Un-gendering service

  • Published
  • By Gene Kamena
  • Air War College faculty
Any commentary offered by a man to women regarding their military service is suspect. A commentary by a retired infantryman written expressly for women who desire to serve in the infantry or any direct combat position is very suspect.

My sergeant once admonished, "Sir, talk about only what you know." Thirty years in the infantry, two wars, multiple deployments and time to reflect strengthens my thoughts and my desire to "talk about what I know." My motives are pure, but, reader, beware, this work may fall outside of the restricting boundaries of political correctness. That is OK - in the infantry, talk is plain and direct.

Wrong lessons

Our recent wars in Iraq and Afghanistan will define, for this and the next generation, perceptions of what combat is and what it is not. For the most part, the term "frontline" in Iraq and much of Afghanistan had little meaning. There were and are noted exceptions. Battles of Najaf, Fallujah and the fighting in mountains of Afghanistan offer glimpses into a world reserved for infantrymen. Moreover, after the initial assault into each theater of operation, the frontline devolved into the front gate of one's forward operating base. Once outside the relative safety of the FOB, all were equally vulnerable to attack.

We must take care not to carry our current view of combat with us into the next war. No one knows what the future holds, and the next fight might not be a counterinsurgency fight among the people. Extended periods of time in remote areas under harsh conditions are the standards against which frontline troops must train.

Women certainly did their part and did it well. On today's counter-insurgency battlefield, women are killed, wounded and taken prisoner alongside their brothers-in-arms. More than that, women made significant contributions to the overall mission.

No one questions, least of all this author, their intelligence, bravery and patriotism. I have seen what women can do in combat and respect their abilities. Nevertheless, service rendered by women in Iraq and Afghanistan, exceptional as is was and is, does not equate to being in the infantry.

Our enemies do not care

Our current and future enemies might find it interesting that we, as a nation, believe in diversity and act on it, but they really do not care. For them it is all about winning and losing. So should it be with us. Whatever actions we undertake, the outcome must be a better force, more capable and deadlier. The purpose of the military is to protect our nation's interests, deter our enemies and if need be, fight and win our nation's wars. My experience informs me that diversity has a place in making the force better, but diversity must never become the single measure of merit or the ultimate objective.

Enforce standards, not gender barriers

Present-day standards for entry into the infantry work, but we must guard against the temptation to wield standards as gender barriers. The physical requirements for an infantryman are merely the price of admission, and battle always exacts a higher payment. The women with whom I served would not want the standards diluted. They would want to make it on their own. Remember, there are many men who cannot qualify, and achieving physical standards is no guarantee for success. Common standards underpin social cohesion. There must be one standard for all, and it must be reasonable, published and fairly enforced.

What matters

Heart and desire matter a lot. The unwritten dictum of the infantry is "stick together, never give up and take the fight to the enemy." Women want to become part of the infantry for a myriad of reasons. Some seek a different or more challenging venue for their service. As with my infantry brothers, women do not like being told that they cannot do something.

However, activists need not apply. People in the infantry could not care less who the first female will be to break the gender barrier. What matters is if she can do the job, take care of herself and accomplish the mission. Results matter, and on the battlefield, only results matter.

Create more paths to the top

There is political pressure to have the military mirror civil society. That is a nice thought, but when less than 1 percent of the nation risks all to defend the other 99 percent, that is a tall order. Yes, we should try within reason, but never at the expense of capability or talent. More important than mirroring society is to ensure that the best people, male and female, within the ranks have multiple paths to the top of the military profession. Mere service in any job or specialty should not guarantee a predetermined outcome. Talent and potential, fairly gauged, must be the keys to upward mobility. All branches of service can and must do more to open paths to the top for the best people, regardless of gender.

Finally, a personal word for women who want, really want, to join the infantry. Be strong, never give up, do your best, and know that if you meet all standards and do your job, you will be accepted. Life in the infantry is primal and severe, but it is also fair.
Now is the time to "un-gender" military service by allowing the standard to be the standard, understanding that acceptance cannot be mandated, it must be earned.