One Less Bit of Evidence Against Combat Integration

In July 2012, Marine Captain Katie Petronio made waves by publicly opposing integration of women into the infantry (is she supposed to be on CNN in uniform making a political argument like that?). Petronio’s argument was largely based on her health problems following an intense deployment to Afghanistan. She drove the point home by noting that stress-induced polycystic ovarian syndrome left her infertile.

Well it turns out that after fertility treatment, she’s quite fertile. Pregnant, in fact.

Captain Katie Petronio: Fertile. Credit: The Evening Sun/Shane Dunlap

Captain Katie Petronio: Fertile.
Credit: The Evening Sun/Shane Dunlap

She hasn’t changed her view on integration of the infantry, which is of course her right. She’s free to think that her experience is representative of her sex, or that female injury rates can’t be brought down to manageable costs, or that the costs for all women of sex-based discrimination in the Marine Corps are worth what she believes are the infantry’s gains. But she’s not infertile. Congrats to her.

Support for Integration of Women Dips in German Army

The German army (Bundeswehr) opened all combat positions to women in 2001 after Tanja Kreil won her lawsuit against Germany in the European Court of Justice. The Court found that Germany was in violation of EU Directive 76/207/EEC, which prohibits EU member states from discriminating on the basis of sex with special mention to “access to employment, promotion, vocational training and working conditions.”

Since then, Germany has conducted several surveys to measure the success of integration. The latest study found that, compared to six years ago, women report less satisfaction with military service and men report less support for integration of women into the combat arms.

According to [a 2011 survey], only 57.3 percent of women serving in the Bundeswehr, the German armed forces, say they would choose their job again. By comparison, the figure was nine percentage points higher in 2005. Additionally, only 34.6 percent said they would recommend this path to a female friend.

Of the surveyed men, 34 percent think that women aren’t suited to the “[harsh] conditions” in the field – in 2005, it was just 28 percent. Over half of the males also stated that women are not suited to physically challenging activities. And only 77 percent are convinced that men can work well together with women in the army – a drop from 83 percent. More than half of the male respondents also said that women are evaluated too positively and receive preferential treatment. Many men in the Bundeswehr feel that women should not take part in armed combat.

I sure would love some insight into why attitudes have shifted since 2005. I wonder if there’s a relationship to the Bundeswehr’s experience in Afghanistan. Germany has been the third largest troop contributor in Afghanistan since at least 2007.

In any event, German women still support integration:

Around 88 percent [of female soldiers] believe that all army sectors should be open to women – in contrast to just 62 percent of men. Among the males, 40 percent would like to see women excluded from combat operations, but only 28 percent of the women call for the same thing.

Sexual harassment continues to be reported at very high levels.

A big gap could be observed in the answers to questions concerning sexual harassment in the workplace. Every second female officer claimed to have experienced it, whether in the form of jokes, contact with pornography or unwanted physical contact. Sexual assault and rape, however, were only reported by 3 percent of the women. The men, on the other hand, did not report having experienced any sexual harassment.

Interestingly, a German national working in the defense sector suggested to me today that this issue is facing more public scrutiny in Germany as a result of the recent publicity given to military sexual assault in the United States. So military equality advocates like the Service Women’s Action Network may be having an impact beyond national borders.

Studying War and Gender, Cont.

Last September, I wrote a piece about Joshua Goldstein’s academic survey of the relationship between war and gender. I finally finished reading the book.

It’s a fantastic piece of scholarship, even if for no other reason than its cross-disciplinary approach (which I found sorely lacking as a student in Columbia’s political science department).

In summary, Goldstein argues that the gender constructions of masculinity and femininity evolved as a social response to the ever-present possibility of war. After reviewing the evidence that more than 99% of all warriors in observable history are male, he argues that the genetic and biological differences between male and female homo sapiens are too small to account for the virtual absence of women in combat.

[Read more…]

If Infantry Culture Precludes Integration, Just Change It

Credit: 9GAG

Credit: 9GAG

I found this picture on a clickbait site. It’s a joke poster, meant to be hung up in a bar, but I think it really speaks to the cultural origins of behavior. I was struck by the idea that one could mix and match the best (or worst) aspects of various national cultures as if from a menu.

The question was, how can I turn this into a blog post? So I decided to make a point about military culture and integration of women into the infantry.

A few members of my old Marine infantry unit recently made it clear that they view behavioral trends as inborn, with women inherently unfit for infantry service and men inherently unfit to share intimate spaces with them. But there is nothing about the way Brits are born that makes them good policemen and poor chefs. These are simply the logical consequences of the norms emphasized in British culture. This culture is handed from one generation to the next with perpetual modification. If American servicemembers aren’t currently fit to fight in integrated units, they can be indoctrinated into a suitable culture.

Just because culture is malleable does not mean that it is infinitely flexible. Deeply ingrained values tend to die hard. But military basic training is specifically designed to break down deeply ingrained civilian norms and replace them with military norms that are counterintuitive to most recruits. It is instantly clear to anyone who spends time around US servicemembers that this indoctrination is highly effective. Given a generation or two, the military can swap out some of its norms for others that facilitate integration.

Not only is it possible to create a military culture that facilitates integration of the infantry, it has already been done in several states. Carrying the Gun recently featured a guest post from Soren Sjogren, a Danish infantry officer, on how gender-egalitarian values inform his leadership of an integrated infantry unit:

Never accept sexism

Words have the power to move and to transform us. Never use nor allow language that implies negativity related to gender. An innocent joke about women’s lack of ability to do something or implying that it is OK to use gender as an explanation is the first step down the wrong path.

Do not go there yourself, and strike down hard on any approach to sexism.

Allow women to be women

There is no such thing as a stereotypical infantry soldier. Dark, light, big or small – the only thing that matters is that you are able to do the job. You do not need to transform women and make them more ‘manly’ in order to serve.

Allow them to be women as long as they do their job. Just as you allow the rest of your soldiers to be the individuals they are.

The notion that it is self-evidently impossible to integrate the infantry is plainly incorrect.

Better a Late Response Than Never

Yesterday someone was brought to my blog by a Google search for “how would integrateing the infantry be bad.”

Answer: It wouldn’t.

More Bad Arguments Against Women in the Infantry

I want to follow up on my earlier post about bad arguments against integration of women into the infantry.

Last Thursday, William Saletan published some commentary on the female graduates of the Marine Corps Infantry Training Battalion (ITB). The jist: Now that the oh-so-skeptical among us have definitive proof that women can meet the infantry standard, they are changing their argument. “Women don’t want it” is a common ploy (proffered by none less than Representative Duncan Hunter (R-CA), a former Marine who is using his military credibility to enforce sex discrimination while serving the US in one of its highest capacities).

In the comments section of Saletan’s post, I saw a few recurring themes among the remaining protestations against integration.

Logistics, Cost-Effectiveness, and the Nature of Public Institutions

One theme is that opening a second gender to the infantry would be logistically intensive and therefore cost-inefficient.

I have a couple points in response to this argument. I’d like to start with a set of propositions:

  1. Opening the infantry to women will require real but modest structural changes to a highly developed war machine that already accommodates women in most combat roles. After footing the rest of the DOD’s oh, say, $527 billion FY2014 budget request, US taxpayers will absorb this modest onetime cost without even realizing it.
  2. This leaves us with an additional operational cost that will be marginal, probably on the order of a rounding error in DOD’s $79 billion FY2014 budget request for overseas contingency operations. To the extent that “women don’t want to be in the infantry,” this recurring cost will be all the more marginal.

I have no hard cost analysis to back these up but they are falsifiable propositions. It seems likely that the DOD has conducted such analysis even if it deigns to publish the numbers.

I’m fairly confident that opponents will respond in two ways:

  1. They will contest my interpretation of the subjective terms “modest” and “marginal.”
  2. They will argue that any increase in cost is unjustifiable because gender equality is peripheral to combat effectiveness.

My counter-responses are as follows:

  1. Most reasonable people with a sense of the likely orders of magnitude will disagree with their interpretation. Unfortunately, this line of argument will remain unfalsifiable and therefore open to endless comment-section squabbling.
  2. As a public institution, the military is responsible for more than combat effectiveness. As a tool of a democratic state, the US military should be as broadly representative of the public as possible. Because the military is an instrument of government, and because the US government is charged with protecting equal rights, a military that arbitrarily discriminates against women is a military that is cost-effective at doing the wrong thing.

Shadow Standards

The second theme I’m seeing is related to point number two above. This is the claim that, even though women can meet the entry-level standard, women will be unable to meet the admittedly more challenging physical regimen of the Fleet Marine Force. Opponents conclude from this proposition that the Marine Corps would incur an unacceptable cost in “combat effectiveness” and/or lives.

I see two flaws in this claim. The first is that, if anything, combat effectiveness (which is usually ambiguously defined) will be affected at the margins. The US military will remain overwhelmingly effective within its areas of strength. It will continue to enjoy such a preponderance of combat power that no aspect of the national threat profile will be credibly affected.

The more important flaw in this claim is that it relies on a convenient misinterpretation of the Marine Corps’ responsibility to maintain combat effectiveness.

Before I elaborate, let me concede that many of the more fit infantrymen already believe the physical standards are too low. While most Marines who complete ITB can perform adequately within a wide range of variation, some infantrymen struggle greatly with one or more physical aspects of infantry service. Depending on the aspects with which they struggle, their comrades may or may not be able to pick up their slack (you can carry somebody’s gear but you can’t lend a hand to his cardiovascular system).

That said, it is not becoming of a professional institution to maintain a shadow standard for how one really needs to perform while maintaining before its democratic leadership that the official standard establishes professional competency. If the Marine Corps is to maintain its integrity, then the official standard must establish true minimum competency.

So we have a choice: Either the Marine Corps currently has a true minimum or the Marine Corps needs to raise its ITB standard with all that implies for middling recruits (the overwhelming majority of which are likely to be male) and all that implies for recruiting goals.

When I was in the infantry, I agreed that the physical standards should be raised. Now that I have a better sense of the relative ability of the US military to meet the demands of the median combat environment, I can see that the existing standards are at least reasonable for a large military drawn from a society of increasing waistlines. (Or rather, they would be if they were strictly enforced. Many Marines I knew had a habit of discreetly ignoring the standard or awarding failed Marines with a minimum passing score in the name of “looking out for our own.” But that goes back to integrity and professionalism, both of which are gender-blind concepts.)

But even if raising the standard was really necessary, nothing about the need to raise the standard is proof that half the population should be prevented from trying to meet that standard in the first place.

Injury Rates

Finally, there’s the theme that women have higher injury rates than men. In my view, this is the only logically coherent theme of the three I’ve mentioned.

However, it requires serious qualification. Women do indeed have higher injury rates than men, but numerous studies show that this is partly because women tend to start out with less physical fitness–and in particular, aerobic capacity–than men. As women reach higher levels of fitness during basic training, injury rates greatly decrease as a function of sex. In one study, sex ceased to predict injury rates at all:

In multivariate analyses, where demographics, body composition, and initial physical fitness were controlled, female gender was no longer a significant predictor of injuries (RR = 1.14, 0.48-2.72). Physical fitness, particularly aerobic fitness, remained significant.

Womens’ lower relative fitness levels are related to the fact that children are socialized to view strenuous exercise as a predominantly male-appropriate activity. Relentlessly attacking womens’ worth for military service, then, is contributing to the very problem with which one is purportedly concerned.

Similar studies on injury rates here, here, and here. Brits here. Mixed case in Finland here. Mixed case indicating that Army women have higher injury rates but lower hospitalization rates and slightly longer hospital stays here.

The existence of higher female injury rates tells us little about their overall cost to the military. Since very few women are expected to qualify for infantry service, their higher injury rates may cost the military very little. It is possible to subject this phenomenon to cost-benefit analysis, so it is premature to protest integration on this basis unless such analysis shows that integration is cost-prohibitive in the context of the $527 billion budget mentioned above.

Otherwise, it’s silly to hold torn ligament rates up as damning evidence for an institution that expects a certain proportion of its membership to be ripped apart by various forms of ordinance in the performance of their duty. The summer season is also a predictor of injury rates–perhaps it is our duty only to train Marines during the other three seasons? Cigarette smoking is another predictor. Should smokers be banned?

Merit is Merit

In the end, Saletan is right. A merit-based system commensurate with our national values implies equal access to the infantry. Some people will claw for any opposition to integration they can think of. Looking at the grand sweep of history, it’s pretty clear to me that they are eventually going to be disappointed. At some point we have done our due diligence and it is on opponents to seek whambulance treatment until they can handle reality.

Bad Arguments Against Women in the Infantry: “They Don’t Want It”

In an NPR segment on the three female graduates of the US Marine Corps’ Infantry Training Battalion, Staff Sergeant Billy Shinault pulls out a familiar canard:

Shinault doubts many women will even want this kind of life: sleeping in the dirt for weeks, patrolling, fighting.

“I’ve talked to [female infantry instructor] Staff Sgt. Towns and a couple others, and they’re content where they’re at in their job field,” he said. “I’ve yet to meet one [woman who] … wanted to be in the infantry.”

Towns was standing nearby. She shot him a look that said “he doesn’t speak for me.”

Normally, the prevailing logic in the military, especially in the infantry, is “get a straw and suck it up.” There is no assumption that individual whims are relevant to military policy. But as women approach eligibility for the infantry, all of a sudden the tables are turned.

In this debate, the permutations of “there is not a significant number of women who want to be in the infantry” are a common red herring and inverted form of argumentum ad numerum.* But that’s exactly how they should be understood because equal rights do not have popular threshold requirements for eligibility.

If any woman ever wants to try out for the infantry, she should have the opportunity to submit to an objective standard. That is our national obligation under the principle of equality before the law. And it’s distressingly ignorant of human diversity to believe that no woman would ever take the opportunity.

*Just for fun, check out the example given to illustrate dicto simpliciter.

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