Magazine | October 5, 2015, Issue

Social Justice at War

(Scott Olson/Getty Images)
Ignoring differences between the sexes will cost lives

Fallujah, May 17, 2018 — The results of the classified investigation into the first extended ground-combat engagement by a mixed-gender infantry platoon were grim indeed. The six-hour firefight on a blistering-hot July afternoon began with an ambush. Sergeant Gregory Upshaw was hit with two bullets, one in the thigh and one in the kneecap. The closest soldier to him, Specialist Jessica Sanchez, was unable to support his weight as her squad dashed for cover and called for assistance. As two male soldiers responded to the call, one was hit and killed, the other hit and wounded. Unable to render effective aid, Sanchez had to run for cover herself. The two wounded soldiers remained exposed, taking further fire (which ultimately killed Sergeant Upshaw) before the platoon was able to muster sufficient covering fire to retrieve their fallen comrades.

The fight was marked by multiple additional moments when lack of physical strength caused casualties. While the soldiers all suffered the effects of extreme heat, Specialists Kara Lundgren and Felicia Jackson were combat-ineffective within one hour, and Private First Class Jessica Wheeler collapsed during the third hour of combat. Additionally, male soldiers reported that their female counterparts were less able to respond to the ambush with accurate counter-fire, and four male members of the platoon blame that failure for the enemy’s seemingly extraordinary ability to get close enough to the embattled platoon to make several grenade attacks, killing Sergeant Ryan Nichols and Sergeant Andrea Johnson.

By the end of the fight, the platoon had suffered four men and one woman killed in action; five men and one woman wounded; four heat casualties, three male and one female; and one male soldier rendered combat-ineffective after watching his girlfriend die beside him. At the end of the day, the platoon did not reach its objective and had to be pulled from the line for rest, recuperation, and replacements. Its morale is reportedly shattered, with a number of soldiers feeling that not everyone in the platoon “pulled their weight” and others traumatized by their perceived failure. The media, however, are using this engagement to celebrate the bravery of the female soldiers — bravery no one doubts — while ignoring the actual battlefield results.

That fictional report, imagined from a future fight in the Middle East against skilled and ruthless jihadist enemies, could well be the future of American ground combat — if, that is, the Pentagon ignores the results of a comprehensive nine-month Marine Corps study that compared the performance of mixed-gender infantry units with that of conventional all-male units. The results were entirely predictable, in light of the clear physical differences between men and women and the emotional realities of relationships between the sexes. The mixed-gender units performed worse than the all-male units in 93 of the 134 measured categories; in 39 tasks, there was no difference; and in two tasks, the mixed-gender teams performed better. Women had less aerobic capacity and less anaerobic capacity, got injured at significantly greater rates, and were less accurate with every single infantry-weapons system. Physically, a score in the 25th percentile of the women would be around the 75th percentile of the men.

These profound physical differences are also evident in both the Army’s and the Marines’ experience with officer and enlisted infantry training. In the Marines, 29 women have attempted the Officer Infantry Course. None have graduated (the male-graduation rate is 71 percent). More than 400 women have attempted the enlisted course, and 144 have graduated, a graduation rate of 36 percent. The male-graduation rate is 99 percent. On the Army side, two women (out of 19) completed the Ranger course. Again and again, the real-world results confirm that all-male units will display greater physical strength than mixed-gender units.

But it’s a mistake to think of military service as simply a matter of physical prowess. As retired lieutenant general Gregory Newbold recently said, it’s “artificial to constrain the debate about women in the infantry to physical capabilities.” As he notes, men who have served in combat are often reluctant to speak of their experiences, not just because the horror is difficult for civilians to comprehend but also because the bond between fighting men is beyond conventional description. That bond is the difference between life and death, between victory and defeat. As Newbold said:

In this direct-ground-combat environment, you do not fight for an ideal, a just cause, America, or Mom and apple pie. You endure the inhumanity and sacrifices of direct ground combat because “greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends.” This selflessness is derived from bonding, and bonding from shared events and the unquestioning subordination of self for the good of the team. But what destroys this alchemy — and, therefore, combat effectiveness — are pettiness, rumor-mongering, suspicion, and jealousy. And when fighting spirit is lessened, death is the outcome.

It is a dangerous thing to tamper with the time-tested effectiveness of all-male units by injecting not just differing physical capabilities but also sexual tension into the units. Soldiers in mixed-gender units often confront the drama of romance and romantic rivalries, and those issues would be magnified by the proximity and intensity of infantry service, where separate quarters are often a physical impossibility. How will young soldiers confront combat when their girlfriends are also under fire — potentially wounded or killed right in front of their eyes? These very real — very human — concerns are too often brushed aside as irrelevant, but they would inevitably impair the alchemy of the unit.

For the military’s current civilian masters, however, social justice trumps all. Confronted with the results of the Marines’ nine months of work, with its comprehensive study of fighting effectiveness, the Obama administration’s secretary of the Navy, Ray Mabus, responded by insulting the women who participated, saying that the Marines — according to Marine Corps Times — “could have selected female volunteers who were better suited to the task of marching under heavy loads.” Even though the study included women who had received infantry training, he said that, “for the women that volunteered, probably there should have been a higher bar to cross to get into the experiment.”

A female Marine accurately described Mabus’s comments as throwing her and the other women involved in the study — despite their work and attention to detail — “under the bus.” His mind is made up, facts be dammed, and he’ll likely be long gone before the butcher’s bill is paid. While there are undoubtedly individual women who are capable of achieving astounding physical feats, the strongest women are not as capable as the strongest men, and there is simply no way to integrate women into infantry units without impairing not just the overall strength of the unit but also its fighting spirit. To say so is not to insult women who are willing to lay down their lives for their country, but rather to acknowledge biological and psychological reality.

Militaries that put women in combat, like the Red Army in the desperate days of World War II and the earliest iterations of the Israel Defense Forces, later moved them back out of direct combat based on hard-learned battlefield lessons. Mixed-gender Israeli units experienced higher casualty rates, and even before Israel transitioned to all-male units, it removed women from its more elite assault forces because they simply weren’t fast enough to keep up with the men. Women in the Red Army in World War II were largely kept out of the fighting, and those who did fight reported often having to abandon equipment or ask men to carry their gear simply to keep up. While Israel and Russia have turned to female infantry soldiers in times of national desperation, the United States is not desperate. We have the luxury of being able to build the optimal fighting machine, and we should build it.

Since World War II, America’s political leaders have developed a disturbing habit of failing our soldiers, of asking them to spill their blood while making victory harder to achieve. Now they’re about to fail our military again. Misguided notions of fairness will be cold comfort to the families of the fallen. They’ll simply wonder why the price of social justice is the blood of their sons, the blood of their daughters, and potential defeat on the field of battle.

David French is a senior writer for National Review, a senior fellow at the National Review Institute, and a veteran of Operation Iraqi Freedom.

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