What Is The Infantry Part II: Emotion and Absence of Mind

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Photo by Staff Sgt. Brendan Mackie

Author’s Note: As with Part I, this has been edited from the original. To read the longer, less pretty version, click here.


The comments and discussions that came out of my original post “What is the Infantry” led me down a road that I didn’t know I was on. In summation, I’m of the belief that if we are to truly decide whether or not women should be integrated into the infantry, we should take a hard look at what the infantry actually is, decide if that is what we want it to be, and then make a decision.

In order to lay out this argument, I have to summarize some of the main points coming from both sides on this issue. These are not my arguments, but arguments I have heard:

For women in the infantry:

  1. Fairness. If she can do the job, why should we tell her no?
  2. Acknowledgement. Women have been fighting and dying in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan for the past decade, with distinction. Allowing women in the infantry would simply be policy coming in line with reality.
  3. Robustness. Females will provide access to cultures in which male-female contact is discouraged (Iraq, Afghanistan).

Against women in the infantry:

  1. Disruptive. Injecting women into the infantry would be disruptive to male bonding.
  2. The juice is not worth the squeeze. Fundamentally altering the infantry for the few women who may be able to make it just isn't worth it.
  3. Traditional values/theological arguments. Close combat is the purview of men, and women do not belong there.

Of course, there are others. Like the fear that by allowing women into the infantry, the military will feel compelled to “meet quotas” and thus lower standards. As it is, one cannot really argue effectively against something that hasn’t happened. It’s a fear tactic that is used as a means to stop the argument, because no one is arguing for a less-capable infantry.

There are also arguments about men being unable to control themselves in combat and stopping everything to protect a female in the unit. Or that a female simply can’t carry a heavy body quickly under fire. These are arguments of extremity. Terrible, worst-case scenarios that would rarely present themselves, but are used as a means to again, stop the argument.

In Part I, I argued that men who are fundamentally against allowing women to serve in the infantry are doing so partly to preserve the last “all-boys club.” However, it’s not that simple. This isn’t misogyny at work. It’s an understanding that what the infantry actually does at its core is more primal and aggressive than we are acknowledging.

In plain speak, the last 10 years of war have not exposed us to the sustained brutality of close combat in the same way that wars have in the past.

Don’t get me wrong. We have violently closed with and destroyed the enemy. But with few exceptions, it isn’t the same as Vietnam, Korea, World War II, or World War I. It’s a different enemy and a different war. We have not been rocked in the same way that those wars rocked us --- dozens of dead a day as the norm --- not the grave exception.

The counterinsurgency tempo of infantry operations of the past decade may have lulled some into thinking that this is the new normal, a new style of warfare. How the infantry is now is how the infantry is and forever will be.

However, it is very likely that the infantry operations of the past decade are not the norm, and we will one day again be faced with combat, as we’ve known it in the past.

"In the darkness I am one with Khe Sahn – a living cell of this place – this erupted pimple of sandbags and barbed wire on a bleak plateau surrounded by the end of the world." ---Gustav Hasford, The Short-Timers

For those who are down on the ground being fired at, war is real and it is violent. IEDs are real. The fear of death is real. But when someone makes an argument against women in the infantry, struggling to explain why and then suddenly giving up in frustration saying, “Ugh, you just don’t get it,” he is acknowledging the extreme experience of war that we simply have not seen in a sustained way in the past 40 years.

That type of war relies less on good order and discipline and more on aggressiveness, instinct, and anger, all controlled. With bullets flying overhead, you need a machine gunner who is willing to pop back up over the berm and hold down the trigger to regain fire superiority because he is angry at the world.

What I’m saying, to answer the question in the title, is that I think the infantry, as it currently stands, is a young, angry, aggressive force that is expertly controlled by its leaders. Good infantry leaders stir the infantry pot and instill an aggressiveness in the men that boils to the top and left at a rolling simmer, ready to unleash when the time comes.

That, I think, is the reality of the infantry. That is what the infantry is and it is also what we want it to be. If that’s the case, we need to be able to say that.

The integrated infantry that I think is envisioned is something different. That force is full of 26-year-old male and female CrossFit champions who already have their Master’s degrees. They’re looking for adventure and joined the Army to put it all to use. They are “Yes, maam” No ma’ampolite and jump right out of the pages of the infantry field manual. Steely eyed and unemotional, backed by the best American technology. Abercrombie models, all of them.

But that’s not the infantry.

I’m hopeful that we can integrate women into the infantry. I think in the long run, it will make us a better force. I’m reminded though, of this dialogue between retired Gen. Stanley McChrystal and a platoon of Marine infantrymen in Afghanistan:

As the discussion ends, McChrystal seems to sense that he hasn’t succeeded at easing the men’s anger. He makes one last-ditch effort to reach them, acknowledging the death of Cpl. Ingram. “There’s no way I can make that easier,” he tells them. “No way I can pretend it won’t hurt. No way I can tell you not to feel that. . . . I will tell you, you’re doing a great job. Don’t let the frustration get to you.” The session ends with no clapping, and no real resolution. McChrystal may have sold President Obama on counterinsurgency, but many of his own men aren’t buying it.

The disconnect between McChrystal and those infantrymen is at the core of what I think defining the infantry means. It has nothing to do with traditional moral values or physical capacities and everything to do with the huge chasm between the dreams and desires of policymakers versus the reality of youth and anger in the infantryman carrying the gun.

Don Gomez is an Army officer. He blogs at Carrying the Gun. Follow him on Twitter.

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