Best Defense

Yes, alpha males can lean in

Cadets at the United States Military Academy recently celebrated their “branch night” — a time-honored tradition during which first-class (senior) cadets find out what their specific job in the Army will be. Their branches range from combat arms, such as infantry and armor, to support, such as military intelligence, logistics, and cyber.

Florida Army, Air Force National Guard kick off Thanksgiving with 'Turkey Bowl'

By Maj. Adam Scher
Best Defense guest columnist

Cadets at the United States Military Academy recently celebrated their “branch night” — a time-honored tradition during which first-class (senior) cadets find out what their specific job in the Army will be. Their branches range from combat arms, such as infantry and armor, to support, such as military intelligence, logistics, and cyber.

As I sat in the audience and listened to Senior Academy leaders, explain to the Class of 2016 that Army soldiers await their leadership, and that America’s sons and daughters deserve the very best this Academy has to offer, I found myself thinking about Carol Costello’s recent op-ed in which she questioned the ability of male military leaders to “lean in” based on her experience at a forum on gender issues at the United States Air Force Academy.

While it is clear much work still needs to be done, and while I am dismayed by the experience Costello had at the Air Force Academy, I believe she answered her own question when she described the actions of a male cadet leader in charge of the event. “I’m pissed,” he said sternly. “We can hold each other accountable and love one another… and treat the people who take their time to come (here), to care about us, or we can try to get our friends to laugh at us for 10 minutes. The choice is ours. You’re dismissed.”

While this young man’s actions prove that so-called alpha males can indeed lean in, it is not enough — there are many alpha males who have already done so.  The real question our academics, journalists, military and civilian leaders should be asking is “How do we get more alpha males to lean-in, and how do we get them to reject the behaviors of their peers who don’t?”

The recent branch night was most likely the last time at West Point where the female cadets will be denied the coveted insignia of the infantry and armor branches. The combat exclusion policy that has prevented women from serving in these combat arms branches will expire in January 2016, which means that West Point will be sending cadets from the Class of 2017 into an Army integrated at all levels, an Army that requires all officers, both male and female, to lean-in and understand the challenges that young women will face as they enter the armor and infantry branches for the first time.

West Point is already preparing these future leaders for the organizational changes they will experience in the Army while they are still in the classroom.  For example, I have the honor and privilege to teach a class in the Department of Social Sciences entitled, “The Politics of Race, Gender, and Sexuality.”  I am also lucky enough to co-teach this course with Dr. Rachel Yon, a civilian professor and fellow member of the Social Sciences Department.  She and I use the classroom to help cadets learn about the systemic challenges of race, gender, and sexuality in society, within government, and throughout the Army.  We focus on the inherent inequalities found within the structures, rules, and processes of the American political system. The course also serves as an introduction to the theoretical concepts of post-modernism, including feminist theory and critical race theory. These concepts help cadets understand and explore the complex modern-day relationships between people and the historical policies that have created the environment they experience today. Finally, the class considers how the contemporary issues that relate to race, gender, and sexuality apply to the Army.

Dr. Yon and I believe it is vitally important to help the young women in our class identify the situations they experience, and that it is equally important to expose alpha males to their role in their female counterparts’ identity and understanding.  The class is not designed to punish or privilege.  It is part of a holistic liberal arts education that is meant to do all the things Costello and others have asked us to do: convince men and women in uniform that their service to the Army and to the nation as commissioned leaders of character requires all of us to recognize and dismantle barriers we have created to prevent women and other minorities from finding success within our Armed Forces.

When I commissioned as an infantry officer in 2004, many believed that infantry would forever be closed to females. As I too continue to develop as an officer, I am inspired by senior leaders at West Point, who help ensure the Academy is a leadership laboratory where alpha males and alpha females are trained together and held to the same standard. I am equally inspired by the male cadet that had the courage to chastise his classmates for their inappropriate behavior, and by the young men and women in my classroom who have the courage to answer Costello’s question and the numerous questions of other skeptics, in and out of uniform, with a loud and thunderous “We Can and we will!”

Major Adam Scher is an Assistant Professor of American Politics in the Department of Social Sciences at the United States Military Academy and has worked with inter-collegiate policy debate for seven years. He graduated from West Point in 2004, and Columbia University’s School of International and Public Affairs in 2013. Adam deployed to Iraq from 2005-2006 and again from 2007-2008 with the 101st Airborne Division. He commanded a Stryker company in Kandahar, Afghanistan from 2010-2011.  In 2015, he deployed with the 82nd Airborne Division to Baghdad, Iraq in support of Operation Inherent Resolve serving as the Iraqi Security Forces Development Officer.  

The views expressed herein are those of the author and do not reflect the position of the United States Military Academy, the Department of the Army, or the Department of Defense.

Photo credit: U.S. Department of Defense

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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