On Women in the Infantry

Credit: npr.org

Credit: npr.org

Given the current zeitgeist, that all-consuming vigilance by the Politically Correct for any perceived infractions of equality, the fact that women are now being considered for the infantry should come as no real surprise. Though current social and political trends have already laid a firm groundwork for such an effort (e.g. the recent repeal of the military’s “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy), it is nonetheless remarkable.

The Marine Corps recently asked the female lieutenants of a graduating class from The Basic School for volunteers to attend the Infantry Officer Course. Of the eighty eligible females, two stepped forward and were promptly admitted into the extremely rigorous course. The first lasted a single day; the second was dropped for medical reasons after about two weeks.

I have met one of these two brave women, and of the soundness of her motivations and determination I have no doubts; neither do I doubt her capability as a leader. Indeed, her willingness to even step into such an environment is worthy of admiration; for it is no secret that men in the infantry are largely hostile to the notion of women joining their ranks. It is not like stepping into a den of lions; it is like stepping into a den filled with men who kill lions for a living.

But this hostility is not unfounded, and I would count myself among the detractors from this new attempt at inclusiveness. There are reasons in principle against it, but having served in the infantry, I have also witnessed firsthand some practical reasons why the admission of women into the infantry is in my estimation unquestionably foolish.

The first is perhaps the most obvious–that of sexual attraction–which involves more broadly the issue of unit cohesion. This could be more generally be called the sexual dynamic. On my first deployment (Iraq, 2007-08), while stationed with about a dozen or so male Marines at a small Entry Control Point (ECP), teams of female Marines (Female Engagement Teams or “Lionesses”) were brought daily to our outpost to aid in searching the Iraqi women who passed through the checkpoint. For obvious reasons, men are not generally permitted to search Muslim women. The Lionesses’ ability to conduct the job assigned to them and the degree of their work ethic were, as is the case with Marines generally, very high.

However, I began to observe Marines, primarily those in the higher echelons of the pecking order present at the ECP, who were otherwise very professional, begin to act like utter fools in a very primitive and obvious attempt to impress the only American women they had seen in months. The constant attempts to woo female Marines were so blatant as to be almost unbelievable. In one particularly puerile case, a team leader deliberately threw a bottle on the ground within sight of some of the female Marines sitting at an outdoor table and ordered one of his subordinates to pick it up, presumably to demonstrate his qualifications as the alpha male.

While one might be tempted to dismiss this debacle as being only a personal immaturity on the part of certain Marines–which is certainly true, to a degree–the point is that these antics were simply the unrestrained result of an unavoidable biological attraction. As has been the case since the beginning of time, men and women are attracted to the opposite sex; and no amount of training, classes, protocols, nor professionalism can ever hope to change this fact. One may certainly be able to behave professionally in spite of a sexual attraction, but one cannot change the propensity to attraction; and it is the energies that must be expended to exercise such discipline that are potentially problematic, given the nature of the combat environment. To use a vulgar and admittedly imperfect analogy: one may train a dog not to eat a treat, but one cannot without great difficulty (and harmful consequences, besides) train a dog not to want a treat. Any readers tempted to complain that I have just equated men or women with either “dogs” or “treats” have missed the point entirely.

In speaking of the sexual dynamic, one need not think only of the explicitly sexual kind of behavior. Even if treated well, men and women naturally treat each other differently. It is important to note in stark contrast to the shrillest voices of the feminist movement that “differently” is not synonymous with “badly”. Men are naturally disposed to be protectors–specifically, protectors of women–just as women are naturally disposed to be protectors of children. In this regard, the presence of women on the battlefield inevitably produces an unhelpful dynamic, since men rightly experience a strong desire to protect women from harm. Thus, this predisposition would potentially result in a male Marine treating a female Marine differently than his male counterparts in the heat of combat for her sake; and in combat, one is rarely aided by additional variables.

This dynamic is especially aggravated in the types of environments inherent to the job of infantryman, where one is often forced to live in close quarters with very little personal space (if any) and at great length. This is a difficult environment in which to operate, and is only made more so by the introduction of the sexual dynamic. For example, when men living in such circumstances inevitably become irritated with one another, the most effective and efficient solution is sometimes the physical one; namely, a solid blow to the face. Two Marines may engage in a heated argument, come to blows, then in five minutes’ time resume their friendship, or at least a working relationship. Such bouts are infrequent and rarely personal. This is a relational dynamic unique to warrior cultures, one that has always struck me as both amusing and profound. Introducing women into this brutish but effective system is to beset it with unnecessary complication. A male Marine would not wish to strike his female counterpart, even in extreme anger; but he would wish that she were male so that he might. Interpersonal conflict resolution among infantrymen is usually of the more diplomatic sort, but women are (and ought to be) exempt from the possibility of this violent avenue of conflict resolution. Moreover, I seriously doubt any women seeking to join the infantry would even wish to be admitted into the full range of barbaric practices that come with the territory. Responding to a female interlocutor’s question, “Do you believe in the comradeship between the sexes?”, G.K. Chesterton once quipped, “Madam, if I were to treat you for two minutes like a comrade, you would turn me out of the house.” I think he was quite right: the notion that women can or would want to be in every way like “one of the guys” is unrealistic and absurd.

It is clear that there is no more physically demanding job in the military than the job of the infantry; it is equally as clear that women are, generally, physically weaker than men. This objective biological difference is precisely why the standards for men and women sometimes differ in the military. In the Marine Corps, for instance, women are required to perform flexed arm hangs in lieu of pull-ups for the Physical Fitness Test, quite simply because they are easier. Further, even given these lower standards, the rate of attrition for females in Marine Corps schools, such as Officer Candidate School and The Basic School, is drastically higher than that of males. As Marine Corps Captain Katie Petronio cites in her article, “Get Over It! We Are Not All Created Equal”:

“At OCS the attrition rate for female candidates in 2011 was historically low at 40 percent, while the male candidates attrite at a much lower rate of 16 percent. Of candidates who were dropped from training because they were injured or not physically qualified, females were breaking at a much higher rate than males, 14 percent versus 4 percent. The same trends were seen at TBS in 2011; the attrition rate for females was 13 percent versus 5 percent for males, and 5 percent of females were found not physically qualified compared with 1 percent of males.”

This is a consistent trend due to the unalterable biological differences between males and females, and it should be unsurprising to those without presuppositional biases to the contrary.

While it is true that there are some women who are quite capable of doing twenty pull-ups without breaking a sweat, perhaps even some capable of making it through a course like the IOC, some of these biological differences are unchangeable and yet significant. For example, the male skeleton is bigger, which provides an inherent advantage, since larger bones are generally stronger. Stronger bones are less apt to break. Males also experience muscle atrophy at a lower rate than females. In her aforementioned article, Captain Petronio attacks the inclusion of women in the infantry on the basis of physical longevity, citing from experience her observation that her male counterparts experienced physical deterioration at a slower rate than she in prolonged adverse circumstances. Naturally, in combat, physical strength and durability are factors of grave importance.

For exactly the same reasons that males and females in the military currently have segregated quarters and bathroom facilities, reasons as obvious as they are practical, women in the infantry would necessarily require additional amenities. It is in every way proper for women to have separate facilities, but in combat environments this is not always feasible. It is, however, a burden; and with women present, a necessary one.

I will forgo the list of potential physical ailments which befall women alone in the field, but suffice it to say the list is long–longer, I might add, than those which afflict men. Similarly, hygiene is a much more complicated endeavor for women. This is a significant logistical problem insofar as it concerns the need for certain types of additional medication and time to recover from medical problems that would otherwise be absent from a fighting unit.

There is also the issue of capture. Though rare, the matter must at least be considered. Despite the many horrible forms of torture an enemy fighter might be inclined to inflict upon a male prisoner, rape is rarely one of them; yet it is perhaps the most devastating, and history has proven it to be one of the first inclinations of depraved men possessing female prisoners. There are already circumstances in which female troops have been vulnerable to capture, even times in which they were captured (e.g. Jessica Lynch); but just what is to be gained by increasing their exposure and risk? I certainly do not think this matter alone is enough to prevent women from joining the infantry; it is but a small part of the cumulative case.

The central argument of the case for female infantry is that we ought not discriminate on the basis of gender. This is because gender is alleged to be an irrelevant factor concerning the infantry occupation. I hope I have given enough reason to suggest the naïvité of this view to those who do not already oppose it on the basis of common sense, but it remains to be pointed out that the military discriminates on the basis of unalterable factors all the time. For instance, pilots for certain aircraft cannot be taller than a specific height, due to the small size of the cockpit; yet, strangely, one does not hear of lawsuits calling for more accommodating cockpits. Absurd as this would be (though it would be on par in stupidity with a profusion of other actual lawsuits), a cockpit is a thing much more easily altered than the nature of ground warfare itself, which is exactly what would require changing in order to make the inclusion of women in the infantry a good idea.

Given that the presence of women among the ranks of the infantry potentially poses significant difficulties, it is quite relevant to consider just what role a woman might fill that cannot be fulfilled (in many cases more successfully) by a man. This suggestion will undoubtedly be unpopular, but unpopularity is a poor gauge of soundness. Women are indistinguishable from men in their ability to lead, solve complex problems, and, perhaps, even kill. It is not on these grounds that I express dissent, but on the basis of those that cannot be overcome by any amount of willpower or training; namely, those intrinsic to sex and biology.

Since there is no shortage of capable men for the job and no intrinsic female qualities beneficial to the infantry occupation that do not also come paired with serious detriments, one must wonder just what practical military benefit the United States seeks to achieve by seeking to include women among the ranks? America is a country of principles, but it is also a country that has historically been practical. To act solely on principle (especially on erroneous principles), is to act foolishly, particularly when it concerns delicate matters of life and death. Combat is intensely practical. It cares nothing for principles. It is a deadly dance of practical gamesmanship that the man acting on principle is certain to lose. Carl von Clausewitz noted–correctly, I think–that “war is such a dangerous business that mistakes that come from kindness are the very worst” (1). Indeed, it is kind and good to open the door for a woman, but it is something less than kind if on the other side is a battlefield.

Evidence of the pervasive perversion of equality in our day is that this essay shall be taken by some to mean that I think men and women are unequal. This is untrue. Men and women are equal, but not the same. Equality has to do with intrinsic value, whereas I am here concerned with practical differences. Thus, the fact that men are generally more suited than women for the unpleasant rigors and brutalities of warfare does not mean that men are better than women. It means that men and women are each better suited for different kinds of occupations. Given the nature of the job in question, one involving life and death and sometimes in the most adverse circumstances conceivable, these differences are not to be dismissed lightly on the basis of philosophical principles of political correctness alone, without compelling practical reasons in support.

The ACLU, being an organization devoted solely to principle, has recently filed a lawsuit seeking to remove all gender-based restrictions on combat occupations. While well-meaning, the ACLU’s attempts will certainly be thought laughably naïve by nearly all infantrymen who have experienced significant time in the field. Perhaps as a test case the NFL ought to welcome all willing female players onto its teams and into its locker rooms. I should be quite surprised if a single season were not enough to cure the participants of any previously ambitious desire to “hang with the boys”, or, likewise, to join the infantry. The woman who claims to want equal treatment with her male infantry counterparts not only will fail to receive it, but is ignorant of what she is asking. The front lines of the battlefield are devoid of women for many of the same reasons the football fields are: virtually no women have any desire to participate, and the ones that do are unqualified to play against men. If the idea of integrating women into the NFL is ridiculous (and it is), integrating women into the infantry can only be more absurd. Any women who readily acknowledge the difficulties their presence would create in the infantry, yet persist in seeking admittance on the basis of principle are disgracefully selfish–they do not have in mind the best interest of the country, but the attainment of their own personal goals.

The rejection of gender roles, or even gender differences, is the central tenet of the contemporary hard-line feminist, who either cannot accept the idea that men and women generally possess significant and objective differences, or, in the most extreme cases, thinks that women are inherently of greater value than men. To the former, I suggest a cursory reading of Gray’s Anatomy; to the latter, a hug.

But not all women seeking to join the infantry would call themselves feminists in either of these two senses. Some are simply patriots up for a challenge. As to their offer, I say, respectfully, “thank you, but no.”


1.) Von Clausewitz, Carl. On War. Book 1, Chapter 1. 1832.

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9 thoughts on “On Women in the Infantry

  1. Shawn says:

    Two points I see recurring in this post:

    1. Equality of opportunity doesn’t produce equality of outcome (re: percentages of men and women who pass Basic), therefore equality of opportunity is a waste of time. There’s not much I can say about this point; people either believe it or they don’t, and neither side will ever successfully convince the others. Personally, I disagree.

    2. Women have special needs (re: hygiene, physical fitness standards, protection from sexual abuse, etc.), but men have none. That is an inherently biased opinion, based on the notion that men are the default state of humanity. If you list all the ways men and women are different, then subtract all of them from the definition of “human”, then you will see that ALL differences between men and women produce requirements for special needs. Women did not survive before the invention of antiseptic wipes and tampons purely by accident; nowadays she perhaps needs a bottle of birth-control pills to prevent menstruation, and the rest can be handled with the same equipment men use to clean themselves.

    As for the notion that men need to be able to hit each other to resolve their differences, I say: grow the fuck up already. It should be obvious that warfare is the same kind of immature bullshit as punching your roommate in the face because you’re angry at him, only on a much larger scale. The fact that you think this is an acceptable way for adults to solve problems gives a rather strong suggestion of why you might’ve been attracted to warfare in the first place.

    • mdkirby says:

      Thanks for taking the time to share your thoughts, Shawn!

      My opinion is certainly biased – biased in light of my observations and experience. A biased opinion (which is to say every opinion) is not necessarily untrue.

      1.) “Equality of opportunity doesn’t produce equality of outcome (re: percentages of men and women who pass Basic), therefore equality of opportunity is a waste of time.”

      This is not my argument. My argument is that creating what you call “equality of opportunity” is impossible given the differences intrinsic to men and women and that these differences are not insignificant. Even if a woman could meet all the physical requirements (strength, endurance, etc), the sexual dynamic would still exist.

      2.) “Women have special needs (re: hygiene, physical fitness standards, protection from sexual abuse, etc.), but men have none. That is an inherently biased opinion, based on the notion that men are the default state of humanity.”

      Again, this is not my claim. Men have special needs, certainly; but they have FAR fewer given their biological makeup. This is medically uncontroversial. Need I point out that it is impossible for men to become pregnant? Thinking that all women will diligently take birth control (or exercise abstinence) while deployed is unrealistic. For example, in Afghanistan, though we were all issued doxycycline pills to prevent certain infections, many Marines stopped taking it, either because they forgot or did not see the need. Other potential problems include the much higher propensity of females to develop urinary tract infections and the like. While not debilitating, it is, at least, an additional concern that would otherwise be largely absent from an all-male force.

      3) “As for the notion that men need to be able to hit each other to resolve their differences, I say: grow the fuck up already.”

      Even outside of direct combat, life on the battlefield can be an unpleasant place, especially when one’s entire occupation is centered around avoiding death and finding creative ways to deal it out to others. Anyone who has spent any time on the battlefield will be quite aware of this. But perhaps you missed it when I said, “Such bouts are infrequent and rarely personal. … Interpersonal conflict resolution among infantrymen is usually of the more diplomatic sort…”

      My point in giving this example was to show that life in the infantry can be a harsh place – a place highly unsuitable for women in more ways than one. I personally do not consider fighting to be the best form of conflict resolution, certainly; but it is naive to seek to apply civilian standards of civility to those who have been asked to perform the extremely stressful job of killing for a living. Given the tone of your comment, and that last highly unnecessary ad hominem, I take it you have had little battlefield experience, which is fine; but you are hardly qualified to issue an attack on my motivations.

      Men are not the “default state of humanity”, but they are at least the obvious first choice for the infantry.

      • Shawn says:

        Thanks for the thoughtful reply. You’re correct, I’m a civilian, but an Army brat, and I grew up surrounded by military personnel. When they tell me they had their doubts about women in the military but now feel comfortable trusting them with their lives like any other soldiers, I’m inclined to take their word for it. As for me, I spend my time supporting national security in less-obvious ways.

        1) The sexual dynamic already exists; even if women weren’t in combat roles, they would still be present on-base, and it would still be necessary for all soldiers to learn to control their impulses when they’re not getting shot at. I see no reason to excuse any adult human being from the responsibility of knowing how to behave themselves. As for those times when soldiers *are* getting shot at, I certainly hope their primary concerns are A) shooting back and B) not getting hit. Being concerned with anything else during a firefight is counterproductive to surviving, and those who do so will quickly become subject to the force of natural selection.

        2) Not taking meds is a matter of lacking discipline. I won’t discount the possibility of losing your meds during an operation, but if someone decides they *can’t be bothered* to swallow a pill when they stop for water, that’s their own goddamn problem. Certainly if that results in a health problem, it becomes the entire unit’s problem, but anytime a soldier’s behavior becomes the unit’s problem, a reprimand is in-order. If commanders aren’t doing that, they’re not doing their jobs right.

        3) I misread your original post as “such bouts are frequent”, instead of “infrequent”, but regardless, I have to wonder how a fistfight can be impersonal. Dropping a MOAB in a mountain valley is impersonal; hitting someone in the face, not so much. For the rest of my thoughts on this point, refer to my response to Sean.

      • mdkirby says:

        “…I grew up surrounded by military personnel. When they tell me they had their doubts about women in the military but now feel comfortable trusting them with their lives like any other soldiers, I’m inclined to take their word for it.”

        Were these infantrymen telling you this? In my own experience, I have yet to encounter a single infantry Marine who was not leery of the idea of integrating women. It doesn’t surprise me that people unfamiliar with the infantry occupation see no problem with it; They have no frame of reference by which to make an informed assessment.

        “The sexual dynamic already exists; even if women weren’t in combat roles, they would still be present on-base, and it would still be necessary for all soldiers to learn to control their impulses when they’re not getting shot at.”

        Life on base is hardly comparable to life in the field. In Afghanistan, we took bottle showers by standing on a sparsely covered pallet, lived practically on top of each other in a small one-room tent, and spent a lot of time half naked. Privacy did not exist.
        Anyway, I’m not suggesting something so ridiculous as the idea that Marines might act on some sexual impulse in the midst of combat.

        “Being concerned with anything else during a firefight is counterproductive to surviving, and those who do so will quickly become subject to the force of natural selection.”

        Potential distractions will pick off the poorly adapted? This statement and the nonchalant tone with which you seemingly uttered it disgusts me.

        “Certainly if that results in a health problem, it becomes the entire unit’s problem…”

        Exactly. I heard third-hand from an instructor at IOC that some female Marines on FETs were recently sent home after becoming pregnant on deployment. It was poor judgement on their part, but their actions decrease the overall effectiveness of their unit. Similarly, when I was in Afghanistan, a female Gunnery Sergeant was charged with having prostituted herself to make money. Such acts are never justified, but integrating women into the infantry environment is just asking for trouble.

        “…I have to wonder how a fistfight can be impersonal.”

        You haven’t spent any time in the infantry, so I don’t expect you to understand the nuances of the relational dynamics. It is a unique environment.

        Just what is to be gained by integrating women into the infantry? Again, if there is no shortage of capable men, and there are inevitable problems that would result as a consequence of integrating women, on what basis would the military be justified in doing so?

    • Sean says:

      Shawn is a perfect example of leftist stupidity.

      Warfare is “immature bullshit”? Warfare is what it is, not what Shawn — in his lofty progressive fantasies — would like it to be.,

      The purpose of armed forces are to kill people and break things.

      Killing the other people with the loss of as few of our people as possible, and breaking their stuff at the lowest cost to our treasury, is what we want out of our armed forces. Not any of the endless navel-gazing bullshit Shawn and his ilk would inflict upon us.

      Deep down, Shawn knows he couldn’t hack it as a warrior. There’s the real basis for his condescending “progressive” nonsense. Shawn seeks a world in which all are dragged down to his inadequate standard — in the name of “fairness” and “social justice” and “equality” — because he is unable and unwilling to even attempt to achieve anything on his own.

      • Shawn says:

        You miss my point. Of course warfare exists for the purpose of killing people and breaking things, and sometimes that is necessary. I would never tell anyone, an individual or a nation, that they shouldn’t defend themselves as necessary, or be aggressive when survival requires it. However, considering violence an acceptable way to solve problems *unless all other avenues have been explored* IS immature bullshit. Punching your bunkmate in the face because you don’t know how to communicate effectively, or can’t be bothered to try, is immature bullshit. Wishing you could punch a woman in the face because you don’t know how to use words to express your frustrations is *also* immature bullshit, and sexist too. I seriously doubt any woman who can pass Basic is going to crumple to the floor in tears if you tap her in the jaw, though doing so would make you an asshole — but then, doing that makes you an asshole *regardless* of which private parts the other person has..

        Sorry if I was unclear the first time around.

      • Shawn says:

        I find it amusing (or bemusing?) that you assume I’m “leftist” because I think a woman who passes Basic might actually be capable of doing the job that Basic is supposed to prepare *anyone* for. The fact that you’re capable of such a foolish and uninformed misconception should give you a hint that you’re pretty far off the deep end in the other direction.

  2. WRL says:

    “It is not like stepping into a den of lions, it is like stepping into a den filled with men who kill lions for a living.”


  3. USMC0302 says:

    Shawn, Shawn, Shawn…I don’t know what your upbringing was or where you come from, so I won’t comment on either, but violence is most certainly an acceptable way to solve problems when dealing with bad people. If this weren’t the case, we would be just fine with only a National Guard. Unfortunately, a lot of other cultures around the world don’t see eye to eye with you and will not respond to anything BUT violence. Additionally, I would not expect someone with zero experience in an infantry unit with combat experience to understand the nature of the warrior mentality. Getting into the occasional fist fight or grappling bout is how we bond. We are warriors, we are trained from the get go to use violence to solve our problems…it’s our job! If wars could be won by simple diplomacy and verbal communication, maybe they will start integrating that into the infantry curriculum.

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