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 “My Correct Views on Everything”*: Gender and the Sexes in the Armed Forces

Or, what I recommend readers consider as women are integrated across the military enterprise

Before diving into the thick of things, I would like to take a moment to celebrate the historic and necessary decision to fully integrate women across the UK armed services. It’s so bloody obvious that women deserve every opportunity, and that military capabilities will ultimately benefit from their extended presence. So, I tip my glass to the women at the dawn of this historic turn, and give them a hearty ‘get on there’.

Of course, not all are pleased with the decision. Much ado is being made across gender issues and physical capabilities that women are unfit for the combat arms and will likely break them if accepted. But the voices in response have been wiser and cooler. Looking only to the infantry, Sir Humphrey at the Pinstriped Line argued heroically in support of women, with no small amount of needed humour. So too did Nicholas Drummond voice an entirely sensible line. Neither gentlemen are given to flights of ‘political correctness’ fancy, and both write with the practitioner’s eye, so I am comfortable that this end of the conversation is in capable hands. And, like New York, New York, if women can make it in the infantry, they can make it anywhere.

I, however, am quite done arguing women’s validity or the potential of the feminine at war. When men must similarly justify themselves and masculinity, then I will as well. Rather, I would prefer to discuss some of the prevailing assumptions about masculinity, men, war and the face of future conflict with respect to the expanded role1 for women. And before anyone gets really angry, no, this is not a criticism of masculinity or men. If you were looking for that, and spoiling for a fight, my apologies, you will not find that here.

First, gender in war/warfare is nothing new in the Western tradition. If it seems new to readers, I would propose this is more mistaking a certain invisibility of the common with actual absence. Standing as institutions of men, by men, and for men, masculinity in the military – and the peculiarities of men’s capabilities – rules as the silent partner to effectiveness in defining the standing martial regime. What has defined manhood at any given moment has been idealized as the epitome of warfare, no more obvious than as simply expressed in the contemporary standard of behaviour of “an officer and a gentleman” for those given the burden of command. None of this should shock, nor is it the product of any groundbreaking research and theorizing, but rather the clear contours that emerge in the historical literature. Re-read your military history with this in mind – after you have finished reading this essay, obviously.

However, even as military history has been defined by this characteristic, what has constituted appropriate masculinity in society and service, especially as it differed between officers and the ranks, has never been static. Gender, as expressed in the binaries of masculinity and femininity, and much else in between, is a construct of society and culture, that is constantly changing with the context. Nor, and let us be very clear, has masculinity always looked like some of the ideals heralded today. Would the current generation of up-muscled American Machoistas recognize the validity of the genteel and perfumed masculinity of George Washington or William Howe? I do fear a not small percentage would question either good General’s manhood. But if you want to correct the sense of universality attached to current conceptualizations of what it means to be a man, I heartily recommend the correspondence of John Laurens, an officer of the Continental Army and son of prominent South Carolina founding politician, Henry Laurens, for its ease with tenderness, comfort with emotion, and standards of gentility, none of which make the contemporary top ten list in masculine attributes. The difference does not make either wrong, it merely confirms that these values are fluid. I hope we can avoid a further trip to ancient Greece for a discussion of masculinity and homosexuality to make the point that what it means to be a man is an evolving variable.

Why does this matter? If masculinity can evolve, then warfare and military institutions are perfectly capable to adapt to gender change, to include the expansion to embrace the more overt feminine. Because even as it has dominated, there is certainly no unassailable proof that the current macho ideal – or masculinity alone – is necessary for military success. In fact, one would be hard pressed to find its reliability to delivery strategic and political results in the last several decades – the Global War on Terror alone is where the supremacy of brawn and hyper-masculinity has gone to die year after year. At the very least, then, it must be clear that war admits a wide range of gendered expression which most certainly includes much of contemporary femininity. To those who fear what the feminine might work upon the armed forces and warfare, it might be wiser to contemplate what damage masculinity alone hath wrought.

If masculinity is no longer absolutely necessary, how should we think about those looming physiological differences? Accepting that at the gross margins, in aggregation, men are stronger than women, so what? There is little evidence that the armed forces today or in any period of history have relied upon humanity’s ultimo for defence. In fact, given the prevalence of the hungry poor among more armies than not across history and geography, we might indulge the notion that the military makes do with the physically sufficient candidate. And then it trains2 them to the degree necessary. Not even in today’s forces do we see the recruitment of the top slice. Thus, the fat, middling target for accession and success is well within range of a broad slice of British (or American) women. With training, they will only improve. And that is the critical point, because even in the most elite warfighting niches of the institutions, none are born for it, all are trained to it.

Drilling down further, the trope becomes even less relevant. On the misplaced value placed in brute strength as a military sine qua non, there are several problems. What matters excess physical capability where the ethos and strength of the small unit building block is based in teamwork? How does general strength relate to the specific needs of any given military specialty? Turning to the more basic point of physiological differences, there are gaping chasms of overlooked issues that easily accrue to women’s benefit. Where does flexibility fit into the calculus of military needs? Has it never come up because it is a common deficit among men? Where is the discussion of the value of small bodies across many tactical requirements? Have we ever factored in the costs of the logistics of brawn? From vehicle to ship size, the ramifications of forces of smaller stature could easily be significant. One could go on in this vein with only the slightest creative impetus. I encourage the reader to do so, because if we are honest, every standard is going to change, some radically, some less so, to take account of what women are bringing to the table. This will not be about making things easier, but rather to make the institutions and endeavours more responsive to the expansion of resources at their disposal.

For those who worry that warfare is beyond the emotional or temperamental ken of women, there is simply no argument to justify ignoring the ample evidence of feminine ruthlessness and ferocity. Although the contemporary feminine status quo does not particularly value physical battle, there is no sanction upon confrontation that can only be described as political warfare. Putin has nothing on “Mean Girls,” let us just be clear. (And if you think citing that film is puerile, then you might be a little bit sexist, because otherwise the entire American military establishment should be run through for its relentless “Star Wars” obsession.)  But even where the physical is not overt, there are levers that inspire, particularly in defence of loved ones (the ‘Momma Bear Effect’). And the record in contact sports is more than sufficient evidence that women can easily adapt to systems that require aggressive physical confrontation. Finally, if we think only of the recent battlefield, it bears remembering that against an enemy holding brutally anti-woman beliefs, the first victors were a mixed sex force led by a woman.

But even as this discussion has demonstrated that the arguments of gender and biology against women in the combat arms are more paper tiger than substantive, they carry within them the power to prevail.

The formal incorporation of women fully into the armed forces as equal participants is a sea change in military affairs. Sadly, despite an entirely reasonable set of circumstances in support of full integration, the project is not a guaranteed success. Because the institution is currently set not to recognize femininity or women – just look at the uniforms – the margin between success and failure will depend upon sensible leadership to manage these deficits. My problem with the uniformed naysayers is not the insult of their arguments – and they are very insulting, indeed. Rather it is being literally gobsmacked that, not only aren’t they chastened to do their duty to these women, but they aren’t chomping at the bit over the challenge and opportunities at hand. They are, essentially, being handed a new weapon, and sneering. Come on, chaps, get stuck in.

Not only must the services prepare to lead these women, they must further prepare for the new future. Today, the combat arms are like a well-tailored suit for the ideal man. While a woman could wear it, it would be ill-fitting and fail to highlight her form in the way it does the man’s. Similarly, so long as the institutions resist the inevitability that the combat arms will look different as more women work across the range of military tasks, the value they can bring to bear will be stifled. As women reach deeper into the armed forces and find their combat arms sea legs, everything in warfare will change. It should. Because the future is human. The terrain and the terms will be written with people, whether as those to endow with the responsibility upon the battlefield, as political participants, or as battlefield concerns. Armed forces that leverage the qualities women bring to military affairs, as well as melding the complements and moderating the frictions between men and women, will enjoy a decisive edge.

The armed forces have the option of two futures. While one has already been proven, where leadership fails to adapt, the promise of the latter will be fulfilled.

Notes

  • Yes, that’s right, I’m footnoting the title. #AcademicThugLife

The title is taken from Peter Novick’s like-titled article. His explanation is perhaps one of the most whimsical usages, homages, and footnotes ever, expressing a perfect scholarly ethos. I have used it several times, and my use follows in his footsteps. As it turns out, he did similar: “I have borrowed (i.e., stolen) my title from Leszek Kodakowski, who once used it in response to E.P. Thompson. I’ve always loved it…” (Peter Novick, “My Correct Views on Everything,” American Historical Review, June 1991, 699-703.)

“Correct” is a particular and important term in scholarship. It refers to the state of intellectual grace accorded to interpretations based on sound analysis and evidence. Thus, I can have “correct” views which cannot be assailed in terms of quality, but with which the reader is absolutely free to choose not to agree.

Jill S. Russell is a military historian of the American tradition, with expertise in strategy, logistics, diplomacy and security. Her experience includes defence consultancy and Professional Military Education (PME) in the U.S. and UK, as well as expert commentary on military affairs.  She is about to do something new, so keep an eye out.

Footnotes

  1. Understanding that this is a mere formalization of what has existed since men first went to war and women were right along with them.
  2. On the matter of training and kit, the services must make the reasonable adjustments to properly support women’s structures and strengths. Example: packs. Given that no study of women against the demands of the infantry have been conducted with the correct gear, no historical results are reliable.

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