By: Shelly Burgoyne
It is captivating and actually pretty rare to witness the end of a long social argument that involves our entire American society. The place of religion in our civil society or the legality of abortion, are examples of big arguments that have not been decided and continue to consume our national dialogue. But the argument of racism, while it still exists in small pockets of our country, is one example of a social argument that has been decided. African Americans can do and be anything in this country and the number of bigoted and backwards people who think they cannot or should not, based simply, on the color of their skin thankfully disappear by the day.
Women in Combat is one of those big arguments that our nation has been engaged in for decades. But, I think last week, as I watched the Dept of Defense Briefing on Implementing Women into Previously Closed Positions, I might have actually witnessed its exact time of death; the American people have decided. The usual archaic, puritanical, non- proven, anecdotal, non-scientific, superficial and frankly offensive reasons to exclude women from combat have died on the vine and more importantly, they no longer hold any legal water. Whether or not a woman could change the “male dynamic” of a unit, the imagined problems that sexual tension will cause in combat units, and absurd things like whether a woman can deal with her period in combat, relieve herself in front of a man, change her clothes in front of a man, or stink in front of a man, are insulting to women (53% of our American population) and frankly seem to be more of a problem for the men in these units rather than the actual women seeking these combat assignments.
Today virtually the entire Armed Forces have come to the conclusion that virtually all combat branches will be integrated and the leaders of those branches are preparing for the arrival of women as I write this. In fact the Air Force and Navy proudly declared that their branches possess no job off -limits to women. However, the holy grail of gender integration, the Infantry and Special Forces are holding out and have dug in. They are desperately tossing their dwindling supply of grenades, or in this case, “reasons” from their last remaining, poorly manned, and very muddy foxhole. They are overrun, they stand little chance of victory, yet no surrender flag will be erected; it is clear that they will not go willingly. Why? To their credit, the Infantry and Special Forces men I speak with, have like everyone else, moved past the base and absurd reasons to exclude women I mentioned earlier…mostly because in the last 10 years of war they at some point have worked intimately with a woman attached or near their unit to some degree. However, more often they, in desperation of losing their all male units, have started to unknowingly reveal the emotional and visceral truth; they just don’t want to serve with women period, for no other reason than they are women.
General Officers in charge of implementing the integration of women into these Infantry and Special Forces units, agree, based on experience and studies that some women can likely physically do it. But they still don’t want us there. If women can do it, why don’t these units want them there? If it is not the physical component… why are Infantry and Special Forces units different from the rest of the military and somehow not able to possess women? Perhaps they believe that their units are made less elite by the presence of women in their ranks, that they are no longer special, no longer the best? Why does the presence of a fully qualified woman lessen their elite combat unit, their Infantry? Maybe they fear that they will no longer see women in the same way? It seems that at this point in the concluding social argument of Women in Combat, it is the Infantrymen and Special Forces teams that must honestly ask themselves; why they do not want to serve next to a woman?
Infantrymen and Special Forces soldiers don’t want to reveal the truth, it is hard to confess that they just don’t want women in their ranks, but their noise, light, and fire discipline are no longer maintainable, and they have revealed their tactical position through their actions and words. Not wanting to just say it, they have begun to assemble the argument that it is not the men that do not want women in their ranks, it is the sheer nature of these units themselves that will not be accommodating to women; the academic and highbrow idea that the Infantry or Special Forces is somehow intellectually reserved for the violence and youth of men, or if we add women to these units they become something else entirely. They argue that the Infantry and Special Forces just cannot remain what they are today with the inclusion of women. Don Gomez, a former Infantryman, Scholar, and writer states in his “Carrying the Gun” Blog:
“The infantry is always young, but forever ancient. Boys leave their homes at 18 and are thrust into the infantry, which, as a result of its age and general demographic, is at its core a bunch of immature boys led by leaders who grew up in that same environment but are now tasked with the dreadful duty of controlling the madness. Good training and leadership should temper that immaturity, but it can only do so much. An infantryman’s job is crazy – to close with and destroy the enemy. That requires a level of aggressiveness in physical action and a feeling of moral superiority psychologically that must have wacky, long-lasting effects on the person. When we talk about integrating women, I think we are talking about an idyllic infantry that doesn’t exist. A highly professionalized force, physically fit and wickedly smart. Lethal and deadly. A clinical force, trained assassins. That, I’m afraid, is not the infantry. That’s something else. Something we might want to think about creating. But it’s not the infantry.” He goes on to write: “There is no doubt in my mind that a woman is capable of doing infantry tasks. She can do all the skill level one stuff, foot march twelve miles with a 35lb ruck under three hours, she can carry her comrades under fire and run until her legs hurt the earth. I also have no doubt that she can serve with men by her side without disrupting bonding or discipline or morale. An expert, professional force. But that is not the infantry.”
To be fair Mr. Gomez’s opinion, like my own has gone back and forth on the subject of women in the Infantry and by no means is he sexist or a chauvint. Rather, I believe he is a cautious supporter of the policy; an intellectual and a warrior; who is trying to be honest and critically think about the issue. But it is clear that he like most Infantrymen just can’t publicly say the words: “we just don’t want you here, because you are a woman.” They feel that their Infantry will not be the same with women, they are fearful of what it will become, they do not want it to change…but they just can’t bring themselves to say it. As a former soldier I understand this to some degree; when you love something so much, are viscerally and spiritually connected to it, and have bled for it, you understandably think it belongs to you and you just don’t want it to change. But everything changes…and when these units add women why can’t the men in them recognize that with the inclusion of qualified women their unit will be more, and not less? Why is it always less?
I do not recall America’s Infantry or Special Forces lamenting the idea that their units will just not remain the same with the inclusion of black men, that with the inclusion of black men they will somehow have to be deemed something else. Sadly it seems that Infantrymen and Special Forces do not want women in their ranks period, simply because they are women, and they know that if some women can physically do it, than they possess few if no remaining reasons to ban them. They have come to the conclusion that their usual arguments are not going to hold legal water with the Secretary of Defense, so their latest desperate “grenade toss”, or reason for banning women is: “there are not enough women” or “the men in these units cannot socially and culturally accept women in their ranks?”
In a recent interview with reporters Gen Sacolick of Special Operations stated: “I’m actually more concerned with the men and their reaction to women in their formations, quite frankly.” In fact Gen Sacolick is so concerned with the reaction of the men in these units, that he has ordered surveys be handed out to all the men to gauge their feelings on the matter; I do not recall the military using these same arguments as they integrated black men into the ranks. I do not recall the military asking themselves if there were “enough black men” or handing out surveys to white soldiers in order to determine how they “felt” serving next to a black man. Again, the superficial base reasons of bodily functions and women sleeping next to a man have been answered in most soldiers’ minds. The physical question is likely to be answered soon, so why the survey? No reasons remain other than they just do not want to serve with women. I want them to want women in their ranks but they don’t, and this is very chilling and unreservedly sad for me to realize. It makes me want to despise them, feel betrayed by them, but I cannot they are soldiers, I served in the same Army they do, I fought in the same war they did, I love them like brothers. But I recognize now, that I was never one of them, I was always a second class soldier…a woman. The really embarrassing thing is that many female soldiers proclaim to me that they have always known this…maybe they have….I did not.
It concerns me greatly that American women are not wanted in these American units, it scares me. It makes me think that we are not so removed from the very men we have been fighting in the mountains of Afghanistan and on the streets of Baghdad, the very men we say, to the detriment of their entire societies, isolate, ignore, abuse, and even hate women. The very men that will not sit in a café with a woman, pray with one, or even go to school with one, for no other reason than they are women.
Thankfully as writer Clemmont Ferrand put it: The “Armed forces only reflect what society is and where it wants to go. Officers cannot complain about their growing disconnect from civilians on the one hand, and staunchly refuse to accommodate their preferences on the other. This is not the way democracy works. People want their military to remain a true and fair emanation of the society they live in. It is not as if they were two separate entities. Common people don’t reflect about the future of infantry. But they certainly do about the place of women in society. And the military would gain nothing by pitting their operational requirements against the wider demands of the public opinion; lest they be insincere about narrowing the civilian-military gap. We are too often left with the disturbing impression that male officers are desperately scrambling around for arguments against what merely amounts to a democratic choice.”
As we near the end of this American argument of Women in Combat; only one questions remains and it has always been the only important one: can they physically do it. I, like the rest of the military do not know the answer to this final question. I hope they can, but they might not be able to. If they are not able, I do not want them in combat units, if they are, I do. We will know soon. I can say with certainty that the women seeking these positions absolutely do not want to serve in these units if they are not physically able to do so, they desire no special female physical standards. Even if it is only one woman who can, she should be able to do so. If women can physically serve in these units, than all the other academic and highbrow reasons about what the Infantry and Special Forces is or isn’t just don’t matter. To this point, prominent thinker and defense policy expert Adam Elkus states: “I’m not arguing for or against women in close combat. What I’d really like is for the authors to make better arguments against women in the infantry.”
The Infantry and a team of Navy Seals, like anything else are organic, always changing, always evolving, and sometimes devolving. When women are assigned to their ranks these units will be not suddenly have to become some new kind of “highly professionalized clinical force, of trained assassins, physically fit and wickedly smart”…they will remain the American Infantry, and a team of American Navy Seals, which at their core, and to paraphrase Mr. Gomez, are a bunch of immature boys AND girls led by leaders tasked with the dreadful duty of controlling the madness. An infantry soldier’s job will remain crazy – to close with and destroy the enemy. It will continue require a level of aggressiveness in physical action and a feeling of moral superiority psychologically that will surely have wacky, long-lasting effects on BOTH the men and women who serve in its ranks.