More on Integration of Women Into the Infantry

In a recent exchange with Don Gomez of Carrying the Gun, I argued that women should be integrated into the infantry because “it’s the right thing to do.” Don challenged me to defend this statement, so here I am.

In Part II of his series on the topic, Don acknowledges “fairness” in his even-handed list of the arguments for and against integration:

For women in the infantry:
1) Fairness. If she can do the job, why should we tell her no?
2) Acknowledgement. Women have been fighting and dying in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan for the past decade, with distinction. Allowing women in the infantry would be simply policy coming in line with the reality.
3) Robustness. Females will provide access to cultures in which male-female contact is discouraged (Iraq, Afghanistan)

Against women in the infantry:
1) Disruptive. Injecting women into the infantry would be disruptive to male bonding.
2) The juice is not worth the squeeze. It is not worth fundamentally altering the infantry for the few women that may be able to make it.
3) Traditional values/theological arguments. Many argue that close combat is the purview of men, and that women do not belong there.

Though we should all accept fairness as a basic tenet of human justice, fairness is a broad concept that’s easily dismissed by arguments of convenience. I think we can arrive at a more specific and useful term by approaching integration from the other side of the coin. In human rights parlance, we would speak not of the concept of fairness but of violations of that fairness. We would label these violations arbitrary discrimination. The point to be made here is that the government has no empirical reason to believe that women are harmful to the state apparatus.

“Arbitrary” is the operative word. Many human rights protections are written with legal caveats that allow legitimate states to temporarily curtail (or “derogate from”) such rights in the event of a true public emergency in which the existence of the state cannot otherwise be assured. To derogate from its responsibility to uphold freedom from arbitrary discrimination, a state must be prepared to prove that a specific group represents a specific threat to the state that cannot reasonably be rectified through other means.

Neither me or Don are writing for a courtroom audience, so it wouldn’t be helpful to adhere too closely to legal definitions here. Nevertheless, the analogy is useful for helping us to determine which forms of discrimination we should accept in an otherwise free society. If the US were in the midst of a genuine public emergency that required the mobilization of the infantry, and if this emergency were sufficiently grave to somehow prevent the US from administering physical fitness tests to infantry recruits, and given that the vast majority of women lack the upper body strength to meet the physical requirements that are currently in place (and given that these requirements are genuinely designed to ensure the requisite combat performance, not merely to keep women out of the infantry), then in that specific case, the US might be legally justified in an outright ban on women in the infantry since the ban could be the only thing that prevents a collapse of the state.

I don’t expect a purely international legal argument to obtain much traction in one of the eight countries on the planet that has not ratified the international Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women. But look at how far removed the situation I described above is from where we are now. The US is a strong, secure country with every necessary resource to screen infantry recruits on merit. The only argument against integration still standing is the one Don makes in Part III, which is that, for better or worse, the young men who currently comprise our infantry cannot be expected to handle it. It’s time to knock that one down too.

In no other industry do we still accept as a justification that employees just flat-out refuse to abide by rote professional standards. No police department, construction crew, or Fortune 500 company in the country could get away with it. Showing respect for one’s colleagues without regard to gender is a basic requirement for functioning in American society. The infantry should not be held above this American value, nor are its members well served in their eventual reintegration into civilian society by so doing.

Nor does the military accept such arguments except where it’s convenient to do so. This is an organization that will kill you for acting on the animal instinct of self-preservation. Surely infantrymen can be expected to treat women as equals. Surely the US government should not single out this group of young men for protection from having to grow up.

It’s only fair to acknowledge that integration will be a long, difficult process. I would expect that integration of a substantial proportion of women would introduce an element of balance and maturity to social interaction and decisionmaking in the infantry, which would in turn alleviate some of the problems that Don points to. However, so few women are likely to meet extant upper body strength requirements that they will probably enter the infantry in tiny numbers that have only a token social effect for many years to come.

When Don published Part II of his post, I commented that we should move to a “super-professionalized” force as he described earlier. I was attempting to knock down what I saw as an unreasonably sacred belief, but I’ve since reconsidered my extreme position. After all, I’m the one who wrote an essay titled, No, Really: Is the US Military Cut Out for Courageous Restraint? 

I don’t think that military leadership can be expected to prevent literally all “bad behavior,” as Don puts it. Nor do I think the infantry necessarily needs to raise other standards (Don invoked intelligence test scores) to integrate women. I do think that genuinely expressing zero tolerance (as opposed to giving a mandatory equal opportunity class in the usual “let’s get this over with” tone) for gender discrimination will, over time, make the infantry a tolerable place for women. In the meantime, it should be women’s choice to put up with unamerican discrimination and abuse as they desire.

As it stands, many servicemembers think of gender blindness as one of many technicalities that they don’t really have to follow as long as they sufficiently cover their ass. But many of my infantry peers were quite ready to believe whatever was asserted with absolute certainty by charismatic leaders. I have a feeling that, if these leaders were to simply remove any space for disagreement, large numbers of their subordinates would follow and the rest would be left with little choice but to get on board. A few generations later, integration will be treated as a given.


  1. Fantastic argument. You almost have me convinced.


  1. […] and doesn’t post nearly as frequently as he should – Jason Lemieux – wrote a good rebuttal to my posts on ‘What is the […]

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