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Mattis is poisoning the well on women in combat

Secretary of Defense James Mattis is against women in combat. He made this clear in his 2017 confirmation hearings, in comments given on Tuesday at the Virginia Military Institute (VMI), whose student body is 89 percent male, and in his subsequent doubling-down in the face of criticism on Wednesday.

By doing so, he is actively undermining policies he is charged with implementing so that they can be properly evaluated. Either he should take greater care in what he says about female combat integration, or he should stop talking about it entirely.

Mattis’s response to a VMI cadet’s question began with the observation that women have not yet been serving in combat occupations for long enough or in numbers sizable enough to generate data sufficient to render a judgment about their performance or proficiency.

This is a perfectly reasonable and important statement. Not only is it true, but it also affirms that no conclusions about women in combat can be drawn in the absence of rigorous, evidence-based analysis. Which is why it is especially a shame that he shortly thereafter returned to themes familiar from his confirmation hearings in 2017.

On that occasion, one was left with the strong impression that Mattis believes women — all women, by merit simply of being women — just aren’t suited to the “intimate killing” that combat requires.

Mattis is not entitled to espouse his opinion on this issue. To the contrary, as the individual charged with implementing Department of Defense (DoD) policy on female combat integration, he has the explicit responsibility of leading change, not only in practice but also in culture.

To continue his pattern of paternalistic depictions of women as constitutionally and physically unsuited for combat and of suggesting that their introduction into such roles inevitably degrades military effectiveness is misguided leadership.

Secretary of Defense Ash Carter in 2015 removed gender restrictions on combat arms occupations following decades of studies of military policy concerning women, conducted both internal and external to DoD.

Throughout, opponents of integration have objected on two grounds: comparative physiology and unit cohesion. Concerns about women’s physical capabilities are both well-founded, and addressable.

Indeed, the work done by the team of senior civilian and military leaders that informed Secretary Carter’s decision addressed directly the management of physical standards. The approach chosen was not to reduce expectations but instead to enhance their transparency and to ensure they provide indicators of an individual’s ability to perform under today’s conditions.

The services, in other words, adjusted assessment practices to reflect not tradition but rather today’s functional requirements. Their adjustments were based on “experiences gained over the last decade-and-a-half of war in Iraq and Afghanistan.”

So long as women demonstrate their ability to withstand the physical demands of their desired role, they are eligible to hold it.

The more pernicious line of objection concerns “unit cohesion.” This refers to the interpersonal dynamics believed necessary for a cohort of individuals to behave as a collective, with a shared commitment to mission and an intense sense of emotional connection and bonding.

Culturally, this has been depicted as the brotherhood of combat, both documented and dramatized. The proposition is that the inclusion of women impedes development of this brotherhood — of the cohesion historically-male combat units need if they are to be effective.

Mattis’ statements suggest he believes women would undermine unit cohesion through their innate femininity. This perspective is evident in:

  • his referencing of female servicemembers as “young ladies;” 
  • his recollection of them as girls, the holding of whose hands feels “like heaven on earth;” and
  • his disbelief that one would even consider allowing women into a unit as a good idea considering the “love, affection, whatever you want to call it” that they apparently cannot help but possess, according to him.

Mattis has thus far voiced his questions about the outcome of integration as thinly veiled worries about “success” and diminishing combat power. Others have gone much further, claiming that female combat integration puts not only their own lives, but in fact those of all members of their units, at risk.

They continue that those in favor of doing so are seeking to satisfy “feminists’ unreasonable and unrealistic demands” at the expense of battlefield effectiveness.

Whatever one’s views on feminism and gender equality, empirical evidence in fact indicates that it is the male members of groups that most determine the effects of gender integration on cohesion.

A thorough 2015 report by the RAND Corporation bears quoting directly on this count: “…the impact of gender integration on the cohesion of traditionally male groups depends on the culture of the group — groups more hostile to women experience lower cohesion after gender integration than do groups less hostile toward women…Where the environment is not hostile toward women, integration is less likely to negatively affect cohesion.”

Every time, then, that Mattis speaks of women in this way or makes oblique references to women in combat as “something that militarily doesn’t make sense,” he poisons the well by reinforcing a traditionally masculine military culture and cultivating hostility toward the idea and the reality of female combat integration.

It is irresponsible of Mattis to perpetuate this dynamic; particularly so when standing in front of the next generation of servicemembers.

Perhaps Mattis will be correct that female combat integration won’t prove successful, but leadership requires that he run the experiment honestly, see what the data bear out and, in the meantime, refrain from making comments that simultaneously undermine standing policy and stack the deck against women. 

Melanie W. Sisson is senior associate with the Stimson Center Defense Strategy and Planning Program.

Tags Behavioural sciences Gender Gender equality Gender role Gender studies James Mattis Jim Mattis Military science Psychology Social psychology women in combat

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