Women in Combat: Is the Jury Really Still Out?

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In a speech made at the Virginia Military Institute, US Secretary of Defence General James Mattis, stated that ‘the jury is still out’ regarding women’s effectiveness in combat roles. He added that while there are a ‘few stalwart young ladies’ leading the way but that they are not sufficient in number to decide if allowing women to serve in combat is something that makes sense militarily. Mattis also linked this to a wider discussions about the role of women in society by somewhat confusingly adding that ‘it goes to the most… primitive needs of a society to look out for its most vulnerable’, seemingly suggesting that allowing women to serve in combat roles goes against the basic instincts of society.

These comments, made in front of a crowd containing both male and female cadets, have been controversial. Many commentators, including myself, have viewed Mattis’s comments as being both demeaning to those women serving in the armed forces, and showing his ignorance of the many contributions that women have made to the military across the world. However, they were not necessarily surprising, as the integration of women into combat roles across the US military is an Obama era policy that General Mattis has long opposed, suggesting in the past that it could lead to affection being ‘manifested sexually’, disrupting unit cohesion and efficiency. These are views also held by President Trump, who has both stated and tweeted that sexual assault in the army occurs due to women and men being allowed to serve together, agreeing with Mattis that you can’t expect women and men working together to act like ‘little saints’. However, Mattis’s key concern at the moment, appears to be his fear that allowing women to serve in combat roles will lower the standards and compromise the lethality of the military. His comments seem to be insinuating both that there are no women capable of performing in combat at the same level as men, and that even if physically capable, women are too vulnerable to be reliably lethal in close quarters combat.

Mattis’s central claim, that there is insufficient data to decide on this matter, is highly questionable, as it seems clear that women, albeit in far smaller quantities than men, have been successful in some of the most strenuous and demanding combat training programmes that the US military offers. For example, in 2015 three women succeeded in graduating from Army Ranger school, and in 2017 three soldiers became the first female infantry marines in the Marine Corps history. Both sets of women, who acted as ‘test balloons’ for full integration, passed the same tests as their male counterparts, and were held to entirely the same standards in terms of physical ability. These cases, plus recent appointments of Army and Marine infantry officers, prove that when given the opportunity to perform the same roles in the military as men, that there are women who are both willing and entirely capable of doing so. It is perhaps true that there are women (and indeed men) who could not meet these standards, but this does not seem like a compelling reason to prevent those who can.

It is also clear, that contrary to Mattis’s beliefs, there are many women who can. The US military Academy’s class of 2018 had one interesting distinguishing feature – the top six students were women, and they did not have the standards ‘lowered’ for them. Women have been making impressive strides in their pursuit of combat roles, even though, in the US Army at least, they are hampered by a ‘leaders first’ policy that means Army women can serve in combat units only if two female officers have already been assigned at battalion level. Despite this significant obstacle, there are now 740 women in roles in the Army that they were not previously allowed to hold, none of whom have been charged with lowering the standards of the units that they have joined. Women in the military seem not to know that they are supposed to be a liability, and despite the lack of faith that their own Commander in Chief and Secretary of Defence have in them, have continued to perform just as well as their male colleagues.

Mattis’s concern with the potential disruption to unit cohesion and effectiveness, does perhaps make slightly more sense, as it is accurate to say that allowing women to serve in combat may lead to changes in military culture. This appears to be what Mattis was suggesting when he spoke in 2016 about the dangers of using the military to ‘lead social change in this country”. However, there is one glaring issue with this view. This, like allowing LGTB+ soldiers to serve openly, is not an area where the military is leading change, instead being an area where the military is very much behind the times. It is hard to defend social change being called short sighted when the changes being discussed came to most areas of life in the previous century. Talking about the infantry, Mattis described these soldiers as cocky and rambunctious, adding to this in other parts of his speech by saying that ‘aggressiveness’ was one of the two key qualities that ‘they’ (the Navy) look for in their soldiers. Mattis brought up these key qualities to demonstrate that the infantry is no place for women, but there is also an argument to be made that this is an opportunity for the US military to move beyond the ‘macho’ and stereotypically masculine culture that currently forms a large portion of its identity.

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Raewyn Connell first identified the concept of ‘hegemonic masculinity’ in 1984, defining it roughly as the practice that legitimises the dominant position in society that men hold, and justifies the subordination of women and non-hegemonic ways of being a man. Since its birth as a concept, this has been applied countless times to the military, with many studies identifying it as an institution where hegemonic masculinity is particularly evident. This has been seen as particularly serious as the privileged position that the military holds in many societies, especially in the United States, means that it can often play a primary role in shaping images of masculinity across the rest of society. While the inclusion of women in the most masculine spheres of the military is not expected to change anything overnight, many believe that this may allow of the ‘democratising’ of the military in terms of gender, legitimising ways of being that do not conform to ideas of hegemonic masculinity.

In sum, if Mattis fears that the inclusion of women in combat roles might change the culture of the military, this fear might be well founded. However, it is not clear that this is necessarily something that the military should shy away from. In many arenas, the US military has lagged behind the rest of society for years, taking major steps forward during the Obama administration with both LGTBQ+ members of the military being able to serve openly, and women being allowed to take up combat roles. So far, the Trump administration seems determined to reverse this progress, with both policies regarding trans service members and women in combat roles being actively undermined by those in charge of implementing them. Melanie Sisson, writing for The Hill suggested that Mattis is ‘poisoning the well’ on women in combat – attempting to undermine the very policy he is supposed to be objectively evaluating. This may well be accurate, but the comparative success of those women already serving in combat suggests that he may have to try harder. It is also worth noting that Mattis’s statement about women in combat roles came as a result of a question posed by a male cadet, who described the female cadets at the institute as ‘badass’ women, many of whom he stated are ‘physically fitter and smarter’ then him. If this is the future of the military, perhaps the change Mattis fears is already underway.

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