Skip to main content

Will infantry men accept women as peers?

By Maren Leed, Special to CNN
January 26, 2013 -- Updated 1538 GMT (2338 HKT)
Hospital Corpsman Shannon Crowley packs for a mission as Lance Cpl.. Kristi Baker sits on her bed in 2010 in Afghanistan.
Hospital Corpsman Shannon Crowley packs for a mission as Lance Cpl.. Kristi Baker sits on her bed in 2010 in Afghanistan.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Maren Leed: Ban on women in combat has hurt operations, women's promotion
  • Leed: Integrating women into the physically demanding infantry presents challenges
  • Women are already in combat; she says, the "front line" and "rear line" no longer exist
  • Leed: Research into women in infantry might show that some limits might be appropriate

Editor's note: Maren Leed is senior adviser, Harold Brown Chair in defense policy studies at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. From 2011 to 2012, she served as senior adviser to the chief of staff of the U.S. Army. Follow the Center for Strategic and International Studies on Twitter.

(CNN) -- In the coming years, lifting the ban on women in combat, announced Thursday by Defense Secretary Leon Panetta, might prove particularly challenging in the most iconic of military occupations -- the infantry, among the most physically demanding and tradition-bound branches of the Marines and the Army.

Determining the best path forward to integrate women into this elite group will require hard-nosed honesty, careful management and compelling leadership.

For the 65 years that women have enjoyed a permanent place in the United States military, they have been subject to restrictions. One rationale is the notion embedded in our culture that women should be shielded from great physical risks. Another is a recognition of the physical superiority of the average male over the average female. A third is the fear that unit cohesion, critical to military performance, would suffer with the introduction of women.

Maren Leed
Maren Leed
Become a fan of CNNOpinion
Stay up to date on the latest opinion, analysis and conversations through social media. Join us at Facebook/CNNOpinion and follow us @CNNOpinion on Twitter. We welcome your ideas and comments.



These three concerns apply to varying degrees in the infantry. But the last 11 years of war have clearly demonstrated that warfare is no longer waged in a linear fashion, and that the concept of "front line" no longer applies.

Opinion: A more equal military? Bring back draft

Historically, logistics operations were conducted "in the rear," where risks were comparatively low. This has changed: In 2006 in Iraq, for example, one in every five truck convoys was attacked. Although infantry clearly remains one of the most dangerous military occupations, the proliferation of homemade bombs and other low-cost, lethal weaponry and tactics have heightened the risk of almost every occupation. War is more uniformly dangerous.

That said, physical differences between the sexes remains a thorny issue. Determining gender-neutral physical standards for an integrated infantry will be one of the most difficult tasks ahead.

Infantry soldiers and Marines are the primary forces for operations on foot. They not only travel long distances, but also frequently carry loads in excess of 50 pounds. Both the short- and long-term health effects of such demands can be significant.

Single mom fought alongside combat troops in Afghanistan

Policy change allows women in combat
Pentagon ends ban on women in combat

The Defense Department has consistently pursued solutions to lighten the load, from exoskeletons to unmanned vehicles that would serve as "pack mules," to the elusive quest for higher power, lower weight batteries.

The success of these efforts will benefit both men and women. But until that happens, research into the effects these physical demands have on women is necessary before determining the degree to which they can, and should, be part of the full range of infantry.

Whether men serving in the infantry will accept women as peers is another open question.

Those who oppose women in the infantry argue that they would change group dynamics, disrupt bonding and ultimately harm unit cohesion. In the past, these fears have been brought up regarding the participation of minorities and homosexuals, too. But data show these negative predictions don't come true. Instead, successful integration has happened with strong leadership, and, critically, a process that is broadly perceived to be fair.

Opinion: Women in combat a dangerous experiment

Even if the arguments underpinning the ban on women in combat have weakened, is there sufficient justification for change? The Joint Chiefs apparently believe so, as they have unanimously recommended the ban be lifted.

Each of the services already has been taking steps along these lines. This is in part driven by the evolution of the battlefield. When today's senior leaders were serving time in Iraq and Afghanistan, they realized that the restrictions on women sometimes also restricted their missions.

They implemented work-arounds and sought exceptions to policy. But they came home with firsthand experience of the mismatch between modern warfare and the policies limiting women's role. Women are in combat, and senior military leaders believe that future success demands they must remain available to be so, in even greater numbers.

From the institutional viewpoint, there are also concerns that the traditional limitations fail to make the best use of women in the service. Combat experience weighs heavily in promotion decisions, and restrictions have precluded women from gaining experiences equal to those of male counterparts.

Women are also excluded from many of the occupations disproportionately represented in senior leadership, and that automatically limits the number of women who can advance to the highest levels. At the same time, the pool of Americans eligible for military service is shrinking, and competition for high-quality recruits is intensifying. So it's imperative that the military fully leverage the talent of the men and women it has and that it seeks to attract.

By the numbers: Women in the U.S. military

The arguments in favor of lifting the ban on women in combat outweigh those against it. Despite Defense Secretary Leon Panetta's announcement on Thursday, the military services maintain the prerogative to preclude women from serving in certain positions or occupations.

Infantry, or at least some specialties within that branch, could well be a case in which restrictions are warranted. But military leaders have time to evaluate this proposition, and to set the conditions to make any change stick. The path ahead may not be smooth, but it is necessary.

Follow us on Twitter @CNNOpinion.

Join us on Facebook/CNNOpinion.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Maren Leed.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
July 30, 2014 -- Updated 1941 GMT (0341 HKT)
Stuart Gitlow says pot is addictive and those who smoke it can experience long-term psychiatric disease.
July 30, 2014 -- Updated 1645 GMT (0045 HKT)
Gabby Giffords and Katie Ray-Jones say "Between 2001 and 2012, more women were shot to death by an intimate partner in our country than the total number of American troops killed in the Iraq and Afghanistan wars combined."
July 29, 2014 -- Updated 2357 GMT (0757 HKT)
Alan Elsner says Secretary Kerry's early cease-fire draft was leaked and presented as a final document, which served the interests of hard-liners on both sides who don't want the Gaza war to stop.
July 30, 2014 -- Updated 1158 GMT (1958 HKT)
Vijay Das says Medicare is a success story that could provide health care for everybody, not just seniors
July 30, 2014 -- Updated 1818 GMT (0218 HKT)
Rick Francona says Israel seems determined to render Hamas militarily ineffective.
July 30, 2014 -- Updated 1743 GMT (0143 HKT)
S.E. Cupp says the entrepreneur and Dallas Mavericks owner thinks for himself and refuses to be confined to an ideological box.
July 30, 2014 -- Updated 1311 GMT (2111 HKT)
A Christian group's anger over the trailer for "Black Jesus," an upcoming TV show, seems out of place, Jay Parini says
July 30, 2014 -- Updated 2028 GMT (0428 HKT)
LZ Granderson says the cyber-standing ovation given to Robyn Lawley, an Australian plus-size model who posted unretouched photos, shows how crazy Americans' notions of beauty have become
July 30, 2014 -- Updated 1939 GMT (0339 HKT)
Carol Dweck and Rachel Simmons: Girls tend to have a "fixed mindset" but they should have a "growth mindset."
July 28, 2014 -- Updated 1156 GMT (1956 HKT)
A crisis like the Gaza conflict or the surge of immigrants can be an opportunity for a lame duck president, writes Julian Zelizer
July 26, 2014 -- Updated 1822 GMT (0222 HKT)
Carol Costello says the league's light punishment sent the message that it didn't consider domestic violence a serious offense
July 28, 2014 -- Updated 1251 GMT (2051 HKT)
Danny Cevallos says saggy pants aren't the kind of fashion statement protected by the First Amendment.
July 28, 2014 -- Updated 1852 GMT (0252 HKT)
Margaret Hoover says some GOP legislators support a state's right to allow same-sex marriage and the right of churches, synagogues and mosques not to perform the sacrament
July 28, 2014 -- Updated 1831 GMT (0231 HKT)
Megan McCracken and Jennifer Moreno say it's unacceptable for states to experiment with new execution procedures without full disclosure
July 30, 2014 -- Updated 1744 GMT (0144 HKT)
Priya Satia says today's drones for bombardment and surveillance have their roots in the deadly history of Western aerial control of the Middle East that began in World War One
July 28, 2014 -- Updated 1635 GMT (0035 HKT)
Jeff Yang says it's great to see the comics make an effort at diversifying the halls of justice
July 26, 2014 -- Updated 1555 GMT (2355 HKT)
Rick Francona says the reported artillery firing from Russian territory is a sign Vladimir Putin has escalated the Ukraine battle
July 27, 2014 -- Updated 1822 GMT (0222 HKT)
Paul Callan says the fact that appeals delay the death penalty doesn't make it an unconstitutional punishment, as one judge ruled
July 24, 2014 -- Updated 2225 GMT (0625 HKT)
Pilot Robert Mark says it's been tough for the airline industry after the plane crashes in Ukraine and Taiwan.
July 25, 2014 -- Updated 1510 GMT (2310 HKT)
Jennifer DeVoe laments efforts to end subsidies that allow working Americans to finally afford health insurance.
July 26, 2014 -- Updated 1533 GMT (2333 HKT)
Ruti Teitel says assigning a costly and humiliating "collective guilt" to Germany after WWI would end up teaching the global community hard lessons about who to blame for war crimes
July 25, 2014 -- Updated 1245 GMT (2045 HKT)
John Sutter responds to criticism of his column on the ethics of eating dog.
July 25, 2014 -- Updated 1302 GMT (2102 HKT)
Frida Ghitis says it's tempting to ignore North Korea's antics as bluster but the cruel regime is dangerous.
July 25, 2014 -- Updated 1850 GMT (0250 HKT)
To the question "Is Putin evil?" Alexander Motyl says he is evil enough for condemnation by people of good will.
July 24, 2014 -- Updated 1803 GMT (0203 HKT)
Laurie Garrett: Poor governance, ignorance, hysteria worsen the Ebola epidemic in Sierra Leone, Guinea, Liberia.
July 24, 2014 -- Updated 1349 GMT (2149 HKT)
Patrick Cronin and Kelley Sayler say the world is seeing nonstate groups such as Ukraine's rebels wielding more power to do harm than ever before
July 23, 2014 -- Updated 2205 GMT (0605 HKT)
Ukraine ambassador Olexander Motsyk places blame for the MH17 tragedy squarely at the door of Russia
July 24, 2014 -- Updated 1142 GMT (1942 HKT)
Mark Kramer says Russia and its proxies have a history of shooting down civilian aircraft, often with few repercussions
July 24, 2014 -- Updated 1853 GMT (0253 HKT)
Les Abend says, with rockets flying over Tel Aviv and missiles shooting down MH17 over Ukraine, a commercial pilot's pre-flight checklist just got much more complicated
July 24, 2014 -- Updated 1317 GMT (2117 HKT)
Mark Kramer says Russia and its proxies have a history of shooting down civilian aircraft, often with few repercussions
July 24, 2014 -- Updated 1637 GMT (0037 HKT)
Gerard Jacobs says grieving families and nations need the comfort of traditional rituals to honor the remains of loved ones, particularly in a mass disaster
July 24, 2014 -- Updated 1413 GMT (2213 HKT)
The idea is difficult to stomach, but John Sutter writes that eating dog is morally equivalent to eating pig, another intelligent animal. If Americans oppose it, they should question their own eating habits as well.
July 23, 2014 -- Updated 1630 GMT (0030 HKT)
Bill van Esveld says under the laws of war, civilians who do not join in the fight are always to be protected. An International Criminal Court could rule on whether Israeli airstrikes and Hamas rocketing are war crimes.
July 30, 2014 -- Updated 1209 GMT (2009 HKT)
Gordon Brown says the kidnapped Nigerian girls have been in captivity for 100 days, but the world has not forgotten them.
ADVERTISEMENT