Best Defense
Thomas E. Ricks' daily take on national security.

The GOP’s stance on the train tracks of history against women in the military

The GOP is still trying to put the administration's personnel policy back in the box.


By Andrew Swick
Best Defense guest columnist

Amidst the drama of the Republican convention, the nation missed the passage of a historically conservative platform, which included a call to roll back the Barack Obama administration’s policies regarding women in the military. While accusing the administration of using the military for “social experimentation,” the platform language called for exempting women “from direct ground combat units and infantry battalions” — despite the ongoing integration of women into these very units.

The Republican stance is hardly surprising. From the debut of the Department of Defense’s integration studies in 2013, Republicans voiced fierce opposition to the policy changes. When Secretary of Defense Ash Carter opened all jobs to women last December, that opposition got louder. Republicans in Congress launched a debate over requiring women to register for the draft in an attempt to polarize the issue, even naming the legislation “Draft Our Daughters” — an intentionally provocative title.

That criticism, previously unorganized and dispersed throughout the conservative political sphere, became a point of official Republican record this month with the passage of the 2016 party platform. Even as the military drives forward with plans to integrate combat roles, and even with women already entering Army infantry units and competing for Special Forces roles, the Republican party is still trying to put the administration’s personnel policy back in the box. Yet while the party’s platform specifically argues that its objections to the Obama administration’s “social experimentation” in the military are due to the effect on readiness, Republican politicians have failed to make a compelling case that the changes have had a negative affect on readiness.

While this year’s Republican platform may not reflect the positions of all Republicans — indeed, one committee member moved unsuccessfully to strike the language regarding women and combat roles — this is the official direction of the Republican party in 2016. After all, in 1999 the Republican vice presidential nominee accused the Disney movie “Mulan” of sowing liberal propaganda regarding women in combat before declaring that the integration of women into the military had been “an almost complete disaster.” While Republican vice presidential candidate Mike Pence’s opinions regarding female service may have changed since then, what he said then still found a home in the Republican party’s proposed policy. Between Pence, the fight this spring over female draft registration, and the language in this year’s platform, the GOP’s positioning is clear: The party wants to undo the work done by the DoD since December to integrate women into combat units.

In order to make the case against placing women in combat arms units, the Republican platform attempts to make a clear, reasoned argument. It says readiness must be the top priority for the military and claim the administration’s personnel actions prioritize politics over readiness. As the logic goes, women are less physiologically capable than men to perform the grueling physical tasks required of service members in combat arms roles, and therefore, admitting any women into those roles degrades the military’s readiness. Furthermore, the platform calls “for an objective review of the impact on readiness,” and promises corrective “administrative, legal, or legislative action” in response.

Such an academic, nearly scientific, argument for keeping women out of combat requires a degree of intellectual rigor from its proponents — and so far, the evidence for their case isn’t so convincing. While studies conducted by the Army and Marine Corps “found that women participating in ground combat training sustained injuries at higher rates than men,” that finding alone doesn’t equal a degradation of readiness. As Carter notes in his December memo on his decision, those same studies outline appropriate steps to “mitigate this injury rate.”  Analysis by prominent nonpartisan research groups hasn’t found a negative effect from the integration of women on military readiness either. A 1997 RAND study, published two years before Pence declared such “social experiments” a “complete disaster,” argued that the integration of women into the military — non-combat roles, at that time — had a relatively small effect on readiness, cohesion, and morale.” The report even went as far as to say that compared to other factors like a unit’s “training, operational tempo, leadership, and materiel, gender [was] not perceived as affecting readiness.”

Opponents to women in combat roles often attempt to connect the idea of readiness to negative effects on unit cohesion, oversimplifying a complicated relationship. In another RAND study, commissioned by the U.S. Marine Corps in 2013, researchers note a distinction between cohesion and task cohesion, pointing out that effective leadership and maintaining high standards helps to foster effective task cohesion in integrated units. Unit cohesion is more a measure of the unity of culture in an organization, and isn’t necessarily congruent with effectiveness. Cohesion around poor standards is certainly no contributor to readiness, and a college fraternity can be highly cohesive without coming close to combat effectiveness.

Indeed, in my conversations with current company and field-grade Army officers, both male and female leaders agree that the focus instead must be on maintaining high gender-neutral standards. The 2013 RAND study also emphasized the importance of “up-to-date, validated gender-neutral physical fitness standards for an effective, methodical integration of women into combat arms. Furthermore, these officers argued to me, commanders need to be allowed the proper authority to hold all soldiers to these standards, male and female. As long as military leaders are effectively able to enforce high standards, they will allow for more diverse and adaptive units, while upholding the readiness that Republicans rightfully deem to be so important.

Thus far in the implementation of Carter’s orders toward integrating women, the services appear to be performing their due diligence to ensure the same standards are applied to men and women in specialized schools. The introduction of women to U.S. Army Ranger School is a notable step. Following the graduation of the first two female Ranger School graduates, Jim Hathaway, the executive officer for the Ranger Training Brigade, emphatically argued that the participating women received no special treatment, and former Secretary of the Army John McHugh reinforced the idea that women were held to the same standards as men. Even fellow classmates of the first female Ranger graduates, including the class’ honor graduate, insisted that they had “met the same tough standards as the men and proved their worth.” Discussing the opening of Special Forces Assessment and Selection for two women in July, Army spokeswoman Maj. Melody Faulkenberry also emphasized the neutrality of the standards both before and during selection. She went on to argue that there would be “no requirement difference based on gender or age, and all who even apply “must pass those standards.

Despite the successes of our all-volunteer force in the past fifteen years, the force has demonstrated fragility when it needed to rapidly expand to meet challenges abroad. In particular, the Army notably lowered standards to make recruitment targets in 2006, during the height of conflict in the Iraq War. Even 10 years later, the Army still faces significant hurdles in achieving its recruitment goals. Though the Army plans on making its targets for 2016, recruiters cite problems resulting from a shrinking pool of qualified individuals and competition for talent. As one female officer pointed out to me, the military needs to cast the widest possible net for qualified soldiers. They must at least make the effort, she argued, to open all positions up to qualified women before lowering their standards to meet their recruiting goals.

In the short term, the 2013 Rand study argues there will likely be small numbers of women who will qualify and/or request to enter combat arms — at least initially. Regardless, now that women have the right to the same opportunities for jobs and advancement in the military as men, they deserve effective male and female — as SMA Dailey notes — military leadership. Women in the military demonstrate that they can help bring a diversity of thought and new ways to approach problems, along with unique capabilities, to combat units. In order to effectively integrate these characteristics while maintaining readiness, the military needs to extend its gender-neutral standards, from its elite schools to every line combat unit. Thankfully, the Department of Defense seems committed to rolling forward in the most effective way, despite Republican attempts to stop a train in motion. 

Andrew J. Swick is the Joseph S. Nye, Jr. National Security Intern with the Military, Veterans, and Society Program at the Center for a New American Security. He is a former Army infantry officer and worked as a field director on the presidential campaign of Governor John Kasich.

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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