Male-Female Cohesion in the Military: Yes, It’s Possible

November 24, 2014

Another day, another article arguing why women shouldn’t be allowed to serve in combat units. I’ve already written about it elsewhere, so I’m not going to rehash my arguments in depth, but let’s take a look at the arguments in Anna Simons’ recent War on the Rocks article, “Here’s Why Women In Combat Units is A Bad Idea.”

When Simons argues that “battles are exclamation points: it’s the off duty time that’s a problem,” she undermines the rest of her essay. In doing so, she moves beyond the arguably unique question of ground combat capabilities and into the universal question of what to do with soldiers in their off duty time. She implies that women are actually capable of performing during combat operations, but that (in my words, not hers) putting up with the alleged drama of having females in the unit isn’t worth it. Workplace relationships do, of course, happen in the military and elsewhere. And yes, when they go poorly, it’s weird for everyone around them. But does that awkwardness translate into lost combat effectiveness?

No, for three reasons. First, if one relationship undermines an entire unit’s cohesion, there are bigger, pre-existing problems in that unit. Second, relationships between seniors and subordinates are verboten. Third, if issues between two soldiers get out of hand, they should be dealt with like any other issue that might detract from good order and discipline. In this hypothetical combat unit, if a senior and subordinate are playing the army dating game, there are mechanisms for dealing with that. Leaders are expected to step in and put a stop to it to maintain good order and discipline. But what about squad members? Might it happen? Again, yes. And again, return to good order and discipline and these hypothetical issues are non-starters. If issues arise between two soldiers, deal with them the way you deal with any other problem between two soldiers. However, pointing to sexual tension as a problem in units relies on a flawed premise. Simons presumes that women in these units are automatically bringing problems with them. This false assumption does a disservice to all women who serve in uniform. The requirement to do your job, to be a part of the team, is not gender specific. The issue about sexual attraction is a complete red herring.

Simons argues that excluding women from combat units is not the same as opposing the integration African-Americans into the force or the lifting of Don’t Ask Don’t Tell. She argues that racism and bigotry are not equivalent to attraction between the sexes. She has acknowledged that women are capable of serving in combat and some combat units – but then says they should not be permitted to because they are women. The problem is, that is discrimination based on gender and therefore of the same category as those who opposed integration and supported the exclusion of homosexuals.

But Simons’ argument against women in combat takes a special turn when she notes that “Heterosexual men like women. They also compete for their attention.” She continues:

Introduce something over which members are bound to compete, that the winner won’t share, and you inject a dangerous dynamic. Worse, introduce the possibility of exclusivity between two individuals and you will have automatically killed cohesion.

Gone are any assumptions that women are people or teammates or capable of making their own dating decisions. In its place is the assumption that women in these units are there as a prize for the men compete for. She argues again that this competition would undermine the “all for one” attitude that is central to cohesive units. By reducing women to prizes, Simmons automatically excludes women from having the potential to be included in the “all for one.” First, she argues for preventing people from achieving their potential based on how they are born, then she reduces women to objects. This smacks of chauvinistic prejudices.

Simons also blames social scientists. On one hand, she asks social scientists to investigate what cohesion means for all combat units:

Don’t social scientists owe it to those who already serve in special operations (and infantry) units to pay attention to what they say (and do), rather than rely on what members of mixed gender noncombat units self-report regarding ‘task cohesion’?

But on the other hand, she writes, “Of course, the idea that there can be any social ‘science’ answer to whether the U.S. military should integrate women into ground combat forces is silly.” So which is it? Do we want to measure cohesion or don’t we? Or is she simply dismissing the social sciences out of hand because they offer an idea that she disagrees with?

Commanders don’t directly and objectively measure cohesion. Instead, commanders measure combat effectiveness: how many qualified on their assigned weapon, how many on medical profile or non deployable, and how many people are qualified on their Mission Essential Task List (METL) tasks: individual, platoon and team level tasks that support the higher headquarters missions. These are quantifiable metrics that generally translate into combat effectiveness. Researchers, however, have a myriad of ways to measure cohesion depending on what field is doing the research. Saying that social scientists measuring cohesion is “silly” undermines the entire argument. Researchers have long been interested in cohesion. Commanders measure effectiveness.

The author makes a big deal about the difference between task cohesion and social cohesion. Research suggests that task cohesion is more important to combat effectiveness than social cohesion. Task cohesion in the military and military social solidarity are actually two separate issues. If there is a lack of social cohesion in these all-male units as Simons suggests there is, it stems from a lack of trust in members of the group. The implication then is that the lack of social cohesion in these groups should negatively affect their ability to accomplish their wartime mission.

Simons is actually raising a larger sociological question beyond task cohesion. According to Emile Durkheim, one of sociology’s founding scholars, social cohesion or solidarity comes in two forms: mechanical and organic. Mechanical solidarity comes from minimizing differences and maximizing devotion to the common cause. This is the way solidarity has been understood as the glue that holds traditional societies together. The non-combat arms military has arguably been integrated into what Durkheim would call organic solidarity – a cohesion which is achieved through mutual dependence and belief in a common orientation toward the world around them. Organic solidarity is the glue that holds modern societies together and is based on interlocking dependencies. It does not depend on group similarity or lack of diversity as in mechanical solidarity. It is better suited to complex groups with high levels of specialization and division of labor, such as the military. By any metric, the all-volunteer force is a more combat effective force than any force that has come before us.

For a modern military unit to be cohesive, we need teammates to trust one another, to be dependent upon one another, and to be united in a common cause. We need organic solidarity and task cohesion. These requirements are not mutually exclusive to homogenous groups such as all-male combat arms units. Historically, the common cause of fighting the nation’s wars has been a predominately male enterprise. It does not follow, however, that just because this domain has been historically male that it is necessarily contingent upon it remaining male for it to exist. There is nothing inherent in being female that negates unit cohesion – not even sexual attraction, which happens and isn’t nearly the crisis that Simons seems to think it is. Simons is right that there is more to being a functional member of a team than meeting a physical standard. But there is also nothing that says women cannot be a strong, functional, integral part of the combat team, either.

We need to stop acting like women are some kind of aliens who cause men to become hormone-driven Neanderthals and expect professionalism out of both our men and women. We need to stop presuming that women in the military are synonymous with problems. We need all soldiers to treat female soldiers based on what they are: soldiers who happen to be female and focus on building trust between teammates regardless of gender. Is it an ideal? Sure. But it’s one that’s both reachable and attainable.


Jessica Scott is an active duty Army officer currently attending graduate school at Duke University where she is working towards a master’s degree in sociology. She will be an instructor at the United States Military Academy at West Point next fall. She is the USA Today bestselling author of multiple novels about soldiers returning from war and the challenges they face. The views here are hers alone and do not represent Duke University, the Department of Defense or the United States Army.