war on the rocks

What Tempers the Steel of an Infantry Unit

September 9, 2015

“For the strength of the Pack is the Wolf, and the strength of the Wolf is the Pack.”  –Rudyard Kipling, The Law of the Jungle, The Jungle Book.


The current debate about women in the infantry takes place in an artificial context, because it nearly always self-limits the discussion to physical capabilities. Within these incomplete parameters, the argument is then set, and the preamble is that physical standards and performance are measurable and what is not measurable is subjective and probably unfair.

Once physical quantifications are set as the only requirement that matters, it then stands to reason that if you can define infantry requirements in terms of, for example, a number of pull-ups, a hike with 60 to 80 pounds of extra weight, or carrying a 180-pound simulated casualty to safety, then you can assess whether females are suited to infantry units.

Honest and informed observers will acknowledge that medical science indicates that, in the physical domain, the two genders are an unequal match. Even a very fit woman is not generally the equal of a fit man. The competition is no competition in aerobic capacity, load bearing, reach, body fat percentage, and other germane measures of combat fitness. But (the informed argument proceeds), even if it is only the top 5 percent of women who can replace the bottom 5 percent of men, why not allow the 5 percent to integrate and thereby improve the combat efficiency of the unit? For example, it has been argued Ronda Rousey — the accomplished and undoubtedly tough mixed martial artist — could be an excellent addition to an infantry unit.

The falsity of this debate is found in its restriction of analysis to its physical context (as most recently demonstrated in an article published yesterday at War on the Rocks). Why is the debate limited to physical capabilities? For two reasons. First, supporters of full integration will not accept what cannot be irrefutably proven (and sometimes not even then). Second, practitioners of infantry warfare have great difficulty describing the alchemy that produces an effective infantry unit, much as it is difficult for those of faith to explain their conviction to an atheist. Try that by quantitative analysis. But allow me a poor effort to explain what tempers the steel of an infantry unit and therefore serves as the basis of its combat power.

The public understands that individuals who have engaged in brutal combat seldom want to talk about their experiences, and it is broadly thought that this is because of the horrors evoked by these memories. More generally, though, this reticence is due to an inability for one side to convey, and the other to understand, not only horrors, but the context of the fight.   Saying that “It was hot” is a futile way to describe the 23rd consecutive day of temperatures over 100 degrees and flesh-soaking humidity, but the description does an even poorer job of conveying the exacerbating details — the burden of 30 to 80 pounds of personal equipment, mind-bending physical exertion, energy-sapping adrenaline highs, or the fact that the threadbare clothes you wore were unchanged for over three weeks and may have been “scented” by everything from food, to blood, dysentery, and whatever was in the dirt that constituted your bed. And don’t forget insects of legendary proportion and number. More importantly, a story thus told cannot explain that the fellow soldier or Marine who you tried desperately to put back together was the same one who shared the duties of clearing the urinals, the pleasures of a several nights of hilarious debauchery, and multiple near-death experiences — a comrade in arms who has heard more about your personal thoughts than your most intimate friends or family. So veterans of the true horrors of combat don’t talk about it. Please understand, then, that it is equally difficult to describe the ingredients of an efficient ground fighting machine, because the ingredients are intangible, decidedly not quantitative, and proudly subjective.

An infantryman’s lot is to endure what we think is unendurable, to participate in the inhumane, and to thrive in misery. Normal humans do not deliberately expose themselves to confront a machine gun that is firing at them over 10 rounds a second. “Smart” humans do not run toward the sound of gunfire. Logic does not tell you to lay down your life in the hope that you can recover an already dead comrade. And normal organizations do not strive, as their first priority, to evoke fear. For you see, the characteristics that produce uncommon valor as a common virtue are not physical at all, but are derived from the mysterious chemistry that forms in an infantry unit that revels in the most crude and profane existence so that they may be more effective killers than their foe. Members of such units deliberately reduce the individual and collective level of humanity and avoid all distractions so that its actions are fundamental, instinctive, and coldly efficient. Polite company, private hygiene, and weakness all step aside. These are the men who can confront the Islamic State, North Korean automatons, or Putin’s Spetsnaz and win every time. Believe me, you will need them, and we don’t get to choose when that will be.

In this direct ground combat environment, you do not fight for an ideal, a just cause, America, or Mom and apple pie. You endure the inhumanity and sacrifices of direct ground combat because, “Greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends.” This selflessness is derived from bonding, and bonding from shared events and the unquestioning subordination of self for the good of the team. But what destroys this alchemy — and, therefore, combat effectiveness — are pettiness, rumor-mongering, suspicion, and jealousy. And when fighting spirit is lessoned, death is the outcome.   So “fairness” is an obscenity. Fairness is about individuals. It’s selfish. And selfishness can kill.

Nineteen-year-old males everywhere are from Mars. They, and their early twenty-something brethren, are overloaded with testosterone, supremely confident about their invincibility, and prone to illogical antics. This sometimes produces intemperate behavior in everyday America, but the same traits are, by the way, nearly ideal for direct ground combat.  The same youthful ingredients produce unacceptable behavior in the pristine and low pressure environments of boarding schools, academic institutions, and cubicle farms. Truth be told, in later stages of life these traits also lead to humiliating interactions on Capitol Hill or in the White House. Why, then, do we suppose that sexual dynamics — or mere perceptions thereof — among the most libido laden age cohort in humans, in the basest of environs, will not degrade the nearly spiritual glue that enables the infantry to achieve the illogical and endure the unendurable?

Two women just graduated from the Army’s very, very difficult Ranger School. The surprise of that is that it surprised anyone. There unquestionably are women who can pass any physical challenge the military may require. We should celebrate those who succeed and encourage others. They are worthy role models, and certainly not just to women. But the issue we’re now debating has to include a recognition of cohesion and the cost of sexual dynamics in a bare-knuckled brawl, amidst primeival mayhem, in which we expect the collective entity to persevere because it has a greater will and fighting spirit, and not because it is bigger, faster, or more agile. The championship team in virtually any professional sport may only coincidentally be the most physically talented, but it most assuredly will be the most cohesive. Why not appreciate the same ingredients in infantry units?

Finally, you may bet your future earnings that the current effort to integrate the infantry will not cease with a few extraordinary females, but will eventually accommodate a social engineering goal by changing standards. Think I am wrong? It’s already happening. Read the words and understand the goals of the current Secretary of the Navy (an arsonist in the fire department) and the Secretary of the Air Force, and examine what we now call “the Dempsey Rule.”

If I’m wrong, the cost may be denied opportunity to strong and impressive young women. If you’re wrong, our national security is shaken and there is a butcher’s bill to pay. Make your choice. The line forms on the left.


Lieutenant General Gregory Newbold (U.S. Marine Corps, ret.) is a former infantryman, having commanded units from the platoon through the 1st Marine Division. His last assignment was as Director of Operations, the Joint Staff.