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.
And therein lies a solution.
The culture of our Special Operations Forces values physical toughness, but it puts its highest premium on attributes such as creative thinking and maturity. The average special operator is in his late twenties. In fact, women already serve in significant, albeit restricted capacities, among the most elite and secretive special operations communities in the Joint Special Operations Command and Central Intelligence Agency. By contrast, in an infantry battalion, women aren’t even allowed to have their names on the rolls.
If the military were to integrate elite formations such as the SEALs, Marine Special Operations and Army Special Forces, a few highly capable women in those communities would provide cultural proof that females can hang with “the toughest of the tough.”
Instead of being dropped into the less nuanced and hyper-masculine infantry culture, these women would prove their mettle operating in a more liberal and flexible special operations culture—and one with more cachet when it comes to convincing infantrymen of their tactical prowess. Once their contributions have been made and seen, some 19-year-old grunt in the 2d Marine Division will have a hard time rationalizing how he’s tougher than a female Captain whose seen active service as a Team Leader with 7th Special Forces Group.