Seven Myths about “Women in Combat”

By G.S. Newbold, Lieutenant General, USMC (Ret)

Women are now “in combat.” Let us look at the reality versus the hype.

Myth #1 – “It’s about women in combat.”  No, it’s not.  Women are already in combat and are serving with unsurprising professionalism.  The issue should be more clearly entitled, “Women in the infantry.  And this is a decidedly different proposition.

Myth #2 – “Combat has changed.”  Wrong, for several reasons.

First, any competent student of military history will cite numerous historical examples about how generations over millennia believed that warfare had changed forever, only to find that technology may change platforms, but not its harsh essence.  To hope that the future of warfare will be antiseptic, or mirror Hollywood fantasies, is delusional and dangerous.

A second point about the “combat has changed” myth is that the enemy gets a vote.  For example, war on the Korean Peninsula, as might occur in numerous other places, would be a brutal, costly, no-holds-barred nightmare of mayhem in close combat.

The final point on this myth reinforces the Korea example and it bears examination — Fallujah, Iraq in 2004, where warfare was reduced to a horrific, costly, and exhausting scrap in a destroyed city between two foes who fought to the death.

The standard for ground combat unit composition should be whether social experimentation would have amplified our opportunity for success in that crucible, or diminished it.

Realistic benchmarks – not convenient ones – have to be our metric.

We gamble with our future security when we set standards for warfare based on the best case, instead of the harshest one.

Myth #3 – “If they pass the physical standards, why not?”

Physical standards are important, but not nearly all of the story.  The grit and horror of direct ground combat reduces humanity to its most base state, and those who can accommodate it survive; those who can’t are victims who only serve to let down their comrades.  Napoleon – “The moral (spirit) is to the physical as three is to one.”

Unit cohesion is the essence of combat power, and while it may be convenient to dismiss human nature for political expediency, we have had little to no success in this regard.  Brutal facts of sexual harassment in the military, civilian workplace, and academia are evidence enough.

Myth #4 – “Standards won’t be lowered.”

This is the cruelest myth of all.  There are already accommodations (note that unit cohesion won’t be a metric), there will be many more, and we will pay a bloody price for it someday.  Pity the truthful leader who attempts to hold to standards based on realistic combat factors, and tells truth to power.

Most won’t, and the others won’t survive.

Myth #5 – “Opening the infantry will provide a better pathway to senior rank for the talented women.”

Not so.  What will happen is that we will take very dedicated and talented females with unlimited potential and change their peer norm when we inject them into the infantry.  Those who might meet the infantry physical standard will find that their peers are expected, as leaders, to far exceed it (and most of their subordinates will, as well).

So instead of advancing to a level appropriate to their potential, they may well be left out.

Myth #6 – “It’s a civil rights issue, much like the integration of the Armed Forces and allowing gays to serve openly.”

Those who parrot this either hope to scare honest and frank discussion, or confuse national security with utopian ideas.  In the process, they demean initiatives that were to provide equally skilled individuals the opportunity to contribute equally.  In each of the other issues, accommodation and lowered standards was not the consequence.

Myth #7 – “It’s just fair.”  Allow me two points.

First, this is ground warfare we’re discussing, so realism is important.  Direct ground combat, such as practiced in the wheat fields of France, the rubble of Stalingrad, or the endless thirty day jungle patrols against a grim foe in Viet Nam, is the harshest meritocracy, with the greatest consequences, there is.

And it’s a team sport, where the failings of one can have grave consequences for all.  Psychology in warfare is germane – the force that is respected (and, yes, feared) has a distinct advantage.

Will women in our infantry enhance a psychological advantage, or hinder it?

Second, if it’s about fairness, why do women get a choice of whether to serve in the infantry (when men do not), and why aren’t they required to register for the draft (as men are)?

It may be that we live in a society in which honest discussion of this issue, relying on facts instead of volume, is not possible.

If so, our national security will fall victim to hope instead of reality.  And myths be damned.

Lieutenant General Gregory S. Newbold (USMC, Ret.) spent 32 years in the United States Marine Corps where his assignments included command of infantry units at the platoon, company, and battalion level, and also command of a Marine Expeditionary Unit of 2000 Marines. When he commanded the 15th Marine Expeditionary Unit, this force was in the vanguard of the U.S. engagement in Somalia. Newbold also served as the Commanding General of the 23,000 Marines and sailors of the First Marine Division from 1998-2000.  In his last position on active duty, he served as Director of Operations for the Joint Chiefs of Staff.  In this capacity, he coordinated the overseas deployments and operations of the 1.4 million personnel of the U.S. military from August 2000 to November 2002.

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