Tag Archives: military

How Do You Change a Policy That Doesn’t Exist?: the combat exclusion one year later






(this post also appeared on the Duck of Minerva)

Despite numerous calls to ‘Let Women Fight’, internal reviews of the policy, and growing evidence of women’s contributions to operations in Iraq and Afghanistan, the January 2013 announcement that the combat exclusion would be removed was not entirely expected. For years leading up to the announcement, Congress and the Department of Defense had justified the exclusion as essential to national security. Moreover, less than 12 months before the decision to remove the exclusion, then–Pentagon press secretary George Little announced that although 14,000 new combat related jobs would be opened to women, infantry and direct combat roles would remain off limits.

  • So what did the ‘policy change’ mean and why was it initiated?

Rather than speculate on the rationale and motivations behind the policy about-face, it is more important to understand that by the time it was announced that the combat exclusion would be removed, it no longer existed.
In fact, the announcement to ‘let women fight’ should be seen as a PR stunt rather than a policy change. Here’s why… Continue reading How Do You Change a Policy That Doesn’t Exist?: the combat exclusion one year later

The Sexual Scandal Factor in Military Policy Making

(This post originally appeared on DuckOfMinerva where I am a regular contributor)

Do scandals- particularly the kind that receive international attention- inspire progressive gender policies? While there is no conclusive research on this question, there are indicators that sexual violence scandals may be as important as public opinion or operational changes in influencing policy change in the military (perhaps more so).

My prediction– you can quote me on this- is that the current onslaught of sexual violence scandals in the US military will provide the tipping point needed to remove the combat exclusion. Do I think this is the answer to the problem of one in three female service members facing rape during their service? Absolutely not. Will it be a temporary distraction to a widespread systematic problem? Absolutely- just take a look at some earlier cases.

There is almost no comparative research shedding light on why 14 of the world’s militaries have decided to remove the exclusion. BUT, if you look at each country case by case a startling pattern emerges: major sexual violence scandals rocked many of these countries in the period immediately preceding the removal of the exclusion. For example, New Zealand didn’t officially remove the exclusion until 2001, only a few years after a scathing investigation indicated that 42 sex charges had been laid with the navy within five years. Canada removed the combat exclusion as a result of a Human Rights Tribunal decision in 1989. However, leading up to the decision there were widespread accounts of sexual violence plaguing the services. This culminated in a late 1990s Maclean’s magazine detailed expose on sexual violence, including evidence of multiple rapes at gunpoint and widespread acceptance of sexual harassment. Australia is the latest country to remove the exclusion, making the decision only last September. This policy change came on the heals of the famous “skype scandal,” which saw an Australian Defence Force Academy cadet broadcast, without consent, consensual sex with a fellow cadet. This incident proved to be the tip of the iceberg as evidence of “decades of abuse” continue to come to light in recent reports.

How can one account for an international sex scandal as a contributing factor to major policy changes? What are the implications if some gender policy changes are “shush” policies designed to detract from institutional sexism?

Only time can answer these questions- and tell if my prediction is correct. But with new reports of sexual harassment and violence within the US military emerging almost daily- including headlines declaring “Rape on US bases left unchecked,” and “Why rapists in the military get away with it“- and with the documentary “The Invisible War” drawing international audience’s attention to the problem of rape within the forces, ignoring the problem is no longer an option. Removing the combat exclusion as a distraction from institutionalized and endemic sexual violence would be the right policy for the wrong reason. The problem does not call for adding more women, or allowing women to ‘do more’ within the forces; rather, it requires a change in sexist attitudes and behaviors. This will involve far work than a single policy change.

Assessing the Arguments Against GI Jane II: Unpacking the Cohesion Hypothesis

(This post originally appeared on DuckOfMinerva where I am a regular contributor)

In my post last week I talked about the three main arguments against removing the combat exclusion for women: the physical standards argument, the moral argument, and the cohesion hypothesis. My main point was that with increased research on physical standards, the intangibility of the moral argument, and increased evidence that women already are in combat, the cohesion hypothesis remains as the most significant set of arguments against GI Janes.

There are two main premises to the cohesion hypothesis: 1. cohesion is causally linked to group (in this case military unit) performance; 2. women negatively impact cohesion and thereby negatively impact troop effectiveness.

The trouble with these two premises is that they both have been largely discounted by researchers. In her 1998 article on the Don’t Ask Don’t Tell policy in International Security, Elizabeth Kier concludes that “the results from more than five decades of research in group dynamics, organizational behaviour, small-group research, sports psychology, social psychology, military history, and military sociology challenge the proposition that primary group unit cohesion enhances military performance.” Some research even indicates that high levels of cohesion can be detrimental to military performance as it results in conformity, groupthink, and a lack of adaptability. Many of the studies on cohesion and the military find that leadership and task- not social- cohesion have a greater impact on performance than social cohesion.
In terms of the second premise, as mentioned in the last post RAND’s major study on cohesion in 1997 found that women don’t impact group performance or military readiness. Subsequent research has reconfirmed this conclusion.

In addition to shaky (at best) premises, another major problem with the cohesion hypothesis is that it is never clear what exactly is meant by cohesion within the military context. In hopes of finding answers to this puzzle I went on a wild goose chase for cohesion clarity.

Sifting through research on social cohesion in the military I found myself sinking in masses of studies on social cohesion, citizenship and multiculturalism, group dynamics, as well as military studies on cohesion. It turns out that social cohesion is the meaningless catchphrase of the moment (I think it may have even eclipsed ’empowerment’ and ‘deliberative democracy’). Social cohesion has been used to explain the London riots, failed and successful immigration policies, winning sports team dynamics, as well as the need to keep women out of combat roles. Cohesion has also been defined as everything from: shared norms, ‘liking’ one another, commitment to a group, bonding, and trust. So how can one vague concept explain such wide-ranging and disparate policy decisions and social dynamics?

There is little substance to the cohesion hypothesis, almost no empirical evidence supporting it, and even the different forces with the US military seem to define and measure cohesion differently. I certainly don’t have the answer, but it does seem that in most contexts it is employed- especially in discussions of migrant integration, multiculturalism, and the combat exclusion- ‘cohesion’ is a red herring that distracts from attention to deeper issues of discrimination and cultural bias. In the case of the US military, cohesion is a smoke and mirrors debate that will persist until sexist attitudes and gender discrimination are addressed.

Assessing the Arguments Against GI Jane: The Combat Exclusion for Women Part I

(This post originally appeared on DuckOfMinerva where I am a regular contributor)

As American troops trickle back from Iraq and-eventually- Afghanistan, it seems like the perfect time to examine the lessons learned from the last decade of warfare. One of the policies requiring a review is the combat exclusion for women. Although most positions within the US forces have been opened up to women over the last 50 years, there has beenadamant efforts to sustain rules which prohibit women from joining the so-called front lines of conflict in combat roles. Many of the remaining justifications for this exclusion are based on expired research (or no research at all), and outdated or irrelevant assumptions about military operations (including the idea of a clear front line).

First, some quick facts: over 130 women have died in Operation Enduring Freedom and Operation Iraqi Freedom; women are excluded from 9% of all army roles, and 30% of active duty roles and 38% of marine positions are closed to women; two servicewomen have been awarded the Silver Star- the military’s third highest honor for valor in combat.
The arguments for sustaining the exclusion can be divided into three categories: physical standards, the moral argument, and the cohesion hypothesis.

The focus on physical standards is a legitimate one. Women and men are just different physically, particularly in terms of body fat and upper body strength- not to mention the fact that women menstruate and get pregnant. There are no feminist arguments that can undo these differences. There are a couple of worthwhile considerations here: 1. standards have increasingly been adjusted in trainingto recognize the difference in male and female bodies 2. there is growing research indicating that a single standard isn’t necessary for operational effectiveness 3. some research shows that tasks can be adapted (using two people to lift, for example) to allow women to succeed.

The second argument against women in combat is less tangible and certainly impossible to measure- the moral argument. This is the position that women simply ‘don’t belong’ in combat. It may seem like this would be irrelevant to policy-makers; however, in senate hearings and in much of the literature on the combat exclusion this position emerges. A quote from Gen. Merrill A. McPeak, a former Air Force chiefof staff summarizes this position, “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.” The moral argument is an important one to take notice of. Research and the interviewee’s response indicate the existence of deeply embedded beliefs about men and women’s valid place during conflict. In many ways it is difficult to disentangle the moral argument from the physical standards and the cohesion hypothesis as these embedded beliefs seem to inform and influence much of the debates surrounding women’s participation in combat.

The final, and perhaps most significant, argument for keeping women out of combat roles is thecohesion argument. Or, what I call the cohesion hypothesis. According to this position, the presence of women affects the emotional bonds, friendships, and trust amongst troops and therefore jeopardizes the overall effectiveness of military units. The cohesion hypothesis is used by other defense forces across the world, and was also used to support Don’t Ask Don’t Tell. There are a couple of difficulties with the cohesion hypothesis: 1. cohesion is difficult to define and measure. In military scholarship it is defined as anything from commitment to a shared mission, trust, bonds, to ‘liking’ one another. As a result, it has become nearly impossible to test the cohesion hypothesis conclusively. 2. partially as a result of disparate definitions and partially as a result of the lack of test population, research on cohesion is all over the map when it comes to combat cohesion women.

RAND did a large study on women’s impact on cohesion in non-combat units, concluding that it was largely leadership, not the presence of women, that impacted cohesion. Despite some research indicating that women don’t spoil cohesion, it is impossible to conclusively determine if women would spoil cohesion in combat units. As the 1992 Presidential Commission looking at women in military found, “[t]here are no authoritative military studies of mixed-gender ground combat cohesion, since available cohesion research has been conducted among male-only ground combat units.”

The arguments against so-called GI Janes seem to defy the reality that women have been and are operating in dangerous, physically demanding roles in the US forces. Arguments about cohesion and standards were used to exclude African Americans and homosexuals from the US forces. These arguments were dropped and largely discredited as soon as policies changed, yet they continue to be used to exclude women from many positions with the US forces. Is the US military ready to open all positions to women? Will the removal of the combat exclusion be on the table for policy makers over the next 5 years?