Best Defense

We should heed the voices of the Infantry

From Antietam, Meuse-Argonne, Anzio, Okinawa, Pork Chop Hill, the Ia Drang, Falujah, and countless bloodied American battlefields before and since, ghostly voices call out to American women, “Welcome to the infantry… but beware!”

Chaplain Emil Kapaun (right) and a doctor carry an exhausted Soldier off the battlefield in Korea, early in the war. The photo shows Kapaun to the GI's left, and Capt. Jerome A. Dolan, a medical officer with the 8th Cavalry regiment, to his right. (Photo courtesy ACME)
Chaplain Emil Kapaun (right) and a doctor carry an exhausted Soldier off the battlefield in Korea, early in the war. The photo shows Kapaun to the GI's left, and Capt. Jerome A. Dolan, a medical officer with the 8th Cavalry regiment, to his right. (Photo courtesy ACME)

 

By Col. James McDonough, U.S. Army (Ret.)
Best Defense guest columnist

From Antietam, Meuse-Argonne, Anzio, Okinawa, Pork Chop Hill, the Ia Drang, Falujah, and countless bloodied American battlefields before and since, ghostly voices call out to American women, “Welcome to the infantry… but beware!” Though proud of their heritage and sacrifice, the voices know too well the hardships and horrors that come with the rough duty of direct combat. They wonder how such duty will elevate American womanhood.

“Listen,” they say, “this is not about promotions, nor equality, nor pride in individual ability to compete physically with men. This is not a gentleman’s club whose barriers you are crashing, nor a prize to be won. Infantry warfare means closing with and destroying the enemy, with all the suffering and hardship that is entailed on both sides of that conjunction.” Each from his own era can recall the falsely reassuring words: ‘It will over by Christmas.’

‘Why one of us can defeat ten of them.’ ‘They will flee in terror.’ ‘We control the air and the seas — they will be frozen in place.’ ‘It will not be that bad.’

But it has always been ‘that bad’ — and worse. The warm weather turns cold, then freezing; hands stiffen, feet get frost bitten, equipment fails at many degrees below zero, morale sags, spirits break. Mobility is nullified, the ‘lightning’ campaign becomes a drawn out slog — mud and filth cake the infantryman’s clothing, extreme fatigue becomes his natural state. There is no respite from the elements — jungles envelope, rains soak, winds howl, deserts parch, sores fester, insects bite, leeches chew, bodies smell, minds haunt. Closing with the enemy is not merely a matter of hoisting a heavy pack, passing a physical fitness test, withstanding the comparatively small stresses of pre-combat training. It is total commitment to enduring misery, discomfort, pain, exhaustion, and privation.

And then comes the combat. What does it mean, after all, to destroy the enemy? The voices know that war has not changed its nature; they do not believe that hand to hand, face to face fighting is no more — a theory so glibly stated by those who will never have to test it themselves. Close combat remains deafening explosions, desperate dashes through onslaughts of cracking bullets, screaming rockets, exploding grenades, and crushing mortars seeking to tear flesh, splinter bones, and shred organs. It is probing through minefields and booby traps designed to disembowel, the violent eruption of a close ambush, and patrolling all night to snatch a prisoner, probe a bunker complex, or steal a march. It is rushing headlong into enemy trench lines or bursting into occupied buildings, numbed indifferent by fear and adrenalin to smashed ribs, broken teeth, and concertina wire gashes. It is holding a position against heavy attack when air power, artillery support, and reinforcements are withheld for reasons known only to those above your pay grade. It is firing your weapon until your eardrums burst, tossing grenades to just the other side of the dirt mound to your front, using any means at your disposal (rifle butts, bayonets, entrenching tools, rocks, hands) to kill until there is certainty that your enemy cannot kill you back. It is living with what you have done and then doing it all over again the next day. Direct combat is savagery, gore, violence, and death — all of it up close and personal.

“Why,” the infantrymen ask of the women, “are you being drawn to this? Why does American society wish you to do this? Are there not enough men who will fight? Will your joining us increase the chances of victory or lessen the loss of life?” They will welcome women to their ranks if so ordered, support them in combat as they would any other fellow soldier. They ask only that the women carry their weight, support them in return, and do their duty — no matter what. Nonetheless, the voices wonder at the wisdom of it all. They know that close combat can brook no modified standards, offer no second chances. In truth, they regret that the gender they have been raised to cherish and protect will now share in the horror — not only those who have eagerly pursued the ‘opportunity’, but very likely those as well who would have preferred to avoid it. And they wonder how our society will look back upon this decision when the casualty lists again extend many pages and we note therein that the genders are equally represented.

James McDonough is a recipient of the Combat Infantryman’s Badge and a Purple Heart. His book, Platoon Leader is a memoir of his time in Vietnam. 

Photo courtesy of ACME/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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