Women in Combat Part 3: Are Women the New Blacks?

(This is the third and final part in a series.)

Do you remember the ‘50s? Well, relax and try to drift back in your imagination, then read the following:

“I can think of at least six reasons why a young black man would want to integrate an otherwise all-white combat unit. And I am purposely emphasizing the word “integrate,” because if his aim were simply to be able to serve in combat, black civil rights advocates would have agitated for blacks being able to serve in their own all-black combat units long ago. The fact that there has been no such lobbying signals that blacks are after something beyond just getting to close with and destroy the enemy.

So, what might a young black’s motivations be?

  • To challenge and to test himself, and to join a unit that represents the best of the best
  • To be a pioneer
  • To fulfill a personal ambition (or to fulfill a parent’s ambition)
  • To gain status
  • To pierce the vaunted white mans club
  • To enhance his career

Anyone reading this list should be able to appreciate and even admire most of these motivations. However, there is a catch to each of them. All six have to do with the individual. They center around self. It may be next to impossible for an ambitious, patriotic young black man to see how his presence might detract from cohesion among a group of similarly motivated young white men. But, as my previous articles have argued, it will.”

Do you find this piece upsetting on principle? A distasteful example of racist thinking from the past?

In fact, this is lifted verbatim from a recent article opposing gender integration by Anna Simons, with all references to women changed to black males, and it brings up the first point to consider: yes, the issue of gender integration is remarkably similar to racial integration in many ways, and no amount of denial is going to change that fact. With the exception of sex (a major difference), the arguments against it are also remarkably the same, and the forces now pushing the change forward are equally similar.

Do you think ending Jim Crow was a social experiment? A lot of white people called it a lot worse than that at the time, but nowadays, unless you’re a member of the Aryan Nation, you’d consider the idea that racial integration was a social experiment total nonsense. Slavery was once considered normal as well, Gods way (1 Peter 2:18), a belief that went on for thousands of years. Ending that wasnt a social experiment either.

Times change, and, as society evolves, its sense of social justice evolves with it. Gender integration of the military is not a social experiment, but a demonstration of how national culture has shifted. The role of women in sportsbusinesspolitics and power has changed dramatically in recent years (to say nothing of womens role models), and that is precisely what is pushing this. There is absolutely nothing about this that is a social experiment, and absolutely everything that connects it to democracy and national culture. This is about equal opportunity in exactly the same way that it was about equal opportunity in the era of Jim Crow.

There is certainly one thing that is totally different from racial integration, and that is importance. Racial integration was a far more important, and far more disruptive and volatile change for the military than gender integration will ever be. As one black military woman put it so eloquently, no one ever refused to serve me food because I was a woman. There will be no lynchings of women as this goes on, either, or brutal beatings of women by angry mobs for going into the wrong bar. If you have any doubts that racial integration was far more difficult than gender integration, that racism reached far deeper and evoked far more brutal reactions, then you are obviously white, or extremely naive.

This is about equal opportunity in exactly the same way that it was about equal opportunity in the era of Jim Crow.

Of course there are issues to be faced. Some of them are real, and some of them are not (despite what you read), and it pays to take a close look and let your head guide you, and not your emotions.

Disparity in Strength?

The most popular argument against gender integration is the ever-popular ‘disparity in physical strength’. One of the interesting things about this is that of all the military women this author has ever met (quite a few), plus all the ones who have ever been interviewed or quoted anywhere, not one has ever wanted the standards lowered. Not one wanted a quota or exceptions. None. Zero. Think about all the bitching so many men do about lowered standards, and compare that to the fact that all any of the women actually involved ever express is a fair chance to meet the standards. (You might also note the fact that, at least in the Marines, the men often try to lower the standards when the women don’t want them to.)

What does it matter, anyway? We live in the real world, with real conflict, and so let’s focus on the Marines, who are obviously the atomic center of resistance to gender integration. Do you really believe that someone is going to come along and order Marines to stop carrying what they need in the field? Do you think somebodys going to make body armor optional? Get a grip. Marines are going to go on carrying the same packs, using the same weapons and doing what they always do. So, obviously, no woman is going to end up serving in a Marine infantry company if she cant handle it. If you truly believe that women really cant hack it, if you really do, why are you so upset? So what if they form some experimental integrated unit for a little while? If youre right, if women aren’t up to it, there never will be any women Marine riflemen. Women will try, theyll be allowed to try, but theyll just never get past the entrance requirements. Why keep worrying about it, and why keep writing about it over and over?

Then theres all those other arguments. Take a look at a recent article by retired Marine General Gregory Newbold. It got a lot of play, but it also got an awful lot of things wrong; wrong to the point of ridiculous.

The idea that women cant be as tough as men is certainly nonsense. The idea that women cant hack heat and mud and rucking for days without a change of clothes is even bigger nonsense (one of General Newbolds more egregiously false hypotheses). If you believe any of that stuff, if you believe that all women cry when they break a nail, you havent left your house in the last thirty years, and you’re certainly insulting the many women who have, indeed, experienced conditions like that and come out the other side. General Newbold’s suggestion that insects and cleaning urinals are part of intense suffering doesn’t merit discussion any more than the concept that binge drinking and the use of prostitutes and the like are a necessary part of unit morale (let alone professional soldiering).

But the General’s biggest mistake is his understanding of bonding (unit cohesion). Units dont bond because theyre men. They bond because they go through intense experiences together; the more intense, the stronger the bond (and, yes, combat is pretty damn intense). People bond because of that groups of men, groups of men and women, groups of women. Like so many men trying to protect their myths, General Newbold dismisses the experiences of women, at least any of those that don’t fit into his way of thinking, and in so doing he ignores history. There are myriad examples of women in combat and bonding – far more than can be listed here.

No military leader in any service is going to send a unit out into combat that can’t handle its job. Period.

So what are the real issues in gender integration?

We’ve already dealt with the issue of physical strength: if you’re against women in combat and you’re right about their weakness, then nothing is going to happen and this discussion is pointless.

The national security argument is just as silly. Integrating blacks into the military didn’t endanger national security, and integrating women won’t either (hell, it’s already halfway there).  No military leader in any service is going to send a unit out into combat that can’t handle its job. Period. Images of women and men screwing their brains out while they’re being overrun by Taliban is absurd.

That leaves us with sex.

Of course it’s an issue, and it has been for a long time. It was an issue when Army-Marine logistics and the rest of support were integrated. It was an issue when those integrated units were sent to Iraq and Afghanistan, put in tents in the desert and made to work at a wartime tempo. But somehow it’s all worked out. Somehow the trucks and supplies keep moving, and the vehicles keep getting repaired (and the attack helicopters piloted by women keep flying). And sex was an issue when they successfully integrated the Surface Navy. In fact, sex was only one of a host of arguments that were raised about putting women on combat ships – almost exactly the same arguments being raised now, and in almost exactly the same fashion. And the Surface Navy worked out just fine. (Oh, yes, its true.)

Obviously sex is an issue. There are lots of issues when you integrate. There were issues when the first blacks entered Annapolis and West Point – big issues, violent issues – and there were issues when women first joined the service academies. It took years for leaders to overcome these issues and get them right. People like Newbold and Simons seem to have very limited faith in the value of leadership, but real leadership is what this is all about.

Real leaders figured out how to make racial integration work, and we’re a better military for it. Real leaders figured out how to make gender integrated ships work, and we’re not only a better Navy for it, we’re a better country.

Its a basic tenet of American democracy that everyone should have an equal opportunity to prove themselves, and to advance based on their merits regardless of their race or gender or anything else. When the military works towards this, they  lead. When they dont, they follow. And, in the end, thats what this is all about: our country and its future.


[Photo: Flickr CC: West Point The U.S. Military Academy]



  1. Sandy 28 September, 2015 at 14:25 Reply

    Dear Jim, obviously, you never spent a significant amount of time on surface ships, because it HASN’T worked out….there is the “wink-and-nod” that it has…ask any deck ape if women can handle the work. The incidence of sexual misconduct is at an all-time high, with CO’s of ships being relieved every month since 1994. SHARP training is mandatory – firing weapons is optional. To try and cite this as equal to integration is absolutely laughable, just as it is with the gay rights crowd. Apples and oranges…you can’t legislate a cat to be a dog.
    I’m not sure what fanrtasy-land you live in, and this adage that “no CO will send their units out if they are unready”…ahhh, no…they have and they will, because they have to be promoted, and/or they will be forced to or punished if they don’t. Seems you have now gone over to the dark side in your quest for both relevance and notoriety. What a shame. I hope ADM Losey does not make the same mistake. Total egalitarianism is as big a farce as socialism, and adherents such as you should be relegated to the pages of Orwell’s 1984, to which you seem to also be a fan. Grow up.

    • RobertA 29 December, 2015 at 00:43 Reply

      I know I’m late to the discussion. I was in Surface Navy when integration started and have been retired 20 years, so yes I am out of date. My thoughts at the time were that women in ships would not work WELL until all sailors were berthed together, and no one cared which way you looked while dressing. Ditto for head facilities.

      I don’t know how the limited berthing on ships has been addressed, since you can’t just pitch another tent if female berthing is full. I do know that hot-racking isn’t fun.

      I still believe that until everyone on a ship is just a sailor, gender mixed ships will not work WELL.

  2. ADM64 28 September, 2015 at 16:37 Reply

    Yet more false analogies and manufactured arguments from Mr. Purvis. Bottom line is this: regardless of what women say they want with respect to standards, the standards have been changed or are different in every branch of the military that has gone coed. Different physical standards reflect different capacities. The Navy and Air Force can work around them in “peacetime” but in wartime, if all personnel can’t perform all damage control and casualty evacuation tasks, the latter when dealing with an average size man, it is a fail. If 20% of your crew can’t do these things, you’re starting with the equivalent of major casualties.

    When the forces were de-segregated – and here Mr. Purvis is really ignoring facts – whatever blacks may or may not have wanted, they were NOT treated differently. They met EVERY one of the same standards that their white male counterparts did. That’s why racial integration worked. Ignoring this critical difference is dishonest and factually wrong.

    If women truly wanted equal standards, then why don’t we have them? Where are all the big-mouth “equal standards” women officers? Even Lt. Colonel Germanno, in her recent article, was happy enough to accept gender-normed standards for the “physiological” things, as she put it.

    As to the problem of sex, whether in the field or aboard ship, the evidence is overwhelming that it is a huge issue, consensual or otherwise. Everyone just denies it (like there was no prostitution in the Soviet Union) as ship CO’s are relieved, pregnancy takes a toll on crew strengths (and the army in Afghanistan – ask General Cuccolo), and there is immense distraction. That’s without the morning after regrets that lead to “he said, she said” confrontations.

    Jim, if you want those of us who are opposed to a coed military to take seriously the idea, then at least engage the points honestly. Recognize 40 years of data on the physical differences and capacities. Recognize and admit that standards are different or have been changed. Recognize the magnitude of the disciplinary and fraternization problems. If you then want to argue that any woman who can perform to the male physical standard should be admitted, then someone might say, “Fair enough.” If you then want to discharge any woman who gets pregnant – and the man that got her pregnant – while on active duty, then we might agree. If you want to accept that this will mean 2-5% of the force are women, and that most women serving now will be out, fine. If you’re not willing to do those things, then don’t go on about it being just like blacks and desegregation, because it’s not.

  3. Robin A Johnson 28 September, 2015 at 18:19 Reply

    Have you ever noticed that the people who complain about ‘different standards’ for men and women never say a thing about the fact that standards change as you age? The argument that ‘it is all the same battlefield’ is the same, but no one seems to complain about the standards changing as Soldiers age because they magically understand the science behind physiological differences in an aging body. It slays me that all the people who moan about the ‘standards’ being ‘different’ for men and women evidently don’t understand what the standards are measuring, and what the differences are. They are obviously referring to the differences in the physical fitness test scoring (the only standards that are differentiated by gender). They fail to read the entire manual to understand what the metric is attempting to measure. The test events are those which can be administered easily to large groups with minimal equipment in a limited amount of time, to approximate results which could more accurately be measured in a lab setting to determine metabolic fitness. Because of this, they did the math that takes into account the fact that for Soldiers of the same size, a female will have heart and lung capacity approximately 70% of the male’s. That means that she is actually demonstrating the same level of cardiovascular fitness at a different time standard than the male. A lot of science and math determined the standards – but it is easier for those who don’t (or WON’T) understand to complain for self-serving reasons.

    • CapMann1880 28 September, 2015 at 18:45 Reply

      This would be EXACTLY why, throughout most of civilized human history–and certainly in actual times of war, the overwhelming number of military positions are filled by young men. Yes, a fit 20 year old woman may have better heart and lung capacity than an 45 year old male. But a fit 20 year old man will beat them both. It only stands to reason that–from a purely effects-based standard–we would want the 20 year old male . . . regardless of his race or sexual orientation.

  4. Don 29 September, 2015 at 17:22 Reply

    Two main points on the article, the first being the claim that God justified slavery. “slavery” in biblical times is reference to an individual voluntarily submitting their self to servitude (for any number of reasons, to repay a debt, to make up for a past wrong, or just because they cant support themselves). Atlantic slavery (that which existed in the US) involved kidnapping (specifically outlawed by the Bible) and forced involuntary servitude. The fact that many pro-slavery pundits quoted the Bible in their justification for Atlantic slavery is not Peter’s fault, or God’s for that matter.

    The writer should also be careful about summarily dismissing the standards being lowered argument. There is plenty of evidence over the last two decades of standards being lowered to allow women into certain occupations so ignoring it suggests this is an agenda piece vice an honest assessment of the value of the pending decision.

    As to the Marine Corps, they were directed to study this matter and provide their opinions and recommendations. That is exactly what they have done, so why the criticism? Because you don’t agree with it I suspect.

    In the end, the civilian leadership will make their decision and the uniformed services will comply, whether their advice is taken or not. Whether or not the US military will be “better” for it remains to be seen.

  5. RodS 29 September, 2015 at 18:25 Reply

    Here is yet another example, maybe the clearest yet, of replacing serious discussion with debater’s techniques. From the start, the consideration is not actually of the reality of sustained ground combat and its unique requirements, but of the general principle of complete gender integration. One either favors the placement of women everywhere, in every role, period, or he is the latest version of Bull Connor. Rather than serious examination of specific facts, we get the debater’s “fallacy of the inevitable alternative”, in which troglodyte Marines are imagined to accept their female colleagues as completely capable infantrymen, or force them to operate with less than what they need, or “optional body armor”. Stop worrying about what is actually involved in closing with the enemy and destroying him; “change in national culture” will somehow change the infantry world when nothing else has for four hundred years or more.
    Here is reality: women have broken through and proven themselves in every profession and walk of life. They deserve as a birthright the opportunities afforded their brothers. There are instances, such as intelligence collection in Latin and Muslim cultures, where their gender, and the disregard and invisibility that attend it, gives them an advantage over their male counterparts. They can fly attack aircraft, run businesses, plan strategy, and all the rest with the “best of them”, because they are in fact among the best. That does not mean that in a specific, extraordinary environment, like sustained infantry operations, they do not experience personal difficulties and contribute to others. Mr. Purvis finds women already equals in sport. In what world? Women perform exceptionally in the strategy and management of professional sports. Some of the best trainers in sports are women. We may soon even see a female place kicker in the NFL. But up on the line, where men put their knuckles in the mud and contest a few inches of ground with strength, stamina, and speed, do you really want to put a female player, even your very best? If you do, she, and maybe some of the players who depend on her, will get run over and hurt, through no fault of her own, and your team will lose. And that’s just football, where the the stakes are vastly lower than in ground combat.
    Women don’t want standards lowered? Maybe not. But their advocates will, as soon as any lack of female success against existing standards proves unchanging. Then standards will not be lowered, but “adjusted”, a favorite euphemism of the cultural pioneers. We are very close to a time where the strongest Marines in a rifle platoon will be looking over their shoulders at the stragglers, rather than facing forward to the enemy, while our golf courses still operate unselfconsciously with ladies’ tees.

  6. Doc 11 December, 2015 at 01:49 Reply

    Final installment, thank God, though there will be other variations on this theme, regardless it’s gonna happen at least for a while until body bags come home in substantial numbers,then the tune will change, sadly someone will have to pay the price, male and female for this folly.

Leave a reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *