Guts, God and Mystery: how the women and combat debate is all about emotion

11 September 2015, 1649 EDT

War on the Rocks published an exceptionally written piece by Lieutenant General (ret.) Gregory Newbold called “What Tempers the Steel of an Infantry Unit” that has gone viral. Here, Newbold eloquently draws out an argument that has tended to only be implied- or lurking behind much of the debate on women in combat for decades. The argument is simple: infantry units require a special, indescribable bond and dynamic that women spoil. Certainly this argument is not unique, but the beauty of Newbold’s piece that he boldly puts the emotional arguments- rather than physical ones– front and center. Newbold’s piece is somewhat enticing and romantic to read because he is recreating a familiar narrative and myth- that of the band of brothers. The band of brothers myths stems back to Shakespeare, Darwin and Freud, who all used the myth to help make broader arguments about male superiority and relationships. The myth has evolved through time and popular culture, but the general message of the myth remains the same: men form unique, mysterious bonds that render them superior warriors. What cannot be forgotten about this myth is that women’s exclusion is key to sustaining the mystery, bonds, and superiority.

In my recent book, Beyond the Band of Brothers: the US Military and the Myth that Women Can’t Fight, I argue that it is emotion- not logic, research, or evidence of women’s performance- that has always driven debates on women in combat. I summarize the common emotional reactions against women in combat in terms of their reference to guts, God and mystery. Guts refers to emotional arguments that women in combat ‘just doesn’t feel right.’ Or that the idea of women and combat defies a set of intimate beliefs, ideals, and commitments not necessarily substantiated by evidence. The following quote from former Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Merrill A. McPeak summarizes this type of ‘gut’ reaction: “I just can’t get over this feeling of old men ordering young women into combat…I have a gut-based hang-up there. And it doesn’t make a lot of sense in every way. I apologize for it.”

Arguments that focus on ‘God’ pit women in combat against God’s will, or against the nature of women and men, which God created. Like the gut reaction argument, this position draws on faith and ideals, but in this case, a more explicit link is made between these arguments and Christianity. This link makes it difficult to respond to or critique with research, since it is impossible to prove what is or is not ‘God-given’ or ‘natural.’ Finally, mystery is key to arguments against women in combat. Discussions of the band of brothers myth focus on the mysterious, indescribable and ‘unknowable’ bonds and relationships that men form during combat. According to this position, women- and civilians- just don’t get it. They cannot be part of the mystery, and it cannot be explained to them.

Newbold’s piece hits each of guts, God, and mystery arguments like clockwork. He centers his analysis on the “alchemy” of an infantry unit. He places the indescribably and immeasurable dynamics of male troops as the lynchpin to national security. And if the link between God and guts wasn’t clear enough, Newbold summarizes the nature of infantry units the following way: “practitioners of infantry warfare have great difficulty describing the alchemy that produces an effective infantry unit, much as it is difficult for those of faith to explain their conviction to an atheist.” The problem with this lynchpin to national security is it cannot be described, measured, or really even talked about with honor, but policy makers and the nation are expected to trust that it is the foundation for good policy and key to their national safety. Newbold clarifies: ”It is equally difficult to describe the ingredients of an efficient ground fighting machine, because the ingredients are intangible, decidedly not quantitative, and proudly subjective.” The take home message here is clear: unknowable and indescribable feelings men form during combat should inform military and national security policy; research and evidence of the changing nature of war be damned- the band of brothers myth should reign.

What’s interesting about the band of brothers myth- or the alchemy of the unit- is that it cannot be described; however, we know exactly what ruins it: women. Newbold points to sexual attraction and jealousy as one of the major destroyers of unit alchemy. Here, he goes back to God, noting that 19 year old men are made with an abundance of testosterone that makes them good soldiers, but bad at behaving around women: “Nineteen-year-old males everywhere are from Mars. They, and their early twenty-something brethren, are overloaded with testosterone, supremely confident about their invincibility, and prone to illogical antics.” Given this inherent nature of men, the only solution for Newbold is women’s exclusion. To him fairness and equality are luxuries that ignore the true nature of men and the needs of war.

What Newbold ignores is that he is essentially making two arguments that degrade men and undermine military training. First his argument assumes that young men cannot be professional and that they cannot control their sexuality around women, or the ‘they can’t keep it in their pants’ position. Such claims not only insult men and their capabilities, they imply that the ‘real’ sexual assault problem for the military is women’s inclusion, not men who assault. Second, Newbold is implying that the military is ineffective at training men to be professional and to work alongside women. Perhaps this is true, but continuing to exclude women from combat is surely not the answer to this training problem.

The real problem with Newbold’s piece- and with gut, God and mystery arguments in general- is that these positions are conversation stoppers when it comes to women in combat. They tend to refer to pre-ordained and deeply held convictions that cannot even be described fully, let alone quantified. In other words no amount of debate or evidence could change their position. There are plenty of studies on military cohesion and group dynamics; however, Newbold manages to dismiss them with his discussion of guts, God, and mystery. Linking national security to men’s feelings is not only ridiculous, it is a barrier to those trying to change military culture or alter the process of integrating women into combat roles. Newbold, and those who fall back on the band of brothers myth ignore data, research and evidence from the battlefield and beg us to accept their account of indescribable feelings on the battlefield as the foundation for good policy.