Since 1944, West Point has required cadets to pass its indoor obstacle course, a test of agility, stamina and strength that is designed to build a warrior ethos and determine whether these future soldiers can meet the physical demands of combat. When freshman Cadet Madaline Kenyon completed the course in 2 minutes 26 seconds in October, she scored the equivalent of an A-plus on the men’s scale and set a new female record. It was a stunning achievement.
Cadet Kenyon had planned to become an officer in the Army Medical Corps. After her performance on the obstacle course, the superintendent of the U.S. Military Academy, Lt. Gen. Robert Caslen, asked her: Why not the infantry?
As a woman, Cadet Kenyon cannot officially serve in infantry, armor, artillery or other jobs in combat. But her accomplishment comes at an opportune time, as the services have begun removing the last obstacle to women in the military.
In January 2013, then-Defense Secretary Leon Panetta ordered the Joint Chiefs of Staff to study the feasibility of opening all military jobs to women by 2016. This would include more than 200,000 jobs that make up the core of the ground-level combat force in the Army and the Marine Corps.
The Joint Chiefs have expressed strong support for this transition. But the success of women’s integration into combat units will depend on how quickly and enthusiastically officers and enlisted soldiers embrace it. Many servicemen resist the idea, citing studies that suggest including women in combat would imperil unit effectiveness, good order and discipline.
Opponents of women in combat rightly argue that the military’s physical standards must not be compromised to expand women’s access. The stakes could not be higher: our military’s fighting effectiveness. If the Army expects an infantry soldier to walk 20 miles while hauling 50 pounds of equipment, this standard should apply regardless of gender.
Fortunately, the Army and Marine Corps have begun establishing job-specific standards that would apply to men and women — and women like Cadet Kenyon are showing they can meet the bar.
As part of a pilot program last fall, four Marines became the first female graduates of the Corps’ enlisted infantry training course. All four passed the most strenuous aspect of the Marines’ infantry training: a 12-mile march carrying 80 pounds of gear.
The initial transition is likely to be difficult as our all-male combat units adapt to integration. But my experiences in Afghanistan and Iraq have convinced me that what the military would gain by including women in combat far outweighs any short-term compromises. Our country’s most recent conflicts have demonstrated that the military needs women on the battlefield. We need their creativity, insight and empathy, qualities often lacking in male-dominated units.
Recent studies from Harvard Business School and MIT show that “group intelligence” of an organization rises when women are on teams. Women bring a unique level of “social sensitivity,” the ability to read the emotions of other people. On today’s complex battlefields, social sensitivity is a crucial skill for military professionals.
During my patrols in Iraq from 2007 to 2009, I came to appreciate how much women could have contributed to my mission. Most Iraqi men were reticent to speak with us for fear of retribution from al-Qaida. Iraqi women, often fed up with the violence in their neighborhoods, could be persuaded to provide information, but first we had to bridge the gender gap, build rapport and earn their trust, all of which took valuable time.
Having women in our platoon would have dramatically increased our ability to elicit critical intelligence. This could mean the difference between a mission’s success or failure, with lives in the balance.
Since 2011, U.S. Special Operations forces in Afghanistan have embedded all-female cultural support teams in their units. The program has been lauded by commanders for gaining access to the 50 percent of the Afghan population who had previously been inaccessible. Commanders are looking to deploy these teams to support operations in Africa. Army operations will probably require the same skill sets needed in Iraq and Afghanistan that women are adept at providing.
Including women in front-line units would be more than an exercise in social equality; it would be a valuable enhancement of military effectiveness and national security.
When Cadet Kenyon graduates from West Point in 2017, she is likely to have the opportunity to serve in a combat unit. She has her eye on the Army’s Armor Corps, she told me, because “tanks are the most intimidating thing on the battlefield.”
I look forward to a future where I can see troops follow a Lt. Kenyon leading the charge.
William Denn, an Army captain and intelligence officer who led soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan, is a graduate student in public policy at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government. He wrote this for The Washington Post.