Integrating women into combat units is an issue of leadership — and nothing else

Integrating women into combat units is an issue of leadership — and nothing else

By Jörg Muth

Best Defense guest columnist

From the point of view of a professional historian the integration of women into combat units is not surprising and it was also long overdue. Historically women have pulled their weight in all other professions that had been male dominated before. Each time such a barrier was broken and women were allowed access to such a profession the objections about the supposed descent of that profession were manifold but that decline actually never happened. The world is a better place because women now work as doctors and police officers, and the U.S. Army will reap the benefits of the decision to allow women in combat roles, maybe not now, but in a few years. Women often offer a different perspective and therefore will come up with solutions to military problems, the development of new gear and weapons systems, the solution to a conflict, that men have not thought about.

I am coming from the world of traditional martial arts and I have witnessed since I was a teenager girls and women breaking bricks or two-inch thick wooden panels with their feet or fists. For two decades now I have been teaching self-defense, boxing or Thai-Boxing classes, either mixed gender or all female and I am going to teach new classes soon. Well, this is not war, but it is close combat and full contact. To those who argue that close combat in war is different, I answer, you have never really seen a woman fight. Women possess every inch the ferocity, the courage, and the determination that men have and they have proven that long ago.

An athletic woman today would outperform physically many male soldiers who fought half a century before. New training methods and a different nutrition allow women to rise to new heights of physical performance. Still, many will not make the cut into the most elite fighting units of this world because the physical performance levels required are rarely achieved. However, they deserve to be allowed to try and those few who make it deserve to become fighting members of those units.

The all-female units of the Red Army were a painful thorn in the side of the Wehrmacht in World War II. And, yes, the captured female soldiers were often tortured and raped when caught, but it is the decision of the individual woman to make if she wants to enter such a hazardous environment and face the consequences, it is not for the males to make such a decision for her. For many women, entering combat will be as catastrophic an experience as it has been for many men. Combat is not healthy for anybody, not even the winner.

Historically, all military problems with integrated units have been leadership problems and not problems with the consistency of the unit. All services of the U.S. Armed Forces have fielded several studies to that effect since the introduction of Black men into the military and women afterwards. When female cadets today still have to fear sexual assault at an American military academy, this is a leadership problem. When a female soldier needs to find the single capable old senior NCO in a unit to believe her that she was touched improperly by her superior, this is a leadership problem. When a female soldier does have to fear not the enemy but fellow soldiers, this is a leadership problem.

A good leader will be able to make any unit an outstanding fighting unit that consists of people of different ethnicities, genders, and sexual orientations. A bad leader will not be able to integrate Mormons with Mormons, or Texans with Texans.

It is now the job of the heads of the U.S. Armed Forces to make sure these outstanding leaders are selected, educated, and promoted, because the present system has proven to be insufficient. The current command culture needs an adjustment and the bar has to be set higher for leaders and that is good for soldiers of any gender. Women will not fail in a combat role, but their senior leadership might fail them if they don’t make sure that they get the officers they deserve.

Jörg Muth, Ph.D.,  a lifelong student of military history, is the author of Command Culture: Officer Education in the U.S. Army and the German Armed Forces, 1901-1940, and the Consequences for World War II,  which was  placed by the Army chief of staff, General Raymond T. Odierno, on his professional reading list. In addition, the commandant of the U.S. Marine Corps, General James F. Amos, made Command Culture required reading for all senior enlisted men and all intermediate officer ranks of the Marine Corps.