The First Women in the Elite Combat Forces Must Earn Their Own Way

Posted on June 25, 2013


Making allowances, giving a hand up, special mentoring, and most especially, any change to physical requirements, will utterly destroy any inroads that women might hope to achieve.

As I wrote yesterday, it’s all well and good that women will soon have the equal opportunity to apply to the elite combat forces, but no one should expect to see equal qualification rates between men and women.

But I am a bit worried about the politics of it all.  As time marches on with few, if any, women capable of graduating from the elite forces’ training schools, the political questions will begin to roll down:  “Why aren’t the women graduating?”  and then the question that should never be asked, but will be, eventually: “What can we do to help them?”  The real answer is:  nothing.  Resist the temptation!  The only right reason to let a woman serve in the elite forces is because she can meet the existing standard.  The first women to make it in the elite forces must do so on their own, especially because – I suspect – the top brass is pushing this for all the wrong reasons.

Check out Jennifer Steinhauer’s article in the New York Times.  General Martin Dempsey, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, is quoted: 

“We’ve had this ongoing issue with sexual harassment, sexual assault.  I believe it’s because we’ve had separate classes of military personnel, at some level. Now, you know, it’s far more complicated than that, but when you have one part of the population that is designated as warriors and another part that’s designated as something else, I think that disparity begins to establish a psychology that in some cases led to that environment. I have to believe, the more we can treat people equally, the more likely they are to treat each other equally.”  

This is a flawed thought process because while a very few women may be physically the equals of the elite men, women will never, ever be equally represented in the elite forces, simply because of physiology.  It is an unavoidable biological fact.  Once the elite forces are opened to women, the continued absence or extreme scarcity of women in those jobs will only serve to emphasize the reality of women’s physical inequality… as well as the relative “wimpiness” of men who don’t qualify for (or have any interest in) the elite forces or combat arms.  But that’s another can of worms.

Ms. Steinhauer also quotes Senator Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY):

“Officially recognizing women in combat will strengthen our country both morally and militarily. By officially opening combat roles, more women will be able to advance their careers to the senior ranks and increase the diversity of our military leadership.”  

This is also flawed thinking.  Admitting women to the combat arms and elite forces will hardly change the future landscape of military leadership, for reasons I have already explained in my article Why Allowing Women In Combat Won’t Make Much Difference in The Number of Female Generals.

The NYT also reports,

“Under the combat exclusion policy… women nonetheless served in combat, particularly in Iraq and Afghanistan, when they were “attached” to combat units. But the bureaucratic sidestep gave them no official credit for the combat experience that is required for advancing up the ranks of the military.”

This is a prime example of journalists who don’t fully understand the military system. First and most important for promotions, we receive written evaluations and if our bosses can write worth a hoot, they absolutely will describe exactly what we were doing and under what conditions.  My evaluations from over 20 years ago (Panama and Gulf War I) repeatedly mention “wartime” and “attacks” and operational names and campaigns in the course of describing how I did my job.  This is the written record that goes before promotion boards. Second, we receive awards, certain of which are reserved only for service “while engaged in combat” (examples, the Bronze Star or Silver Star).  There are also service ribbons particular to each theater, conflict, peacekeeping mission or expedition.  In the Army, we also permanently affix our wartime unit patch on our right shoulder.  Not only that, but for every six months in combat, we affix a “hash mark” to the right sleeve of our Class A uniform.  One glance at a soldier’s uniform and it is glaringly obvious (except to politicians and journalists) exactly where that soldier has been, and for how long.  This is all very clear on your official photo, which also goes before the promotion board.  So I ask:  exactly what is lacking in terms of “recognizing” a woman’s combat service?  If you tell me it is the fact that she is not assigned to the combat arms, I must point out that that also applies to the majority of military men.

Most troubling of all is this CBS report:

“Under the schedules military leaders delivered to Hagel, the Army will develop standards by July 2015 to allow women to train and potentially serve as Rangers, and qualified women could begin training as Navy SEALS by March 2016 if senior leaders agree. Military leaders have suggested bringing senior women from the officer and enlisted ranks into special forces units first to ensure that younger, lower-ranking women have a support system to help them get through the transition.” 

I see TWO big problems here.  First, we must be clear that standards should not change just for the purpose of being more achievable for women. SecDef Panetta’s directive was to develop gender-neutral, job-based standards, and elite forces are no place to lower standards!

Second, I take great offense at the idea of bringing senior women directly into the special forces as a “support system.”  Not only do these senior women have little or no direct experience or qualification in those specialties, this implies that female Rangers or SEALs will need a Mommy to cry to.  If you think women are being disrespected now, just watch what happens after that.  No, no, no.  A woman who aspires to be the toughest of the tough, to – for God’s sake, what do we think the elite forces’ missions are all about? – to kill the enemy, then they had better suck it up and drive on under their own power.  Remember, very few men are able to qualify for the elite forces.  There will be fewer women still.

When – not if, when – it turns out, years from now, that the combat arms are still very much male-dominated, we must resist the temptation to lower the physical requirements or to establish gender-specific standards to make it easier for women to qualify in a misguided attempt at “equality.”  In the combat arms, equal opportunity for women is long-awaited, fair, and enough. If we can only achieve equal success through lower standards, then we weren’t really equal to the task… and in the military, that is unacceptably dangerous.

I applaud those very few women who will eventually succeed at those equal opportunities.


Related articles:

Military to Train Women for Elite Combat Forces – But Can They Graduate?

Why Allowing Women In Combat Won’t Make Much Difference in The Number of Female Generals

Women in Combat: SecDef’s Signature Just Recognizes Reality

Female Marines in the Infantry: First Two Didn’t Make It, But…

USMC to Allow Women in the Infantry