Guns and Gear

The Harsh Reality of Women in Infantry Combat

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Bill Connor
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      Bill Connor

      Bill Connor received his Bachelor's of Arts from The Citadel in 1990 and his Juris Doctorate from University of South Carolina in 2005. Lt. Col. Connor most recently served as the Senior US advisor to Helmand Province, Afghanistan.

“I think we would lose something in our ability to defend our nation if they had to be down in the trenches, fighting hand-to-hand with the enemy……..So there should be some sort of a combat exclusion, not based on women`s rights but on the fighting ability of the armed forces.“ General Norman Schwarzkopf, Infantry Officer and Commander of Forces during Desert Storm, testifying before Congress in 1991 about whether Congress should allow women to be assigned to Infantry battalions.

In February 2012, the Obama administration unveiled plans to ease restriction on the placement of women in combat arms units.  As reported by the Associated Press on February 8:  “A 1994 combat exclusion policy bans women from being assigned to ground combat units below the brigade level. A brigade is roughly 3,500 troops split into several battalions of about 800 soldiers each. Historically, brigades were based farther from the front lines and often include top command and support staff, while the battalions are usually in closer contact with the enemy.”  Reaction from even the Republican Presidential candidates was cautious and muted.  Newt Gingrinch, who in the early 1990s spoke out forcefully against women in ground combat roles, said almost nothing in opposition to the new policy.  The only candidate to express reservation was Rick Santorum: “When you have men and women together in combat, I think men have emotions when you see a woman in harm’s way,’’ Santorum told TODAY’s Ann Curry. “I think it’s something that’s natural that’s very much in our culture to be protective. That was my concern, and I think that’s a concern with all the military.’’  Unfortunately, after Senator Santorum was lambasted by the media for these concerns he seemed to back off.  Rick later explained his concern was only about men’s emotions.  It’s time someone spoke up for the truth, particularly when it comes to national security.  Let me explain.

First, as a 22-year Infantry Officer who has served at each level of the Infantry, from Infantry platoon leader through Infantry and Ranger company commands to General staff (including time as Infantry Officer in combat), I have some unique personal insights.  Throughout my career, the Infantry, Armor, and Artillery branches have remained all-male.  In fact, the new policy makes no change to the single-gender status of these combat arms branches.  The unique mission of the Infantry branch is to close with and destroy enemy forces.  In practical terms, those in the Infantry have the sole mission of killing or capturing enemy forces.  This may require fighting with a bayonet or hand-to-hand.  The mindset of those going into Infantry combat must be brutal and “masculine”.  With the exception of the Armor branch, all other branches of the Army or Marine Corps support the Infantry.  Some, like the Artillery Branch, offer direct support to the Infantry.  Others, like supply or medical, offer indirect support or “combat service support”.  The missions of those branches are to assist the Infantry or Armor in destroying enemy forces.  Because our units are “combined arms” to the Battalion and even company level, other branches can assist the Infantry or Armor to the lower unit levels.  However, the distinction amongst branches remains important:  An Infantry company supply sergeant has the primary mission of supplying Infantry soldiers, while the sole mission of the Infantryman is destruction of enemy forces.

From the time I was commissioned from The Citadel in 1991, the only change in gender policy came in 1994 with the inclusion of women at the brigade level.  This had little direct impact on those of us within Infantry units.  In practical terms, the new policy allowed women to be assigned as staff officers at Brigade, or serve in the Brigade headquarters company.  That said, during the past 20 years, all units have come under more threat of combat.  Particularly since 9-11, combat has become more “non-linear” and “asymetric”.  That means the “front lines” are ambiguous and those in support units are under constant threat of ambush on convoys (particularly while delivering support to ground combat units).  Additionally, the new nature of warfare has necessitated unique “combined arms” arrangements.  For example, an Infantry battalion or even company conducting a medical support mission to Afghan civilians my have women from the medical service corps attached to assist.  A ground combat unit might have women attached for a period of time to assist with certain civil affairs missions.  Therefore, women have served while under enemy direct fire (for example, and ambush while on convoy) or served with ground combat units in specific missions in recent years.

The difference with the new policy, and the concern for the future of moving women toward the Infantry, comes with “assigning” men and women together at the Infantry, Armor, or Artillery battalion level.  “Assigning” someone to a unit makes that unit “home” to the servicemember.  Though the servicemember might be from another branch, they must integrate into the ethos and mission of that unit in a way many would not understand.  Remember, the mindset of the Infantry must be to “go after” the enemy and kill him.

I can personally remember the distinct difference between being under direct fire during convoy ambush, and clearing enemy forces during house-to-house fighting.  During the former, the mission was to fire back and move out of the ambush.  However, during operations directed against the enemy, the mission is to physically close with the enemy to kill or capture.  Rough, bloody, mean fighting.  Though many in the unit may not spent substantial time in actual Infantry combat, the entire unit must be imbued with the mindset and cohesiveness required.  As Infantry Officer and Commander of all Forces during Desert Storm, “Stormin Norman” bravely told Congress, the Army needs “a combat exclusion, not based on women`s rights but on the fighting ability of the armed forces.”  History and even modern examples give us reason to question the wisdom of assigning men and women together in Infantry battalions.  Forces like the Israeli Army, which must keep forces at the height of efficiency to survive, have experimented with gender integration and yet pulled back.  It just did not prove combat effective for the Infantry battalions.

I expect many to claim “sexism” and read this as some kind of “slight” against the service of women.  I intend nothing of the sort.  Women have served bravely in those branches and positions open to them.  Clearly, women have proven the equal worth of men in many areas.  However, as biology and common sense make clear, men and women are distict.  This is particularly the case when it comes to the physical nature of brutal Infantry ground combat.  A problem comes with the Media’s portrayal of operations in Iraq and Afghanistan.  Seldom does the average American learn about the nuances of the branches within the different Armed services and distinctions I have mentioned.

I learned as young cadet, almost a quarter century ago at The Citadel:  Integrity as a leader means telling the truth nobody else is willing to speak, and the willingness to suffer the consequences if necessary.  It’s time more national leaders showed the courage of men like “Stormin Norman”, and quit worrying about what others will think of them.  Time to put country above self.  Duty, Honor, Country!