Ground Combat Units' New Addition: Women?

"Any male in uniform who argues that ground combat units should remain exclusively male sounds like a chauvinist or a dinosaur. Yet, there is no good military reason why women should be integrated into otherwise all-male combat units."

Unless the heads of the Armed Services ask for an exception to policy by October 1, their tactical combat units will be opened to women on January 1, 2016. Civilian overseers in the Department of Defense have already signaled that this is what they want. So, standing up to them would appear futile. However, G.I. Janes do not belong with G.I. Joes—and fighting is what men with four stars on their shoulders (aka the Service chiefs) are supposed to do.

It may seem silly to ask why we even have ground combat units. But it is not clear that everyone in Washington understands. The short answer is: Unlike units that handle logistics, communications, intelligence and other functions, a ground combat unit’s sole purpose is to take the fight to the enemy and to kill or destroy more of them than they can kill of us.      

To succeed, ground combat units need to stay lethal, hard-charging, aggressive and cohesive. It is worth noting that:

 – No one yet has invented anything that surpasses the lethality of all-male units.

 – Introduce women, and you disrupt the dynamic in squads, platoons and teams.

 – Testosterone matters.

To cut to the chase: Congress might decide, and the public might even demand, that every other institution and organization in the country be gerrymandered to be gender neutral or more diverse. But if it proceeds to allow DoD to emasculate ground combat units, all of us end up imperiled.

It is critical that the American public remember: U.S. combat units, and only U.S. combat units, stand between us and harm. We need fully capable combat units for three pressing reasons.

First, there is no other country that will affect a rescue of the United States. We are not England circa World War I or World War II. No one has our back. We carry NATO. When it comes to protecting us, our military is it.

Second, the past twenty-five years of intervening abroad guarantees us enemies in perpetuity. If I were a young Somali, Afghan or Iraqi who had lost a family member, property or peace of mind to a night raid, if my life and my city had been turned upside down—as it has been for legions of non-Americans—I would now spend the rest of my days seeking revenge.

But likewise, if I were living in China or Iran, or any other aspiring once-and-future power, I would want my government to out-compete the United States by whatever underhanded and unconventional means it could devise.

Competition constitutes the third reason Washington had better concentrate on making combat units more rather than less effective. The United States would have to suffer a catastrophic economic collapse before we Americans ceased to want to compete abroad. But by its very nature, competition generates rivalry, which can lead to war—unless the costs are deemed too high.

It takes an unequivocally strong military to signal to others why they shouldn’t take up arms or engage in dirty dealing. Though even then, signaling doesn’t always work—remember the First Gulf War?

When it comes to war, combat may seem to be governed by all sorts of rules, and militaries like ours may well strive to abide by “Just War” principles. But at the unit level, on the ground, among combatants—when the overall aim is to either win or to survive—niceties go out the window.

So, consider what we already ask soldiers to try not to do, and then reflect. We saddle combat units with the heaviest burden any country can ask its citizens to bear: To wage lawful war so that the rest of us don’t have to. Given this reality, we should ask: do we really now want to further complicate combat soldiers’ and Marines’ lives? Is that what they deserve from us?

In the not-so-distant past, DoD’s civilian leaders, along with the heads of the Services, were committed to simplifying life for combat soldiers and Marines so that when they were sent into combat zones, there were no extraneous distractions. Even today, DoD spends tens of millions of dollars on family support efforts so that soldiers and Marines don’t have to worry about the health and well-being of their families when they are deployed.

Consequently, though it defies common sense to inject the ultimate distraction—women—into otherwise all-male tactical units, Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta’s decision to do so was a political masterstroke. By putting the onus on the Service chiefs to have to try to defend the status quo if they ask for an exception, Panetta sandbagged them. Any male in uniform who argues that ground combat units should remain exclusively male sounds like a chauvinist or a dinosaur.

Yet, there is no good military reason why women should be integrated into otherwise all-male combat units.

Indeed, it is proponents—and not men in uniform—who should be put on the defensive. Before it is too late, Congress should step in and force proponents to have to answer at least five sets of questions:

1) How will integrating women into otherwise all-male groups render these units more effective at closing with and destroying the enemy? Or—do proponents think combat units serve some other purpose?

2) If proponents want women to be able to participate in prolonged fighting instead of just an occasional, inadvertent firefight, then why not advocate for all-female units? Why do women need to live in foxholes or patrol behind enemy lines with men?

3) If proponents want women to be integrated into tactical units because this will help with their career advancement, then what about men who don’t serve in ground combat units? If equity really matters, why not challenge the promotion system overall, since everyone who serves in a nontactical unit—male and female—is (presumably) equally disadvantaged?