We Need What Women Bring to the Fight


With his announcement that all combat jobs, including Marine Infantry, will be open to women, Secretary of the Navy Ray Mabus has joined both the Army and the Air Force in lifting restrictions to combat arms Military Occupational Specialties (MOS).  With these definitive statements, one could assume the conversation is over.  However, the comment sections of articles announcing the expanded role of women show that while the political debate may be close to over, the cultural one is still raging.  With the arguments about physicality or capability debunked through these announcements, the case against full integration has turned to intangibles.

As highlighted in a recent War on the Rocks article by LtGen Gregory Newbold (USMC, ret), those arguing against the full integration of women tend to turn to the ideas of “unit cohesion” and “military effectiveness” to prove women have no place in combat units.  While the argument that women do not belong among those who “can confront the Islamic State, North Korean automatons, or Putin’s Spetsnaz and win every time” is convenient, it rests on two problematic points.  First, unit cohesion is unmeasurable.  However, Newbold believes that he holds the keys to explaining it, shutting down measured debate in the name of passion over evidence.  Second, he infers that military effectiveness is directly tied to a specific character trait seen in a limited definition of combat operations.  While combat success is a component of military effectiveness, his narrow characterization misses the strategic forest for the trees. In resorting to the comfortable “war is hell, and introducing a lady will make men unable to confront that hell” argument, he ignores the reality of the past 15 years of combat operations.  In both Iraq and Afghanistan, women have been an integral part of the success of our military’s most celebrated units.   Not only can women be part of the elite forces designed to combat our nations foes, the best strategic decision we can make now is to ensure that they do.

The root of the unit cohesion argument is that camaraderie and trust are uniquely forged in situations where individuals must reach beyond themselves in order to achieve a common goal.  Newbold speaks of the “nearly spiritual glue” that holds infantry units together.  This ethereal assumption – that there is something mystical about 19 to 22 year old males that holds them together – denies the research done on both the formation of unit cohesion and its impact on effectiveness.  Despite Newbold’s assertion to the contrary, unit cohesion can – and has – been successfully measured and studied.  As a crux in an argument that has such dire consequences for our nation, it deserves rigorous due diligence, not just comfortable assumptions.

Military sociologists and psychologists alike have found that successful unit cohesion is forged not due to the likeness of group members, but around the accomplishment of specific tasks and the quality of small-unit leadership.  In fact, groups comprised of too-similar individuals tend to deteriorate under stressful conditions due to an inability to solve problems creatively.  Similar studies have also found that the stresses of military training and deployment are just the sort of conditions to strengthen cohesive bonds between people and that create military units that are both efficient and effective at integrating new members.  This “task based” cohesion is magnified by the presence of positive small unit leadership, certainly something the Marine Corps prides itself on.

These findings on the formation and strengthening of unit cohesion through task-completion and effective leadership are not relegated to the pages of academic journals.  In the past 15 years, groups of young Marines of all races, religions, sexual orientations, and genders have been tested in Iraq and Afghanistan, often performing duties for which they were not specifically trained or equipped.  The blurring of the front lines of combat – from convoys coming under direct-fire during ambushes to military police being used as initial checkpoints and first-line defenses – have shown that mixed-gender units succeed in the harshest environments.  The shared experiences of these groups of individuals fostered cohesion and morale.  With a task-oriented purpose, the assumptions Newbold relies on to differentiate men and women fall by the wayside, and are instead replaced by a shared sense of purpose and dedication to mission accomplishment.

Have there been problems in unit cohesion?  Certainly.  But these problems are not unique to women.  Instances of poor cohesion and performance are a result of deficient training and sub-standard leadership.  There are plenty of instances of all-male units failing to coalesce into a perfect unit, resulting in some of the dire consequences Newbold cautions against.  However, no one blames their gender for their shortcomings.  Even in the mist of Bowe Berghdal being charged with desertion, no one has once questioned the suitability of males for combat.  Yet every time an individual woman fails, it is used as evidence that the entire gender is unfit to fight.  The assertion that it is women who are somehow responsible for failure is a convenient way of avoiding hard questions about how we are actually training and leading those individuals brave enough to willingly go into harm’s way.

Unit cohesion, it is argued, is of the upmost importance because it directly impacts military effectiveness.  The problem with the usual course of this argument is that it ignores the military’s purpose.  Military effectiveness is frequently used in arguments as a personal and unmeasurable quality of combat forces.  To this end, it is commonly interchanged with “close combat effectiveness,” and without directly saying it, nothing more than killing the enemy.  Is success in close combat a component of military effectiveness?  Of course, but as our experience in Vietnam shows, a high body count does not an effective military make.

The ambiguous swapping of “military” and “combat” effectiveness ignores the larger purpose of the military.  The military is a political actor, whose effectiveness is ultimately measured by its ability to shape the international arena to favor our larger strategic aims.  This requires the ability to adapt to new and ever changing environments.  In 2010, Deputy Secretary of Defense William Lynn stated that the “changing nature of warfare” requires a change in military training and tactics.  At the heart of this changing nature is the counterinsurgency fight.  The 2014 Department of Defense Joint Publication on Counterterrorism recognizes terrorism and insurgency as the top threats to U.S. security.  These new threats require new tactics.  The past several decades have witnessed a great change in the nature of international threat and require a change in tactics to successfully meet them.

An independent study commissioned by the Department of Defense’s Civil-Military Operations Staff Section (J-9) found that the common thread in successful counterinsurgency operations was a commitment to simultaneously resolving conflicts in political, economic, social, and security dimensions.  Those strategies that relied purely on overwhelming combat force not only proved more costly – both in terms of life and treasure – but resulted in unstable political environments when military forces left.   Success in this modern battlefield requires not only tactical skill with a rifle, but also cultural understanding and adaptation.

In looking to the past 15 years of conflict in Iraq and Afghanistan, it is hard to declare absolute victories in either case.  However, there are glimmers of success stories.  Special operations leaders had great foresight in thinking that “America would never kill its way out of the wars” and sought to leverage the best of their forces, including women, to fight insurgents on all fronts.  As a Marine Corps infantry captain who served in Iraq and Afghanistan stated, “You really have to have female counter-insurgents if you are expecting to have a successful counterinsurgency strategy.”  The cultural and political aspects of counterinsurgency are as critical as the tactical aspects of warfare.  The women involved in counterinsurgency combat operations, to include night-raids, proved to be mission critical.

That war is hell and a not an experience desired by “normal humans” is nothing of a surprise for myself and the thousands of other women who have served during the past decade and a half.  The women who chose to serve are not “normal,” and that is a fact to be celebrated and fully utilized, not ignored.  Full integration of women into all sectors of the military is not about the opportunities of one or two particularly outstanding young women.  It is about fully embracing the strengths of the total population in order to make the most effective military in the world.  Meeting the physical rigors of elite level training show that women can perform at demanding tactical standards while the successes of the past 15 years show that they should.  It is time we let go of hallowed ideas on the nature of the sexes and continue to let women succeed in ways we were not previously allowed.  Our strategic place in the world depends on it.


Kyleanne Hunter is a PhD Student at the Josef Korbel School of International Studies.  She spent 10 years as a Marine Corps Officer, deploying as an AH-1W Super Cobra pilot in support of OIF and OEF, and serving as the Marines’ Liaison Officer to the House of Representatives. 

Image Credit: Cpl. David Hernandez, U.S. Marine Corps