Best Defense

Women in Ranger School Is Fine, but Women in Infantry Isn’t. Here’s Why.

We were treated last month to a historic event — two females passed Ranger School and were Tabbed.

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By Col. Keith Nightingale, U.S. Army (Ret.)
Best Defense guest columnist

We were treated last month to a historic event — two females passed Ranger School and were Tabbed. This was accomplished apparently with no change to the existing and previously all-male standards of physical and operational performance. As a past commander of the Ranger Training Brigade as well as a Regimental Ranger battalion, I pass on a heartfelt well done and congratulations! You have achieved a level of personal proficiency half of your male counterparts have not. May others continue to try.

But this does not signify that you (females) should now be granted access to the Ranger Regiment or combat Infantry squads. To that, I offer a polite but firm “No.” These are two entirely separate and generally unrelated propositions.

Ranger School is first and foremost, an individual leadership school. It uses Infantry-type scenarios to achieve its purpose — but it’s all about the individual, not the unit. Patrols, squads and platoons do not get pass or fail grades — the individuals leading those elements do. The school has historically been open to all branches of the Army and other Services who can pass the entrance standards. This is recognition that leadership is required in all organizations, and nothing makes a leader better than the Ranger experience. Among the many branches, Chaplains, Doctors, Marines, Seals, Ordnance Corps, Quartermasters, and Signal personnel all have won the Tab and made them and their units much better for it.

There is a clamor to allow females now to achieve entrance into Infantry units having “proved themselves” at Ranger School. Women have proven themselves in combat, have been killed and wounded in combat. Yes. Women routinely accompany Infantry units as part of the Cultural Support elements and have proven they can take it. Yes. It’s not “fair” not to make Infantry units accessible to qualified (TBD) females. No. The author is a troglodyte that will never get it. Maybe, but I doubt it. The squad and its dynamics ought to be the first priority versus its gender composition.

We need to focus on the real, foundational issue which is the Squad, not the Service. The clamor is that females should be allowed in the Infantry. The terms Infantry and Army are broad, large entities. The truth is that it is ultimately the Infantry squad we are talking about. The American Infantry squad is a unique blend and creation that falls somewhere between God and the American culture in its establishment. The Marines and the Army fight Infantry squads as their primary tools of war despite the gross size of their whole. In every war we have had and that we will ever fight, the issue has and will be decided by the quality of the squads. They and they alone will determine both the outcome and the quality of the effort. The squad is where both the greatest risk and the greatest promise reside. Each squad is unique to itself and reflects the distillation of its contents.

Squads are composed of a mix of our society that never met before their assignment but never really leave each other. They live, endure, and control on the very cutting edge of our national military policy. They willingly give up the expected niceties of life in order to exist within their small entity and to perform at the highest level each can achieve as part of their whole. They fight, exist, and die for each other — nothing else. There is a special bonding that takes place within these elements that transcends all other motivations and human urgings. The allegiances endure for a lifetime and cannot be broken — often to the chagrin of family and friends. The members act as if nails on a magnet — they coalesce as a whole even though they are individual parts. Creating separate emotions and dividing the human glue to this element carries great peril for the membership.

The inclusion of a different sex within this delicate structure begs its destruction through no instrument other than human nature. Inevitably Jack and Jill will respond to what nature provided as a deep lodestone within us all. That response will be a cancer on the others and in a difficult perilous moment, Jack or Jill will lose the focus on the whole in favor of the part.

Concurrently, the remainder of the unit will silently note the new association and what composes the combat glue will partially dissolve and weaken the whole. Is inclusion worth this? Do we want to create a risk where we will bear no personal responsibility but take satisfaction in a good deed done from a distance?

Well, females will only be in some, not all squads, simply because of qualified numbers. Are some squads less valuable than others? Should we put some at risk to achieve a perceived greater purpose for the whole?

Criticism will come from people who template on themselves and confidently state it wouldn’t happen to them or others. But they are not 18 and don’t come from X America — where all the normal actions of human nature and lack of constraints abound. They aren’t likely members of their model squad and are probably unqualified for a variety of reasons ranging from age to interest.

Wherever we have integrated genders in the Services, we have had concomitant problems associated with sex — normal, abnormal, and illegal. This is both unfortunate and perfectly predictable. It simply can’t be prevented by directive, training, or education. Why would this be nonexistent in a squad — the least supervised element in combat?

Much has been made as to the inherent physical weaknesses of females compared to males and the dangers that creates for the unit. We know now from Ranger School that there exist American females that can match and exceed existing male standards. But, they cannot resist that which makes us two rather than one sex. Boiled to the nub, that is the issue.

Females enjoy access to virtually all elements of the military short of Infantry. But it is the infantry that is our primordial and ultimate tool of battlefield success or failure. Everyone — regardless of rank, position, or responsibility ultimately depends upon the qualities of a small group of teenagers and 20-somethings to do what only they can do. How important or beneficial is it to ignore what we have in favor of what we might like it to be?

Col. (Ret.) Keith Nightingale commanded four infantry companies, three battalions, and two brigades. These units included two tours in Vietnam, the Grenada invasion, and several classified counterterrorist operations including the Iran rescue attempt. He was a founding member of the 1-75th Rangers as well as one of the original members of what is now Joint Special Operations Command and U.S. Special Operations Command. Col. (Ret.) Nightingale has written numerous articles regarding the Infantry in both Vietnam and the Desert Wars. He is a member of the Ranger Hall of Fame.   

Ed.: This article has been updated.

Photo credit: Wikimedia Commons

Thomas E. Ricks covered the U.S. military from 1991 to 2008 for the Wall Street Journal and then the Washington Post. He can be reached at ricksblogcomment@gmail.com.

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