Women in Combat Hampered by Band-of-Brother Myth, Author Says

Capt. Kristen Griest, left, and 1st Lt. Shaye Haver talk to Command Sgt. Major Curtis Arnold Jr. after receiving their Ranger Tabs at an Aug. 21, 2015, Ranger School graduation. (Photo by Matthew Cox/Military.com)
Capt. Kristen Griest, left, and 1st Lt. Shaye Haver after receiving their Ranger Tabs. (Photo by Matthew Cox/Military.com)

U.S. military branches have four months to meet the Pentagon’s deadline for opening all front-line combat positions to women, unless a service seeks exception to the policy before Oct. 1. Much of the debate swirling around the coming change has focused on the physical standards women will be held to in those positions.

After two female soldiers made history by earning their Ranger Tabs recently, a top Ranger School official took to Facebook to dispel rumors that standards had been lowered for the women.

Arguments over physical standards distract from a more fundamental issue about women in combat, says author Megan MacKenzie in “Beyond the Band of Brothers: The U.S. Military and the Myth that Women Can’t Fight,” published this month.

“I think the debates around physical standards can stop us from having a discussion about military culture,” said MacKenzie, a senior lecturer at the University of Sydney’s Department of Government and International Relations.

MacKenzie, who spent five years researching women in the military in the U.S., Canada, New Zealand and Australia, interviewing male and female soldiers and key policymakers, is slated as a keynote speaker in October at the Association of the United States Army’s annual national meeting in Washington, D.C.

“I think women are showing they can do the job. Physical capability is not the issue; it’s men’s acceptance of women that’s the issue,”she said. “That’s a cultural problem, not a physical problem at all, and that’s going to be the last hang-up in terms of integration.”

At the heart of that cultural attitude, she argues, is the band-of-brothers “myth” — a phrase made famous by Shakespeare’s Henry V, who rallied his outnumbered troops on the eve of battle with a speech that included the line, “We few, we happy few, we band of brothers.”

The term reached its modern zenith with the historian Stephen Ambrose’s 1992 book “Band of Brothers,” recounting Airborne soldiers’ experiences during World War II in Europe, which later became an HBO miniseries.

The band-of-brothers myth, MacKenzie contends, is not that a group of male warfighters can develop a close bond, but that the nation’s security rests upon such exclusive masculine camaraderie. This all-male bonding is often cast as “mysterious” and “indescribable,” and thus all-male units “are seen as elite as a result of their social bonds and physical superiority,” MacKenzie says in the book.

The band-of-brothers myth “shapes our understanding of what men and women can, and should do, in war,” she wrote.

The formal exclusion of American women from combat has always been about men, not women, with an evolving set of rules, guidelines, and ideas primarily used to validate the all-male combat unit as “elite, essential, and exceptional,” she wrote.

Women are often seen as “potential spoilers” of the band-of-brothers military culture, she wrote.

It was during the post-Vietnam War years that the military and popular culture embraced in tandem the band-of-brothers narrative as military thinkers — and moviemakers — began assessing U.S. shortcomings in that conflict, she said.

“Military morale was at a low point,” MacKenzie said. “You started to hear that part of the failure in Vietnam was a result of cohesion, that we needed stronger cohesion.”

Troop cohesion, “largely defined as men’s ability to trust each other and form social bonds,” became synonymous with combat effectiveness after Vietnam, “which by definition excluded women from cohesion,” she wrote.

MacKenzie’s book is in part a response to a body of writings by former military officers who have argued that placing women in combat roles would be detrimental to the military and national security.

In “Co-Ed Combat: The New Evidence That Women Shouldn’t Fight the Nation’s Wars,” long-time critic of integration Kingsley Browne wrote that “for very fundamental reasons women do not evoke in men the same feelings of comradeship and ‘followership’ that men do.”

Robert L. Maginnis, author of “Deadly Consequences: How Cowards are Pushing Women into Combat,” told Stars and Stripes that MacKenzie’s argument “attempts to wrap feminist theories and ideologies around military realities that she knows little about.”

“She does not appear to understand cohesion,” he said. “Survival and mission accomplishment for ground combatants, based on significant combat evidence, depends on physical strength, and male advantages in physiology are an important aspect here,” he said.

Cohesion, Maginnis said, does not depend on the “exclusion” of women. “That’s a boilerplate feminist theory, which is an anti-male philosophy believing that men are hopeless misogynists and there are no differences between men and women that matter,” he said.

MacKenzie acknowledges differences between the sexes but objects to them being cited as evidence of women’s inferiority for combat positions.

“It’s starting to get old,” she said. “We keep going back to women and men are different but ignoring that warfare is also different and physical standards also potentially need to be adapted. Most militaries around the world are adapting the physical standards because war has changed so much. Just basing standards around measuring the fitness of an average 23-year-old male doesn’t tell us much about whether someone can be a combat soldier.”

Debate over physical standards also ignores that in recent years many women have been in de facto combat positions, particularly those who were in cultural support teams attached to Special Forces and Ranger teams in Afghanistan, she said. Many received combat-action badges. Some were wounded. Two died during direct-action raids.

The continuing focus on physical standards “tends to reinforce this idea that women can get into combat roles as long as they don’t change the military at all,” MacKenzie said.

“I think that’s interesting in the sense that where there’s a potential for women to enhance these roles, we kind of assume that women, if they do change anything in the military, it’s always for the worse,” she said.

With the military in the throes of a sexual assault epidemic, full combat integration for women could change the culture for the better, she said.

“We can still honor the military culture, but to try to say that there’s no room for change and women can’t make any change to the military, I think, is unfortunate,” she said.

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