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 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 23, 2014 -- Updated 1205 GMT (2005 HKT)
LZ Granderson says Ronald Reagan went horseback riding and took a vacation after the Korean Air Crash of 1983. So why does the GOP keep airbrushing history to bash Obama?
July 23, 2014 -- Updated 1338 GMT (2138 HKT)
Aaron Miller says Kerry needs the cooperation of Hamas, Israel, Egypt and others if he is to succeed in his peacemaking efforts
July 23, 2014 -- Updated 1251 GMT (2051 HKT)
Errol Louis says the tragic death of Eric Garner at the hands of the NYPD has its roots in the "broken windows" police strategy from the crime-ridden '80s.
July 23, 2014 -- Updated 1408 GMT (2208 HKT)
Gordon Brown says the kidnapped Nigerian girls have been in captivity for 100 days, but the world has not forgotten them.
July 23, 2014 -- Updated 1127 GMT (1927 HKT)
Ruben Navarrette says Texas Gov. Rick Perry is right to immediately send 1,000 National Guard troops to the U.S.-Mexico border in response to the border children crisis.
July 22, 2014 -- Updated 1356 GMT (2156 HKT)
Ukraine's president says the downing of MH17 was a terrorist act, but Richard Barrett says it would be considered terrorism only if it was intentional
July 22, 2014 -- Updated 2015 GMT (0415 HKT)
Robert McIntyre says the loophole that lets firms avoid taxes should be closed
July 22, 2014 -- Updated 1535 GMT (2335 HKT)
Jeronimo Saldana and Malik Burnett say Gov. Perry's plan to send National Guard to the border won't solve the escalating immigration problem.
July 22, 2014 -- Updated 1742 GMT (0142 HKT)
Sally Kohn: The world's fish and waters are polluted and under threat. Be very careful what fish you eat
July 22, 2014 -- Updated 1242 GMT (2042 HKT)
Les Abend says threat information that pilots respond to is only as good as the intelligence from air traffic controllers. And none of it is a match for a radar-guided missile
July 21, 2014 -- Updated 1235 GMT (2035 HKT)
Frida Ghitis: Anger over MH17 is growing against pro-Russia separatists. It's time for the Dutch government to lead, she writes
July 21, 2014 -- Updated 1227 GMT (2027 HKT)
Julian Zelizer says President Obama called inequality the "defining challenge" of our time but hasn't followed through.
July 21, 2014 -- Updated 1157 GMT (1957 HKT)
Gene Seymour says the 'Rockford Files' actor worked the persona of the principled coward, charming audiences on big and small screen for generations
July 21, 2014 -- Updated 1417 GMT (2217 HKT)
Daniel Treisman says that when the Russian leader tied his fate to the Ukraine separatists, he set the stage for his current risky predicament
July 18, 2014 -- Updated 1642 GMT (0042 HKT)
Andrew Kuchins says urgent diplomacy -- not sanctions -- is needed to de-escalate the conflict in Ukraine that helped lead to the downing of an airliner there.
July 19, 2014 -- Updated 0150 GMT (0950 HKT)
Jim Hall and Peter Goelz say there should be an immediate and thorough investigation into what happened to MH17.
July 18, 2014 -- Updated 1507 GMT (2307 HKT)
Pilot Bill Palmer says main defense commercial jets have against missiles is to avoid flying over conflict areas.
July 20, 2014 -- Updated 1755 GMT (0155 HKT)
Valerie Jarrett says that working women should not be discriminated against because they are pregnant.
July 21, 2014 -- Updated 1953 GMT (0353 HKT)
David Wheeler says the next time you get a difficult customer representative, think about recording the call.
July 18, 2014 -- Updated 1933 GMT (0333 HKT)
Newt Gingrich says the more dangerous the world becomes the more Obama hides in a fantasy world.
July 18, 2014 -- Updated 1011 GMT (1811 HKT)
Michael Desch: It's hard to see why anyone, including Russia and its local allies, would have intentionally targeted the Malaysian Airlines flight
July 17, 2014 -- Updated 1914 GMT (0314 HKT)
LZ Granderson says we must remember our visceral horror at the news of children killed in an airstrike on a Gaza beach next time our politicians talk of war
July 17, 2014 -- Updated 1206 GMT (2006 HKT)
Sally Kohn says now the House GOP wants to sue Obama for not implementing a law fast enough, a law they voted down 50 times, all reason has left the room.
July 17, 2014 -- Updated 1214 GMT (2014 HKT)
A street sign for Wall Street
Sens. Elizabeth Warren, John McCain and others want to scale back the "too big to fail" banks that put us at risk of another financial collapse.
July 17, 2014 -- Updated 2016 GMT (0416 HKT)
Newt Gingrich writes an open letter to Robert McDonald, the nominee to head the Veterans Administration.
July 18, 2014 -- Updated 1601 GMT (0001 HKT)
Paul Begala says Dick Cheney has caused an inordinate amount of damage yet continues in a relentless effort to revise the history of his failures.
July 18, 2014 -- Updated 1404 GMT (2204 HKT)
Kids who takes cell phones to bed are not sleeping, says Mel Robbins. Make them park their phones with the parents at night.
July 25, 2014 -- Updated 1237 GMT (2037 HKT)
Buzz Aldrin looked at planet Earth as he stood on talcum-like lunar dust 45 years ago. He thinks the next frontier should be Mars.
July 16, 2014 -- Updated 1804 GMT (0204 HKT)
Mark Zeller never thought my Afghan translator would save his life by killing two Taliban fighters who were about to kill him. The Taliban retaliated by placing him on the top of its kill list.
July 17, 2014 -- Updated 1518 GMT (2318 HKT)
Jeff Yang says an all-white cast of Asian characters in cartoonish costumes is racially offensive.
July 17, 2014 -- Updated 0124 GMT (0924 HKT)
Gary Ginsberg says the late John F. Kennedy Jr.'s reaction to an event in 1995 summed up his character
July 16, 2014 -- Updated 1641 GMT (0041 HKT)
Meg Urry says most falling space debris lands on the planet harmlessly and with no witnesses.
ADVERTISEMENT