Why Not All-Female Combat Units?

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Staff Sgt. Shane Hamann / U.S. Army

Female U.S. soldiers secure an Afghan compound March 3 in the Spin Boldak district of Kandahar province.

The question isn’t should women be in combat — it’s how.

As a male combat veteran of two tours in Iraq with infantry units, the view from here is that women should have their own, separate, combat units.

I fully support the concept of officially allowing women to serve in combat. In fact, after years of fighting insurgencies in which female service members deployed to combat zones and were routinely exposed to enemy fire and engaged the enemy in return, the question of whether to ‘allow’ women in combat or whether they can fight seems almost ludicrous—they are in combat and of course women are perfectly capable of killing other human beings.

The real issue is the dynamic of how males and females interact with each other while in a combat environment and the resulting problems.

A combat unit isn’t a civilian company where a bad intra-office romance causes hurt feelings. Divisiveness in a combat or combat support unit can cause friction in a finely-tuned killing machine, and ultimately cost lives.

I believe units comprised entirely of women integrated with their male counterparts at command levels would significantly reduce the issues related to sexual tension and generally increase military readiness.

Gender-based segregation currently exists in the U.S. military and it works exceedingly well; the Marine Corps has an entirely separate recruit training battalion for women. The reason? The Marine Corps does not want its recruits sexually distracted or disrupting training due to sexual interaction among recruits or criminal conduct by instructors who sexually assault recruits. These are issues the Army, Navy and Air Force co-ed recruit training units must routinely deal with, weakening the effectiveness of training and therefore overall military readiness.

In the Marine Corps, recruit training is designed to mimic, in many ways, the stress encountered in combat. Recruits are physically and mentally exhausted for 12 weeks straight. To the Marine Corps, then, it makes sense to remove sexual distraction entirely. How, then, does it make sense to integrate the genders in units actually engaged in combat?

I have heard the argument, “When you’re fighting for your life in a filthy environment no one is thinking about sex.”

I spent more than 40 months in the Middle East and Central Asia between 2002 and 2011, as both a Marine and a civilian, and I can tell you with utter confidence that line of argument is entirely ignorant of human nature. While deployed, young American women and men have and will continue to seek each other out to engage in sexual relations in bunkers in the dirt, in the backs of trucks, in port-a-johns — anywhere with a little privacy.

I don’t intend to portray military servicemen and women as sex-crazed, but when you put thousands of young men and women (most in their late-teens or early 20s) in close quarters, thousands of miles from home and under extreme stress, human nature happens. Men compete for female attention, and women, in turn, compete for male attention. And, just as in recruit training, the resulting pregnancies, jealousy, distrust, arguments, physical altercations and disciplinary actions make for less effective units.

Worse than the problems caused by consensual sex is sexual assault and harassment. According to the 2012 documentary, The Invisible War, “Last year, 3,192 sexual assaults, from unwanted sexual touching to rape, were reported across all branches of the military. Based on anonymous surveys of active-duty service members conducted in 2010, however, the Department of Defense says the number of incidents was closer to 19,000.”

And although awareness is growing regarding male-on-female sexual assault in the military, there is little acknowledgement of female-on-male sexual harassment and false accusations of assault. There are women who want revenge for real or perceived slights, or simply to advance their careers, and they use false accusations as a means of doing so.

The question of whether or not gender-based segregation is analogous to racial segregation is simple. I do not believe they are.

Differences in race are social constructs, differences between male and female biology are not. Our society routinely segregates based on gender, men and women do not share locker rooms, public showers or bathrooms. These are areas of interaction we as a society have deemed too personal to share side-by-side due to fundamental sexual differences. I believe the battlefield is another such area.

The Pentagon has begun the process of integrating women into combat units. However, men and women side-by-side in the same infantry units will almost certainly lead to more problems and a weaker military.

Since modern warfare inevitably puts women into combat, I believe those units should be gender-segregated. That would give the nation the best of both worlds: allowing women full access to opportunities afforded to men, while preserving military readiness.

J.E. McCollough served in the Marine Corps from 1996 to 2005. He is a combat veteran of two tours in Iraq as a counter-intelligence specialist, where he earned a Purple Heart and a Navy and Marine Corps Commendation Medal with ‘V’ Combat Distinguishing Device. He lives in Portland, Oregon.