Last month, three women became the first of their sex to graduate from the Marine Corps’ famously grueling Advanced Infantry Training Course. The Marine Corps was asking a simple question by running small groups through these courses in experimental test batches, two to five women at a time: Can the female body withstand the rigors of infantry training? The answer, these women showed, is that it can.
So far much of the debate surrounding integration has focused on the physical capabilities of women, as if this were the singular issue. Admittedly the strain of infantry training, or even combat, is relatively easier for a 6-foot tall, 180-pound man, but there are women fit enough to survive these punishing courses. As for combat, well, if we’ve proved anything over the last decade of war, it’s that women can sustain its rigors.
So if the barrier to integrating women into the infantry isn’t a physical one then what is it?
It’s cultural. And that’s why the infantry may not be the best place to start in military gender integration. Instead, as counterintuitive as it might sound, the military should begin with its Special Operations Forces: elite units such as the Green Berets and SEALs. Although not the obvious move, starting here would likely make for a smoother transition over all.
The infantry, our nation’s foot soldiers, exist in a hyper-masculine culture, awash with 19-year old riflemen, “grunts” as they call themselves. For what the infantry does—combat at close quarters—that type of hyper-masculinity works. It creates an unshakable determination to accomplish the mission and to protect your friends. When fighting house-to-house in Fallujah, or valley-to-valley in Kunar Province, technology counts for very little. Culture counts for everything. That doesn’t mean it can’t be altered to accept women, but it will be different. Not better, not worse, but different.
So how do you responsibly alter the culture so women are accepted and the force remains effective?
The solution currently being proposed is to conduct these test cases and then, based on the results, add a small number of women to a 140,000-man infantry force in the Army, Marine Corps, and National Guard while leaving our much smaller 8,500-man force of special operators all male for the foreseeable future. This would drop a very small number of female infantrymen and infantry officers into a culture they’d be too small to affect, putting them at an enormous disadvantage.
The women who pass through the Marine Corps Infantry Officer Course or the Army Ranger School are going to be pretty tough—they’ll have to be. The problem won’t be them. The problem will be convincing the 19-year-old grunts to accept their presence. Grunts are trained to believe they’re the toughest thing wearing two combat boots, a conviction that helps them withstand the brutality that is the very essence of their job. But most will concede there is one thing tougher than them: the special operator.