecdotal “evidence” that my own female Marine friends are uninterested in the infantry does not mean that many women aren’t keen to take these jobs. But the statistics are telling: The Marine Corps were seeking 100 women to cycle through IOC during the course of the experiment, but only 29 volunteered. None passed. The pass rate for the enlisted infantry course, SOI, was 34% for women.
In August, it emerged that two women—Capt. Kristen Griest and 1st Lt. Shaye Haver—made history by passing the elite Army Ranger course. The course began with 381 men and 19 women; 94 men and two women graduated after the 62 days. As with IOC, the drop-out rate is alarmingly high; the physical and mental demands of the course are nothing short of shocking. The problem is, shortly after the news broke, it emerged that the women who participated did receive “special treatment:” Extensive pre-training not offered to male participants, and allowances for repeating challenges which were limited for men.
It goes without saying that female soldiers are tough as hell. Seriously: They are so badass. I marvel, so very often, at the level of mental and physical endurance that they uphold. Here I am, a mere pleb who can barely run a mile without keeling over, and I know women who can hike 15 miles with 50-pound packs. That said, all the branches of the military have different physical fitness standards for females and males; in the Marine Corps, the semi-annual physical fitness test dictates that women do not have to complete a set of pull-ups, but rather a “flexed arm hang,” and the time to complete a three-mile run is higher (women are given roughly three extra minutes). Being a feminist, being all for equality, it hurts to admit this, but the fact remains that women are built differently. These physical allowances are in place for a very good reason: As veteran Jude Eden puts it in her analysis, “The best woman is still no match for the best man.” The question is, on the front lines, is it acceptable to make such allowances when it truly comes down to life and death?
That said, speculations over a woman’s physical disadvantage in the combat arms should be matched with many positive effects of the new inclusive measures. It would be unreasonable to suggest that women and men are unequal in terms of effective military leadership; it is vitally important that the right person steps into these jobs, and that women with the intelligence and strength to give their skills to combat arms units are able to do so. I particularly appreciated the words of Kyleanne Hunter:
“That war is hell and a not an experience desired by ‘normal humans’ is nothing of a surprise for myself and the thousands of other women who have served during the past decade and a half. The women who chose to serve are not ‘normal,’ and that is a fact to be celebrated and fully utilized, not ignored.”
Furthermore, the nature of warfare itself is changing; the military is increasingly focussing itself on counterinsurgency tactics, and as such, women are becoming more and more necessary. “You really have to have female counter-insurgents if you are expecting to have a successful counterinsurgency strategy,” says U.S. Marine Captain Matt Pottinger in an interview for PBS. In many Middle Eastern countries, for example, men are forbidden from interacting with women unless bonded by marriage or blood, meaning that coalition forces have been limited by whom they can talk to when trying to engage with locals. Having female-only teams was a vastly helpful tactic in these situations.
There are also many who argue that the addition of women to infantry and special ops units will dent unit cohesion. That said, there were probably also many people who opposed the integration of people of color in the 1940’s, and who tut-tutted over the repeal of the “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” rule that penalized homosexuals in the armed forces. As we can see as the years pass, units have not spontaneously combusted because they are more racially diverse, or because troops are finally “permitted” to be open about their sexuality. To anyone concerned about unit cohesion and task effectiveness, the words of Major Eleanor Taylor (the first Canadian female to lead an infantry company in combat) ring true: “As long as you protect qualification standards and give no impression that anyone is getting a free ride, integration, while not without bumps, will be much less dramatic than people envision.”
Still, whatever one’s opinion on the matter is, we’re left with two facts: Integration is happening, and it won’t be reversed. Ultimately, speculating over the different challenges surrounding the integration of women into combat arms is not going to change a decision that has already been made. And, at the end of the day, it’s vitally important that we support the women who do make it through training and head into the operating forces with their infantry, artillery, or special ops units. Moreover, let’s be honest: No-one is going to tell a female Army Ranger, Marine Corps infantry officer, or a Navy SEAL that they don’t thoroughly deserve to do their job. We must salute them.