An Editor’s Observations on Civility and the Military’s Gender Integration Debate

September 16, 2015

Of the many articles we publish here at War on the Rocks, none are quite as controversial as those about women serving in combat units. This issue arouses strong emotions on both sides. Many who favor allowing women in combat units portray all who disagree as sexists, misogynists, or both. Those who would rather see the combat exclusion policy remain in place often caricature those people who favor gender integration as radical feminists willing to weaken America to serve their agenda. Two camps divided. I have friends in both camps, although they tend to be the more reasonable ones. I also have my own opinions, but they aren’t strongly held enough for me to share.

Personally, I struggle to understand why this topic is such a lightning rod. I watch in confusion as it brings out so much negative behavior, more than any other issue we publish about — most of which deal with death and destruction in some way.

War on the Rocks has published 14 articles on women in combat units: nine in favor, four against, and one roughly neutral. We have worked hard to ensure that these articles are respectful of both facts and people, and I think we have succeeded. Still, most of these articles have sparked wildly negative reactions from readers. We have to police submitted comments very closely when we push out an article on this subject, often while watching nasty and mean-spirited remarks roll in on social media from partisans of either side.

Katey van Dam, a Cobra pilot in the Marines now in the process of transitioning to civilian life, wrote three articles for us on this topic. She argues in favor of allowing female marines into the infantry and explains how they can meet rigorous physical standards to succeed. I had to delete a number of submitted comments that were grotesquely sexist in addition to some personal attacks. The worst reaction was when we published Anna Simons’ article, “Here’s Why Women in Combat Units Is a Bad Idea.” Anna is, as you probably picked up from her name, a woman. Another woman (regrettably someone who writes for War on the Rocks) tweeted that Anna should “surrender her ovaries” because of her position on this issue. Someone else tweeted a comparison between War on the Rocks and the Islamic State. I could go on, but I won’t.

The debate over gender integration has come to focus on the U.S. Marine Corps, which may be the only service to request an exemption to the lifting of the combat exclusion policy. Last week, the Marine Corps released the results of an experimental task force that tested the performance of gender-integrated units against all-male units. The results, only released in preliminary form thus far, showed the male units performed considerably better on a wide range of tasks. However, a debate has broken out about the task force’s methodology. This week, Secretary of the Navy Ray Mabus reaffirmed that he has long been intent on lifting the combat exclusion policy, including  for the Marine Corps, and that nothing could change his mind.

As you probably know, last week we published an article by retired Marine Corps Lt. Gen. Gregory Newbold in which he argued against Marine infantry units opening their ranks to women. It was widely read and covered by all sorts of media organizations and blogs. For example, Anna Mulrine wrote in the Christian Science Monitor that this article was “widely seen as laying the groundwork for the Marines’ experimental task force study release.” As the guy who decides when things get published here at War on the Rocks, this was news to me. I did not know when the Marine Corps was releasing the study, and Newbold had no input as to when we would publish his article. It did not take long for accusations of misogyny to roll in on Twitter. Once again, I was mortified. But this time I was not surprised.

So why does this issue bring out such nastiness in people who are often otherwise intelligent, thoughtful, and well-meaning? It is because folks on both sides of this debate are hopelessly entrenched. They know what outcomes they want to see and are uninterested in data or evidence.

As a friend of mine recently observed, there is a stark line between the two camps. One camp believes that gender integration of all combat units is a moral imperative that it is inseparable from struggles over gender equality in our larger society. This camp’s most extreme adherents reject any evidence that integration might have a negative impact on combat effectiveness out of hand before even consulting the data. Any findings presented, in their eyes, inevitably reflect gender bias and are therefore invalid.

The other camp believes that nothing is more important in this debate than combat effectiveness and that compromise is not an option, no matter what gender equality issues this debate might raise. When we see that a small minority of women can meet the physical standards required for infantry combat (as demonstrated by the successful graduation of two women from the U.S. Army’s hellish Ranger School), the extreme wing of this camp insists that the game must have been fixed to make sure they passed for reasons of political correctness or some darker agenda.

It may be that there is no common ground possible between these two camps, but I encourage those of you writing about and covering this issue to see the poverty of wisdom in demonizing those on the other side. At the very least, you can expect War on the Rocks to set a higher standard of civility.

More importantly, at the end of the day, we are all on the same side.

I am honored to be friends with Lt. Gen. Dave Barno, Nora Bensahel, and Katey van Dam — all of whom have written in favor of gender integration of combat units and all of whom love their country and want to see it win its wars. I am also honored to be friends with Anna Simons and Lt. Gen. Newbold. I am equally certain that they love their country and want to see it win its wars.

None of them are misogynists. None of them are radical feminists who want to see America weak. So I insist that within the confines of War on the Rocks, where we are having the most reasonable debate possible on this controversial subject, we treat one another with respect.

I hope it catches on elsewhere.

 

Ryan Evans is the editor-in-chief of War on the Rocks.

 

Photo credit: Staff Sgt. Shane Hamann, U.S. Army