When I was a soldier and young, it seemed obvious to me that the military prohibition against females in combat was a good thing.  What sort of society would send females, the gender whose wombs are needed to provide the next generation of soldiers required for its protection, into combat?  If a society is to survive, it must defend itself.  But it loses the very impetus for defense if the cost of survival is the fatal impairment of its prospects for continuation.  A society must defend both its survival and propagation prerogatives, else it hasn’t really defended anything.  Because propagation is the purview of the half of society with wombs, it is better to protect and defend society with the half that doesn’t have them.   It made perfect sense to me then.  For the good of society, women should not serve in combat.  Besides, men, having on average greater strength, stamina, speed and quickness are physiologically better suited for performing the tasks of combat than are women.  It was good to leave the actual fighting to the men.

My mind refused to see and acknowledge the changes in gender relations technological innovations wrought.  The relevance of muscular strength for winning in combat has been dwindling since the dawn of the Industrial Revolution.  By now, physical strength and stamina are, in most combat jobs, all but irrelevant.  Flying a drone in an air-conditioned office thousands of miles from the battlefield requires nothing more than the physical attributes possessed of a twenty-something video-gamer firmly ensconced on his parent’s couch in the middle of the afternoon.  Surely the average American female would have no difficulty assassinating a foreign (or American) terrorist via armed drone, and having accomplished her “mission”, have time to pick up her kids from daycare in the evening, after which she’d perhaps wonder what the person whose life she’d extinguished earlier that day was like, as she prepared an artisanal pizza with organically-grown ingredients such that it was hot and ready by the time her husband returned from the unemployment line.   Only occasionally would it occur to her that she didn’t really need to put up with her lout of a husband.  The pace of progress in human relationships is glacially slower than is the progression of technological innovations.  In military organizations, the process is even slower.

Military organizations are necessarily hidebound institutions.  Protecting the status quo is in their DNA.  It is what they exist to do.  Thus the gathering irrelevance of physical stamina and strength, even in the face of technological developments that made winning at combat as physically easy as manipulating the controls of combat hardware, from nuclear missiles to helicopters to tanks and even to combat rifles, either slipped by the military brass unnoticed, or was actively disregarded as an expression of that which they are trained to do, except the status quo they were protecting in the premises was their own, not the status quo of the society they were sworn to defend. 

So it is that the US Army has only haltingly allowed its female soldiers to get closer and closer to the action.   When I was in the Army, (the latter half of the 1980’s) there were no female infantry officers, period.  Now the Army commissions female officers in the infantry, but only allows them to serve in administrative positions at battalion and higher headquarters, which is not all that remarkably different from thirty years ago.  Female officers were routinely part of the headquarters staffs at brigade and higher levels then.  They just didn’t wear the crossed rifles of the infantry on their lapels while serving.

There is an old saying in the Army, “if you ain’t infantry, you’re support.”  Old sayings don’t get that way without being true.  Taking and holding ground is the mission of the US Army, a task that, even after centuries of technological developments, can still only be accomplished by the boots on the ground–the infantry.  Because the saying is as true today as it ever was, ambitious young officers clamor to get in the infantry, and from there, to get their blue badge of courage–the Combat Infantry Badge.  Officers without a CIB and in vocations other than the infantry, may climb the ranks, a few even to general officer level, but the highest echelons of the Army are almost exclusively populated by infantry officers with combat experience.  The Army is one of the few organizations that actually expects its leadership to have physically accomplished at some point during their careers the task which comprises the core of its mission.  No CFO equivalents are ever promoted to General of the Army.

Like the coveted CIB (a light-blue oval with a rifle in the middle of a wreath, worn over the left breast) is indicia of courage, a Ranger tab on the shoulder indicates physical strength and stamina, and mental fortitude and toughness.  Ranger school is the most grueling training course in the US military, perhaps in all the world.  It is eight and a half weeks of sleep and food deprivation and physical exhaustion, all intended to test the soldier’s ability to endure and overcome the limitations of his body and mind.  Ranger school is a test of manliness.  Passing it proves to the world that your resolve and stamina is legion, though neither are routinely critical in mission accomplishment.  Navy Seal Team Six (Seal training is the rough equivalent in the Navy to Ranger training in the Army) did not need boundless stamina and mental fortitude to accomplish the task of assassinating bin Laden.  Intelligence gathering and technological expertise did most of the heavy lifting. 

Which is the problem with Ranger school.  The grueling weeks of what amounts to an extended exercise in mental and physical hazing is pointless, except to prove toughness.  It exists as a rite of passage, particularly among the officer corp, particularly for infantry officers.  Its nominal focus is teaching small unit tactics and training leadership, but really it is intended to identify those who fully embrace the ascetic Army ethic of not allowing anything short of death to deter the accomplishment of the mission.   A Ranger school graduate is undeniably well-trained at small-unit leadership, but the expertise could have been accomplished through less rigorous means, unless it is imagined that other small-unit leaders (in, e.g., the Marine Corps) just can’t measure up if they don’t have the tab. 

Back in the eighties when I served, and a CIB was nearly impossible to come by, as the existential threat of nuclear annihilation did not provide many opportunities for ground combat, a Ranger tab served notice among infantry officers (and others, like me) that you were tough enough for infantry combat, but just hadn’t had the chance to get a CIB.  The CIB was, and I suspect still is, the most coveted award, short of a Medal of Honor, that an infantry officer can receive (non-infantry officers generally can not earn a CIB).  Purple Hearts and Bronze and Silver Stars were nice, but if you were infantry (i.e., if you weren’t support like I was), the gold standard was the Combat Infantry Badge.  As little overall respect as I had for the ascetic cult that officership in the military had become (I once started smoking just to snub my nose at the preening do-gooder officers who treated their bodies like temples), I still respected the CIB.  It meant a man had faced himself and his adversary in mortal combat; it was not something to sneer at. 

It seems the Ranger tab still holds weight as indicia of manliness, as an impassioned screed in the Wall Street Journal attests.  The author, Stephen Kilcullen, is a Ranger school graduate and did not like the idea of women attending  Ranger school just because they might need to do so in order to advance their careers as infantry officers, here’s some of what he said:

Ranger School isn’t about improving the career prospects of individual candidates. Our motto is “Rangers lead the way.” Many a Ranger has lived these words before being killed in action—certain that if a Ranger couldn’t accomplish the mission, nobody could. This unique culture lures the kind of young, smart soldiers needed to get the toughest jobs done. The promise of something bigger than oneself—bigger than any career track—is what motivates these men.

It is this culture of excellence and selflessness that attracts young men to the Ranger brotherhood. The Ranger ethos is designed to be deadly serious yet self-deprecating, focused entirely on teamwork and mission accomplishment. Rangers put the mission first, their unit and fellow soldiers next, and themselves last. The selfishness so rampant elsewhere in our society has never existed in the Ranger brotherhood.

He has a point.  The Army is not charged with ensuring that the progressive imperatives of female equality are satisfied.  The Army exists to protect and defend the Constitution by taking and defending terrain.  But he doesn’t point out that a great many of his brethren attended Ranger school for the very reason he excoriates females for wanting to attend–that being a part of the “brotherhood” enhances the opportunity for career advancement.  He even quotes the Army Chief of Staff as saying that ninety percent of senior infantry officers are Ranger qualified, provocatively supporting the idea that career advancement in the infantry is helped along by wearing a Ranger tab on the left shoulder. 

Female infantry officers are still not allowed to lead combat platoons and companies–the place where combat actually happens.  And well, they shouldn’t be, but not in the present circumstances because their wombs need to be preserved to ensure that there is a next generation.  There are plenty enough women not serving that the survival of the society does not turn on whether the few in the military make the ultimate sacrifice.  Women shouldn’t be allowed in front-line combat infantry units because these units operate in one of the few places where physical strength and stamina still matter, and women are less physically capable, on average, than are men. 

But here’s an idea:  Without changing the physical demands of Ranger school one iota to compensate them, allow females to attend.  Any that pass the rigorous physical test of Ranger school can be assigned to front-line combat infantry units.  There would then be no concern that females would slow down the combat operations.  Carrying a ruck sack and rifle and ammunition and food and water day and night in miserable conditions in order to close with and engage the enemy, never mind the actual fighting, is a physically-rigorous task that should be left to the males, except for those exceptional few women that have proved their mettle by passing the most difficult test the Army has to offer. 

I don’t understand why women are clamoring to be afforded the “opportunity” for combat, but then I never quite understood why anyone would hope for the opportunity to kill or die for their country unless it was absolutely necessary, or would even wish to make the Army a career.  A standing, professional army today seems as queer to me as a standing, permanent legislature.  I figure that both should be part-time jobs, only performed as necessary to protect the republic or to provide for its orderly administration.  That neither are perhaps explains a bit about the trajectory the American republic has taken over the last century or so.

(I was an active-duty US Army Aviation officer and helicopter pilot for six years, from 1985-1991.  Though I was not eligible, as an aviator, to attend Ranger school, and probably wouldn’t have even had I been afforded the opportunity [and probably would not have been tough enough to pass], I have nothing at all against the Rangers; I admire them for the self-denial, stamina and mental and physical fortitude earning a Ranger tab represents.  I vividly remember the days during flight school when we’d fly support missions for Ranger training down at Eglin Air Force base.  We’d go to the grocery the night before and load up on bread and chocolate bars and peanut butter and cokes and anything else we figured they might be able to gulp down in the few minutes of a helicopter ride.  We’d spend the evening making peanut butter and jelly sandwiches and stocking the coolers.  When the Ranger trainees would board the helicopter, we’d break out the food and they’d start stuffing their faces and pockets as fast and full as they could–the helicopter was the one place where the training cadre couldn’t get at them.  We figured we’d succeeded in some small way in helping them through another day of training if all the food was gone by the end of the flight.  They always seemed very appreciative.)