Four women in the U. S. Army have filed a lawsuit in federal court demanding that the military drop its practice of excluding women from combat. Robert H. Scales, a retired Major General with combat experience, raises a concern that I haven’t heard before:
Infantry and armor soldiers alone do virtually all the intimate killing. Here’s where the issue gets hard for me. Intimate killing is done in small units, normally squads and teams. In these engagements they fight and often die not for country or mission but for each other. We borrow a phrase from Shakespeare’s “Henry V” and term this phenomenon the “band of brothers effect.” This is the essential glue in military culture that causes a young man to sacrifice his life willingly so that his buddies might survive. Contemporary history suggests that U.S. infantry units fight equally well when made up of soldiers of different ethnicities, cultures, intelligence and social background. The evidence is also solid that gays make just as good infantrymen as do straight men.
I’ve been studying the band of brothers effect for almost 40 years and have written extensively on the subject. We know that time together allows effective pairings — or “battle buddies,” to use the common Army term. We know that four solid buddy pairings led by a sergeant compose a nine-man, battle-ready squad. The Marine squad is slightly larger. We know from watching Ranger and special forces training that buddy groups form often spontaneously. But the human formula that ensures successful buddy pairings is still a mystery, and that’s the key stumbling block in the debate. Veteran SEALs, special forces, Rangers, tankers and line infantrymen will swear that the deliberate, premeditated and brutal act of intimate killing is a male-only occupation. But no one can prove it with data from empirical tests because no such data exist from the United States. They just know intuitively from battlefield experience that it’s true.
To be sure, women soldiers may be fit, they may be skilled and they may be able to “hang.” Many have proved with their lives that they are willing to make the ultimate sacrifice. But our senior ground-force leaders, as well as generations of former close combat veterans from all of our previous wars, are virtually united on one point: The precious and indefinable band of brothers effect so essential to winning in close combat would be irreparably compromised within mixed-gender infantry squads.
“Intimate killing.” “Band of brothers.” “Battle buddies.” One would think that the intimate two-person bond between “battle buddies” would also be affected by homosexuality. At any rate, it would seem that we should identify what the different units in our military are for and then determine what arrangements would make them more effective towards that end.