Here’s Why Women in Combat Will Work

December 1, 2014
Operation Enduring Freedom

In arguing against female accession to ground combat roles and especially to the infantry, Anna Simons makes three valid observations. Firstly, fraternization between male and female soldiers undermines unit cohesion and that while male soldiers are equally and normally more responsible for this breach of discipline, it is an un-ignorable issue. Secondly, it is dangerous to lower physical standards to facilitate female integration. Infantry work requires a general physical robustness which is accurately, cheaply and easily assessed by apparently brutal tests such as marches, runs and pull-ups.

Finally, and most importantly, she recognizes that the possibility of female accession to the infantry relies on the existence of professional, or task cohesion. Professional forces are united not primarily by personal friendships but by their training, drills, and procedure. In a professional force, combat performance is immediately dependent upon coordinated teamwork. Doctrine, choreographies, and muscle-memories are crucial here – not inter-personal bonds. Standards of professionalism and performance engender better combat performance. It is precisely in this context in which these standards have been prioritized over arbitrary social characteristics like race, ethnicity, sexuality, or gender that women have been able to serve in infantry units among Anglophone forces and to fight on the frontline. In Iraq and Afghanistan, many females who have performed their professional duties and conducted their drills properly, have been accepted into these once exclusively male groups. Their competence rather than their sex was the relevant variable. The impersonal cohesion of the professional force has been and will be critical to the accession of women to the combat arms.

However, despite recognizing the conditions in which female accession has been possible and honestly identifying some of the problems it may pose, Simons ultimately adopts a reactionary position. Notwithstanding the proven operational superiority of professional cohesion, Simons would nostalgically return to the warm cohesion of the 20th century because she believes that male soldiers must have their emotional and psychological needs salved by a comradeship, which can only be found in all-male groups. To preserve this special fraternity, she would willingly sacrifice female accession.

The pursuit is vain. There can be no return to the brotherly solidarity which she idealizes; it was the historical product of the 20th century army. The institutional culture, which generated such cohesion, has evaporated. Western, especially Anglophone, forces have themselves prioritized professional cohesion precisely because they have found it generates higher levels of operational performance from their small groups and has tied them into the chain of command more closely, even when operating independently of senior commanders. Moreover, in civilian society, gender relations and the family-work balance have also changed too much to allow a return to the dense communal solidarities of the past.

Furthermore, Simons mythologizes the reality of this cohesion. While dense male comradeship has provided support to male soldiers, it has also easily mutated into a hyper-masculine deviance in which the chances of bullying, abuse, disobedience, incompetence, mutiny, and atrocity are increased. The Australian Digger in the First World War, black soldiers in Vietnam, and Canadian paratroopers in Somalia were all, in quite different ways, examples of precisely this deviant, unprofessional cohesion. Moreover, ugly favoritism was a necessary corollary of prioritizing personal friendship in combat units. In citizen armies, individual replacements that were not personally known to the closely bonded veterans were offered little help and were far more likely to be killed – and, in fact, deliberately sacrificed – in combat. The “Fucking New Guy” phenomenon was not limited to Vietnam. Simons’ pure cohesion was only warm and supportive for the favored few.

Simons also vastly overstates the impersonality of professional cohesion. It is certainly true that in some special operations units, impersonal cohesion has been sometimes taken to an extreme because of intense training, high operational tempo, and the typically competitive and individualistic personalities attracted to and cultivated by these units. Extraordinary combat effectiveness can coincide somewhat unexpectedly with cool personal relations. Yet, even in special operation forces, from Tier 1 downwards, intense solidarities develop and play a critical role in motivating soldiers and allowing them to perform in combat as tightly bonded teams. Soldiers are integrated into close professional relations and are compelled to perform well lest they be shamed by their colleagues with whom they share long-standing relations. Impersonal drills and professionalism play a perhaps paradoxical and yet critical role in the development of these solidarities. Soldiers are valued, honored, liked and — indeed, in many cases, loved — because they are regarded as competent and trustworthy professionals, because they are good at their drills, and because they are indispensable members of the team. The grief professional soldiers have expressed at the loss of comrades in combat demonstrates the depth of these emotional attachments.

Crucially, a small number of women have now been included into Anglophone combat teams in Iraq and Afghanistan, sometimes for entire tours; in the Canadian army, women have served successfully in infantry. They are not merely tolerated. They are respected as comrades and have directly contributed to group cohesion. Thus, Canadian soldiers, opposed to the accession of women in general to the infantry for fear of a decline in standards, have affirmed the legitimacy of proven women to their unit, as evidenced by responses in interviews I have conducted: “I don’t agree that women should be in combat units but I would happily serve with Trish.” They have corrected men who have dismissed these competent female soldiers: “Hey, leave Leblanc [a successful Canadian NCO] alone, she is good to go.” British paratroopers and marines have often expressed similar sentiments: “We had a female medic. She was awesome. She carried the same weight as the blokes. She was doing her job, performing as well or better than the men. Why should sexuality affect cohesion?” These female soldiers have not automatically undermined cohesion as women, as Simons claims. Moreover, precisely because gender remains a significant factor in the military, rather than undermining combat performance, these women have often encouraged higher levels of performance; male soldiers do not like to be beaten by and certainly do not want to appear weak in front of their female peers.

Simons is correct to highlight the special difficulties of integrating women into the infantry. It is a unique role. In order to ensure combat effectiveness, standards have to be enforced and fraternization avoided. That perforce means only a few exceptional women will be able to fight in the infantry. However, a blanket ban on the possibility of any women ever serving in the infantry, no matter how capable or willing, is as archaic as the obsolete form of social cohesion which Simons invokes to justify it.


Anthony King is a professor of sociology at the University of Exeter. His most recent publications are The Transformation of Europe’s Armed Forces: from the Rhine to Afghanistan (Cambridge University Press) and The Combat Soldier: infantry tactics and cohesion in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries (Oxford University Press, 2013). His new book, Frontline: combat and cohesion in the twenty-first century (Oxford University Press) is out next year. He is currently working on the evolution of the divisional headquarters from the First World War to the present. He has been a mentor and adviser to the armed forces for a number of years, working in the Prism Cell of ISAF’s Regional Command (South) in 2009-10.