Left Side: The War Over Women

The Challenge Of Achieving Gender Equality In The Military Is Formidable, But It’s One We Must Face



When Republicans drafted their platform shortly before their national convention this summer, they included a section spelling out the party’s position on women in the military.

“We reiterate our support for both the advancement of women in the military and their exemption from direct ground combat units and infantry battalions,” the platform states. [Emphasis added.]

Their reasoning for opposing the inclusion of women in ground combat units is by now familiar to anyone who has followed this debate. “We oppose anything which might divide or weaken team cohesion. In particular, we warn against modification or lessening of standards in order to satisfy a non- military agenda … [and] reject the use of the military as a platform for social experimentation …”

When considering the latter point, it’s useful to remember that the military has a history of “social experimentation” ahead of the societal curve. It was in 1948, after all—well before the Supreme Court issued its ruling on desegregation of public schools—that President Truman issued an executive order calling for desegregation of the armed forces. It’s also important to remember that the outcry from racists was the same as the one that Republicans are expressing in their 2016 platform: Racially integrating the military, the asserted, would weaken team cohesion.

To some degree they were probably right. Resistance to racial integration of the military was fierce, and it did not happen overnight, Truman’s executive order notwithstanding. It took more than a decade to come to fruition, and tensions lingered long after that.

Those of us who believe in equal rights for women in all spheres of American society must acknowledge first and foremost that the same will be true of the effort to integrate women into combat units.

In an effort to get an inside perspective on this, I sat down recently with my friend James, a 32-year-old ex-Marine who fought in Iraq in 2006 and 2007.

“I’m torn about the issue,” he told me. “I agree with it in theory. If I get shot, and someone comes to my aid, stops my bleeding and gets me out of harm’s way, I don’t care who it is—man, woman, gay or straight. But I’m also realistic. If you have a woman in the infantry surrounded by a bunch of 23-year-old guys, a lot of whom have very conservative attitudes, there are going to be problems. To put it bluntly, there’s going to be sexual harassment. It shouldn’t happen, but it will. As things stand now, even weaker guys get bullied mercilessly.”

Based on his experience, James believes that “it’s going to take the first few dozen women who are willing to run the gauntlet”—and probably a decade or more—before women are fully accepted in combat units.

In spite of this, James is generally supportive of the goal, with one stipulation: Training standards must not be lowered in an effort to achieve gender equality.

“Actually,” he said, “I think the training needs to be even more intense, even for men.”

To get a woman’s perspective, I also posed the question to my friend Lauren, who is in the Navy and currently on deployment.

“I always want to see females have as much opportunity for anything they want to do,” she told me in a private Facebook message. “In some ways, I understand why people don't like the idea. There is, after all, a difference in the physiology of males and females—and the fact that some males feel like they need to protect females more. But I don't think [succeeding in a combat mission] is ever 100 percent about strength and power. To complete a mission, you need organization, communication and intelligence. And I’ve learned those are not always the strengths of men.”

So what are we to make of all this?

First of all, given the trajectory of our nation’s history and the advancement of women, albeit painfully slow at times, I think that full integration of women into all units of the military is inevitable.

But I’m sure James is right: The process will be profoundly difficult, especially for the women who are at its forefront. I certainly don’t envy them. Heck—I wouldn’t want to endure the hazing, never mind combat, even as a guy. But if there are women out there who want to endure it, they deserve all the support we can give them.

That means, for one thing, jettisoning the “team cohesion” argument—for it is sexism, pure and simple. Whether the mandate comes through legislation or executive order from the next commander in chief, the proper response to men who oppose it should be, deal with it.

The military also needs to take a much harder look at how it deals with sexual harassment, whether in combat units or in some office in Norfolk. I have no doubt that it is firmly entrenched in the culture, but to simply say, boys will be boys is intolerable.

The issue of training standards is more complicated. I agree with my friend James that standards should not be lowered for the sake of achieving gender equality. But I also think my friend Lauren makes a good point. Common sense tells us that there’s a lot more to combat missions than upper-body strength and an excess of testosterone—especially given the fact that the methods and tools of war craft have changed dramatically in the last 50 years.

Admittedly, I say this without any personal experience in the military myself—so I’m perfectly willing to acknowledge that I might be wrong. Then again, as James noted, a lot of the people in the government who determine military policy have no combat experience either. Indeed, it irks me when I hear Republicans calling for “boots on the ground,” when they themselves used their families’ influence to avoid military service altogether. Chicken hawks shouldn’t rattle sabers, speaking boldly about sending other people’s children to die—nor should they make groundless assumptions about the capabilities of women they’ve never met or the cohesion of units in which they’ve never served.

In the end, in any case, we cannot look at this in a vacuum. The military may have its own distinct culture, but it is made up of people who come from society at large. With this in mind, it’s clear that the goal of achieving gender equality in the military is part of a larger objective: raising consciousness about sexism in general. If we can continue to wage that fight as a society, then perhaps the next generation of young men will be more enlightened than the hyper-macho 23-year-olds to whom James referred. 

Add your comment: