Two Academic Articles on Women in the Infantry

Female Commander Shepard

I’ve been reading, writing, and thinking a lot about women in the infantry the past few weeks. Well, the past year, really, but more so in the past couple of weeks. Soren’s blog post from last week is attracting tons of visitors and people are commenting and sending me things to read.

I’ve had two academic articles about the fighting woman open in my browser for a few days waiting for me to get to them. I finally read them this week and wanted to share them here.

The first was sent to me by friend of the blog Kayla Williams (who incidentally is referenced in the other piece I’ll get to in a moment). It’s called “Fighting and Winning Like Women” by Dr. Robert Hill. It’s in the November-December edition of Military Review.

There was a time not too long ago when I would whole-heartedly recommend anything written on the subject because there wasn’t much out there that talked about why women should be integrated into combat arms or why it was a good thing, or in this case, inevitable. I just couldn’t get into this piece though. It is short, but it’s not really saying anything new. It’s a rehash of the same things that Soren said, but less digestible. There are lots of references to things famous people have said, a reminder not to lower standards, and for leaders to lead. Other than that, there really isn’t much there.

The second piece comes from the summer 2013 issue of Parameters. It’s called “Women in Battle: The Female Soldier” by Anthony King, a professor at the University of Exeter. King’s article is more academic than Hill’s, which is refreshing in a field that is stuffed with gross anecdotes from current or ex-infantrymen. In the piece, King argues that the integration of women in the Armed Forces has been an overall success and is due to the professional ethic of the all-volunteer force. He concedes that full integration into the infantry will be difficult, however, because of the likely very few women who will be able to make it.

 Indeed, for Kanter, a female workforce of 15 percent or less constitutes not even a genuine minority but merely a token.

King’s thesis shines brightest when it introduces studies from other fields, in this case gender studies and sociology. He notes that in studies of the business world, a workforce comprising 15% women (like the military) does not even constitute a minority, but merely a token. Breaking cultural norms long established would be extremely difficult at best when the sight of a female soldier is a “token” event.

In the course of a narrative ostensibly dedicated to extolling brotherly cohesion, Sergeant O’Byrne (one of the central figures in Junger’s account) made a surprising admission. Rather than expatiating on his soldiers’ love for each other, he observed: “There are guys in the platoon who straight up hate each other.” Yet O’Byrne noted a paradox: “But they would also die for each other. So you kind of have to ask, ‘How much could I really hate the guy?’”

King also makes the best argument I’ve seen against the idea that integrating women into the infantry will weaken the force because of disruptions to male bonding. In his section titled “Professionalized Cohesion” he makes the case that soldiers guided by a professional ethic to accomplish the mission would unlikely have any issue with an infantrywomen so long as she could do her job. He discusses examples where units are able to accomplish the mission even if they don’t know each other, based on common knowledge acquired through standardized training. Anyone who has been through an Army school knows that this is true. You get thrown in with a bunch of people you don’t know, someone is in put in charge, and you get to work. There are always initial pains as the dust settles, but it usually doesn’t take long to start operating on high. Success doesn’t come from being buddies with the men, but rather trusting in the competence of them.

There might be something worth exploring further on the topic of ‘brotherly love’ in combat arms. By the end of our year in Iraq, our platoon was sick of each other. Even my best buddy and I went through ups and downs. But as a fighting force, we were tight and trusted one another.

Implied in cementing that trust, of course, is maintaining current standards for ascension and tough training at the unit in order to preserve that confidence.

King also references two friends of the blog in his research, Kayla Williams who wrote Love My Rifle More Than You (which I reviewed earlier this year) and Jason Christopher Hartley who wrote Just Another Soldier (the last book I read before going to OCS – still owe a review!). Kayla’s book is probably the best primer on what it feels like to be a woman in the modern military and at war. Jason’s book is a great way to get into the mind of an infantryman – it’s about so much more than pulling the trigger. In Jason’s book, he makes a case against women in the infantry because of sexI know Jason, and I know that his thoughts on the subject have changed. It would be interesting to know what he thinks about his book being used in an article about women in the infantry and being cited as a critic of it (well, what do you think, Jason?).

I suspect that we’ll see even more academic articles on this subject next year, as we’re still only warming up to 2015 when the other foot is supposed to drop. I’ve been contacted by a few academics in the past year asking permission to cite things I’ve written on the subject so I imagine there is a horde of passionate college students ready to prove whatever it is they set out to prove regarding women in the infantry.

This is a good thing, because I for one am tired of reading about women in the infantry from male infantrymen.

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