Changing culture takes time.

It took the US infantry fifty-five years and thousands of deaths to abandon the idea of trench warfare. It took the US cavalry twenty-five years to accept that armored tanks were better than horses against a machine gun. It took the US Supreme Court almost sixty years to decide that “separate but equal” was anything but equal and black Americans should attend school alongside white ones. It took America more than 130 years to declare that men and women should have equal voting rights. Just because policies take time and adjustments to “get it right” does not mean that they should be abandoned altogether. Women serving in combat roles is no exception: implementation and standards should be addressed, but the policy aim is right.

Last month, Heather Mac Donald’s Wall Street Journal op-ed argued that “women don’t belong in combat units.” In it, Mac Donald makes four main claims: first, that women are physiologically incapable of handling combat; second, that women cannot meet physical standards; next, that the “inevitable introduction of eros” will erode unit cohesion; and, finally, that military policies should only be made to improve combat effectiveness. While I agree with many of her premises and beliefs, I disagree with her conclusion. The US military’s combat arms branches do not need to ban women. They need to fix their standards problem.

Stress and Injuries

Mac Donald is correct in asserting that men’s and women’s bodies are different. We are physiologically different and, on average, a man’s body can handle more weight and physical hardship than a woman’s. But an average is no reason to categorically ban a population. Most average Americans cannot meet the basic eligibility standards to join the military; applying Mac Donald’s logic to that fact and ceasing to allow any Americans into the armed services more clearly demonstrates her logic’s absurdity. That’s why standards are applied individually; if an individual can meet the qualifying standard, he or she should be permitted to do the job.

I am slimmer and slighter than most of my infantry peers, a problem many female infantry aspirants also face. Upon commissioning, I weighed 155 pounds; I soon tore my shoulder labrum while grappling in training with soldiers thirty to seventy pounds heavier. I didn’t have time for surgery, so I carried on and went to Infantry Basic Officer Leader Course, where I gritted my teeth through a collapsed arch in my foot. Pressing forward, I went to Ranger School, which I flunked after contracting pneumonia. As soon as I was medically cleared to start walking, I ran to Airborne School before eventually returning to complete Ranger School. Years later, I assumed company command with Achilles tendinitis and a partially torn bicep, but I did not let that stop me from leading my company on runs, on ruck marches, and in combat training.

Physical injuries are part of the job, part of pushing and trying to meet a standard. One of the Army sayings I hate most is, “You gotta break a few eggs to make an omelet.” But it rings true in the sense that combat (and training for combat) produces injuries. Some people, regardless of gender, handle the strain of combat and training better than others.

And yes, as she points out, medical bills for combat-battered bodies are expensive. God forbid she ever sees the medical bills for my platoon sergeant, who nearly lost both his legs in an IED blast, or those of double-amputee Capt. Nick Vogt, or the cost of treating Lance Corp. Kyle Carpenter’s shattered arm, face, and brain. For all those willing to lay down their lives and batter their bodies in combat to support and defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign and domestic, we should be grateful to pay those bills.

Physical Standards

Once again, I agree with Mac Donald’s argument that physical standards should be the same across the board. We are not alone in that sentiment. But, again, this is a standards problem—not a women-in-combat-arms problem.

Though I agree with Mac Donald’s premise—that physical standards should be the same across the board—there is a problem with her argument. “Gender neutral” requirements are actually the gold standard in combat-focused training, not a punchline to be mocked. What gender-neutral Army standards exist were not created to qualify more women, as Mac Donald claims; they were designed to ensure that standards were not lowered just to qualify more women. Ranger School, for instance, is one of the few places in the Army that has always had single, and thus gender-neutral, standards—because there, the standards are tied to combat tasks, not arbitrary age- or gender-based goals.

Mac Donald points out that only two out of thirty-six women have passed Marine infantry officer training. Similarly, only three out of the first nineteen women to attempt Ranger School passed. To me, this demonstrates that gender-neutral standards work. If Mac Donald’s sky-is-falling claims were true, thirty-six Marine females and nineteen female Rangers would have passed due to diluted standards. Instead, the opposite is true. At times, male Navy SEAL candidates have faced 20-percent pass rates at their initial training; it is not unusual for more than half of an all-male Ranger School class to fail the initial physical fitness assessment, and some classes have seen pass rates drop as low as 35 percent; all-male Army Special Forces training consistently hovers around a 30-percent pass rate. We don’t ban men from those programs because of their low pass rates; we point to them as evidence that the standards work to separate qualified men from unqualified ones.

Where Mac Donald does have a valid point is that female combat recruits should have to “meet the same physical standards as men.” But I propose changing that statement to read: “all combat soldiers should have to meet the same physical standards.” My—and many others’—frustration with the current physical fitness standards is the arbitrary nature of age- or gender-specific scales. Under current fitness standards based on age and gender, my thirty-seven-year-old former platoon sergeant must run two miles in 18:18 to pass with the minimum sixty points. But if one of our twenty-year-old privates were to take that long, he would score only twenty-seven points and fail. Yet we were all expected to carry the same weapons, perform the same tasks, and go on the same patrols in Afghanistan. And yes, the current physical fitness standards for women are even more skewed than for old men.

The current standards for anyone to enter combat arms are not sufficient. I once had a male soldier, fresh out of all-male infantry basic training, fall out of a ruck march after less than a quarter mile with only thirty-five pounds of weight on his back—thirty-five pounds which the Platoon then had to carry for the next eight miles. I also led a company ruck march where two male soldiers fainted and one male noncommissioned officer outright quit, while one female soldier refused to stop walking even as she wheezed through an asthma attack. While serving in the Army’s only air assault division, I had a young male soldier repeatedly fail to meet the basic gender-neutral physical standards required to attend Air Assault School. These soldiers’ genders did not help or hurt our unit; their fitness, fortitude, and abilities—or lack thereof—did. The solution to these problems is to create appropriate, realistic, age- and gender-neutral standards for combat arms—not to ban any entire demographic group because there is a weak standard in place.

Hormones and Eros and Sex, Oh My!

I appreciate Mac Donald not reiterating my favorite line of ridiculous argument—that male soldiers can’t stop themselves from sexually assaulting female soldiers. But this “hormonally charged” argument isn’t much better.

I particularly enjoy Mac Donald’s pearl clutching over male Marines doing a handstand around females. Oh the horror! I can only imagine how much Mac Donald would have blushed had she seen my all-male squad’s frolicking “dance off”—with handstands galore—in the barracks after a tough, muddy, stressful week of infantry training.

But seriously, will there be inappropriate fraternization like sexual liaisons, rivalries, and breakups that undermine team bonding? Undoubtedly. I took over my current company as it was recovering from the aftershock of a consensual, male/female, NCO/soldier sexual relationship. It was handled according to Army Regulations and the Uniform Code of Military Justice—the standard—and the company moved on, learning and rebuilding trust as we went.

As some of Mac Donald’s points illustrate, there is also a disturbing power imbalance present in most sexual liaisons that make consent difficult to determine. I was serving as a young platoon leader at Fort Campbell when accusations arose of a male squad leader who was repeatedly using his rank to coerce numerous subordinate soldiers into sexual liaisons in his all-male unit during a combat deployment. The fallout stemming from that situation certainly harmed their fighting force. This is nothing new; problems arising from power imbalances, sexual liaisons, rivalries, and breakups have been present in militaries for millennia—long before women joined the combat arms.

As a commander, my concern with fraternization is not solely about sex; that issue is just one part of a larger problem across the Army. During my time in command, I’ve also been surprised and concerned to find young team leaders on a first-name basis with their senior platoon sergeants. It’s almost a weekly battle of whack-a-mole to chase down stories of squad leaders and NCOs throwing weekend parties for their favorite junior soldiers. What some call bonding and “guy stuff,” the Army prohibits in Army Regulation 600-20 as “undue familiarity.” A junior soldier who spends time hanging out with, drinking with, and doing God-knows-what with a senior NCO with whom he is on a first-name basis is every bit as damaging as a sexual liaison to building esprit de corps in a unified fighting force. Once again, the problem isn’t women; it’s failing to meet the standard.

I absolutely expect my male soldiers not to sexually assault or have inappropriate relations with female soldiers; that doesn’t mean we should ban female soldiers from combat units. I also expect my soldiers not to beat their spouses or drive drunk; does that mean we should ban marriage or driving in combat units? Of course not. It just means we need to do a better job enforcing standards and discipline.

Policy Aims

Once again, I concur—this time without qualification—with Mac Donald’s argument about the aims of military policies. Women’s promotion potential should not be a reason to adjust combat policies; promoting a social agenda should not be a factor; catering to a political lobby should not be a reason. Policies should never be aimed at reaching a quota or making a press release. Military policies should only be developed for one purpose: fighting and winning our nation’s wars.

This is why I believe that the right women should continue to serve in combat arms roles under age- and gender-neutral, combat-focused standards.

I wish I had had a female soldier with me in Afghanistan when an Afghan woman approached me begging for help. Armed males menacingly gathered around to heckle and began physically harassing her for talking to me; I tried to help, but the more I tried, the worse it got. After we left, I never saw that woman again; I’m still haunted by what may have happened to her. If I had had a female soldier with me, that situation might have ended very differently.

Are there females in my company who are overweight or cannot pass a fitness test or do a buddy drag or complete a ruck march or finish an obstacle course? Yes, unfortunately. Are there also males in my company who are overweight or cannot do these things? Yes, unfortunately. Is that a problem? Absolutely. But there are also several stars—of both genders—that pull more than their fair share of the weight. Though we encounter myriad obstacles, my first sergeant and I work ceaselessly to train and improve the soldiers that cannot meet the standard and dismiss the soldiers from the Army if they are ultimately unable to do so.

Women can and do bring different skills and perspectives to the table and often approach problems differently. Some women have proven themselves able to demonstrate leadership and articulate new ideas better than some of their male counterparts. Women like Capt. Shaye Haver or Capt. Kris Griest, the first two female Ranger School graduates; or my female executive officer, my highly competent second-in-command; or Rezagul, the Afghan woman who killed twenty-five Taliban fighters; or any of the Army women’s rugby players—any of these would undoubtedly make any infantry unit better, stronger, and more lethal. Are they “average” women? No. But they can meet the standard; why ban them from doing so?

Changing a culture is never without headache or heartache. Racial integration of the Army was not easy, either—it had more than its fair share of stutters and missteps, from social isolation to all-black units to segregated facilities. But flawed standards and imperfect implementation are not good reasons to scrap worthy policies. We should not penalize a capable and competent minority of women because the majority may not be qualified to serve in combat arms units; instead, let’s fix the real problem so that all of our combat forces adhere to a higher standard.

 

Capt. Micah Ables is currently deployed with the 1st Cavalry Division as the commander of one of the Army’s first and, currently, only four mixed-gender mechanized infantry companies. He previously served as a platoon leader and executive officer in an all-male heavy weapons company with the 101st Airborne Division during a deployment to Afghanistan. He is a graduate of Ranger, Airborne, and Air Assault schools. The views expressed are those of the author and do not reflect the official position of the United States Military Academy, Department of the Army, or Department of Defense.

 

Image credit: Sgt. 1st Class Jason Kriess, US Army National Guard