Best Defense

Thomas E. Ricks' daily take on national security.

It’s not ‘a man, man’s world’ and neither is war: Gender integration in the Infantry

James Brown (and Cher) were wrong. It is neither a man’s nor a woman’s world. The same goes for war.

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By Maj. John Spencer, U.S. Army

Best Defense guest gender columnist


By Maj. John Spencer, U.S. Army
Best Defense guest gender columnist

James Brown (and Cher) were wrong. It is neither a man’s nor a woman’s world. The same goes for war. It remains a human endeavor, an uncertain contest of wills that requires constant development of skilled warriors that thrive in the chaos of battle. The tip of the U.S. Army’s spear — the infantry — is currently closed to women and the Army is within weeks of making a final decision on opening it, or not. At a time of changing global security environment, persistent conflict, and reduced defense spending (i.e. troop reductions), I believe opening the infantry to women will drastically improve our ability to fight effectively, especially in the kind of wars fought amongst the people and against the non-state enemies we currently face.

Here’s why: An infantry unit is a package of capabilities to achieve a designed purpose. The design of an infantry unit accounts for the capabilities, distribution, and redundancy of men, weapons, and equipment to ensure the unit can perform its primal doctrine of fire and maneuver, present multiple dilemmas to the enemy, and maintain flexibility to adapt in combat.  Infantry units have more or less remained unchanged since World War II.

The Army has been asked to become leaner, more lethal, agile, and adaptable while growing in capabilities, which is why we should open the door to women in front line combat units.

I’ve served 22 years as an infantryman. I executed over 100 combat missions to kill or capture terrorists and insurgents during my two tours of combat in Iraq. Without a female soldier in my formation, I believe we were less capable. During these combat missions, we often missed our target for multiple reasons — he escaped, wasn’t home, or we had bad intelligence and were at the wrong house (often just off by one).  A common practice during our missions was to immediately separate male Iraqis from females.  We would quickly question and search the males. But we had no capability of searching or questioning (although that didn’t stop us from asking) the female group in a timely manner.

For example, one incident that sticks in my mind is a mission we conducted in Iraq to capture an insurgent leader. After aggressively surrounding and forcibly entering his home, we were surprised to find no males present. Rather we found 10 screaming females ranging from five to 60 years old. After managing to collect them into a single area, we only managed to calm them by not looking at or talking to them. If we (or our male interpreter) approached them the wailing started up again.  We left the house with very little to show for it. We later discovered the insurgent we were after was spending the night at his uncle’s house two doors down. Variations of this repeated multiple times throughout my deployments.

The Army attempted to address the lack of female soldiers by adopting a Marine Corps model of female engagement teams. These women were oriented at building relationships with the host nation female populations, not conducting close combat missions as members of an infantry unit. A few units even adapted by requesting female soldiers be attached to their units.  But despite 14 years of war, the thought remains an infantry unit only needs males.

The need for females in the infantry goes beyond their usefulness in real-time intelligence gathering.

The mental requirements of the infantry solider in combat are much more than the past. The speed of operations, amount of information inputs, decentralized authority, and autonomy provided to infantrymen on the front lines is unlike anything in our past.  So much so was this observed change in decentralization of decisions to lower and lower levels in combat that the military adopted a new command philosophy called mission command. To put it bluntly, combat requires decision making in chaos — males don’t have a market on decision making.

There is no shortage of scientific research that shows what anyone married knows well — women think differently than men.  In the worldwide bestselling book, BrainSex: The Real Difference Between Men and Women, for instance, the authors translate years of scientific research to show among other things, women and men brains process information, perceive events, and respond to stress differently. Pushing the point even further, a 2013 study out of the University of Pennsylvania and detailed in the journal “Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences” showed men and women brains are simply wired differently — meaning their brain’s networks of connections routinely access different hemispheres. The research findings suggest the male brains may be optimized for motor skills, and female brains may be optimized for combining analytical and intuitive thinking.

The growth of complexity we ask frontline soldiers to operate in, information inputs we feed soldiers, and speed of operations will only continue. Constraining ourselves to the mental abilities of one gender only constrains the growth of our capabilities.

As enemies like ISIS mount and the prospect of deploying forces to fight such groups rises, I want the most capable infantry formation America can develop.  I believe adding women to infantry will improve it.

Major John Spencer, a U.S. Army Infantryman, has held the ranks of private to sergeant first class, and lieutenant to major while serving in ranger, airborne, light, and mechanized infantry units.  He’s served in assignments from Panama to the Pentagon and Italy to Washington State. He served as an infantry platoon leader and company commander in combat during two tours in Iraq.  The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not reflect the official policy or position of the Department of the Army, Department of Defense, or the U.S. Government.

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 Twitter: @tomricks1

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