The American Interest
Policy, Politics & Culture
Women in Ground Combat
Published on January 28, 2013

Two decades ago, the Commandant of the Marine Corps declared that women serving in the infantry “would destroy the Marine Corps.” General Robert Barrow explained that, “in three wars—World War II, Korea and Vietnam—I found no place for women to be down in the ground combat element.” He cited the 1950 fighting retreat from the Chosin Reservoir in temperatures of minus 20 degrees, with one Marine division pitted against eight Chinese divisions. Had women comprised 15 percent of his division, Barrow concluded, the Marines would have lost the battle. 

“The very nature of women disqualifies them from doing it (killing so brutally),” Barrow said. “Women give life sustain life, nurture life; they don’t take it.”

To Barrow, a warrior admired by three generations of grunts, ground combat meant killing under the harshest of circumstances. Barrow opposed the incorporation of women into infantry units characterized by primal instincts: sleeping, defecating, eating and smelling like wolf packs while hunting down and slaughtering male soldiers.

Now the military has decided to open up ground combat billets to females. “If they can meet the qualifications for the job,” Secretary of Defense Panetta said, “then they should have the right to serve.”

The Marine Corps has proudly fought our country’s battles for 247 years. Yet in the course of a mere twenty years it has pivoted from General Barrow’s firm belief that women were disqualified by reason of gender to insisting that qualifications have nothing to do with gender. How could the Marine Corps—and the Army—pivot so fundamentally in so short a time? Why was this “the right thing to do”? When did the right of the individual take precedence over the duty to provide for the common defense?

There are two alternative explanations: the “true believer” and the “politician.” Our generals may truly believe that women are genuinely qualified in substantial numbers—say, 5–15 percent of the combat arms billets. Although the Chiefs have said they will not relax standards, they have bound themselves to a self-fulfilling prophecy. Having declared that women are capable of serving in the infantry, they must now deliver on that promise.

Forebodingly, General Dempsey, the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs, has said,  “If we do decide that a particular standard is so high that a woman couldn’t make it, the burden is now on the service to come back and explain to the Secretary, why is it that high?” In other words, standards will be determined by politically appointed civilian officials. Inevitably, entry standards will slip. That the Chairman has made a virtue of this error is disappointing.

One could argue that a decade of war has established ample precedent for the female in combat. In Iraq and Afghanistan, our generals had changed the mission of the infantry, declaring that, “Soldiers and Marines are expected to be nation-builders as well as warriors.” That led to arduous restrictions on fire support and to zany statements like, “you can’t win a war by killing.” A Marine Corps deployed as a Peace Corps could accommodate females at all ranks, as well as civilian aid workers and visiting Congressmen.

Female soldiers were taken under fire or struck mines while riding in armored vehicles. But taking such risks was not ground combat. Iraq and Afghanistan led to the misleading image that in war there are bases with showers and good food, air-conditioned quarters and moderate rather than stunning casualties. Females did operate very capably in that environment at every level.

Once out on lengthy patrols, however, the environment shifted. Over the past ten years, I have accompanied our grunts on countless combat patrols in cities, mountains and farmlands in Iraq and Afghanistan. I saw the same sticky blood, stinking feces, screaming and wailing, IEDs and tourniquets, smashed vehicles and crumpled bodies that I saw in the paddies and jungles of Vietnam. Ground combat has become no cleaner and no less exhausting.

If you’re a grunt, you go forth to kill. That is your mission. You are uncivilized—a gorilla set loose inside Tiffany’s with a hundred-pound sledgehammer. You are an animal running with a pack on the hunt. Such small-group effectiveness cannot be measured by enlistment standards or during peacetime training. The performance that counts emerges during battle, when the pack has to aggressively close with and kill the enemy.

Once you insert women into these male hunting packs, you introduce the complex dynamics between the sexes. In close, primitive quarters with no privacy, there will be instances of friction, copulation, over-protectiveness, jealousies, miscommunications and resentments. There is a tradeoff between increasing the career opportunity of the individual female soldier and decreasing the net performance of the pack. But in peacetime, evaluating small-unit effectiveness tends to be moot; each platoon argues that it is the best. So the Services could alter the gender composition with no observable degradation—until the next war.

In contrast to the “true believer”, the “politician” explanation is that the Joint Chiefs of Staff felt they had to preempt the Administration before it imposed even stricter “gender-neutral” regulations. Admitting gays had been a major issue among liberal advocacy groups. With the support of the President and the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs, Congress passed legislation more than a year ago to permit gays to join the military. In comparison, no major women’s advocacy group has lobbied to fight in the mud and the blood. Nor had women suddenly become stronger, faster or more attracted to killing. The military had more male recruits for the combat arms than were needed. Still, we have no information about discussions between the Joint Chiefs and political appointees.

As politicians, the Chiefs may have offered a token gesture, confident that the number of women actually qualifying will be tiny—say, less than one percent. There are women with Olympic-standard physical, mental and psychological attributes who could lead a SEAL or Army Delta team. But they are as rare as Olympic athletes. In a ground combat force numbering in the hundreds of thousands, such women will remain very rare—perhaps less than 2 percent.  If the services do keep their current standards, then the Joint Chiefs have mollified the liberal community by a press release, with scant practical consequence.

However, if women in ground combat billets gradually increase to 15% (the overall percentage of women in the military), then General Barrow’s warning about defeat in battle is portentous. We will be defeated.

The Chiefs did not choose between the real and the token change. It all comes down to unknown numbers. You can read the opaque statements by the generals in two mutually exclusive ways: 1) substantially more females (10–15 percent) will fill ground combat billets; or 2) very few females (1–2 percent) will ever qualify. However, General Dempsey made clear that the Chiefs have passed their stewardship of standards to political appointees, guaranteeing lower standards over time. Nor did the Chiefs recommend that women register for the draft and, in an emergency, be forced by law to serve in the combat arms, as is required of men. Instead, the Services went with the political flow, endorsing equality of opportunity but inequality of obligation.

In sum, the Joint Chiefs have taken a clear long-term risk for an unclear near-term political gain, perhaps hoping to diminish budgetary cuts. The question is whether increasing the individual rights of the female soldier decreases the combined combat effectiveness of the killing pack. We won’t know the answer until we fight a hard ground war sometime in the future.

Bing West, a former Assistant Secretary of Defense and combat marine, has written seven books about combat, including Into the Fire: a Firsthand Account of the Most Extraordinary Battle of the Afghanistan War.