As Pentagon opens combat roles to women, what are special forces' concerns?

An end to male bonding, infidelity in the field, and a sense that the special forces would be 'less elite' were among the worries cited in two recently released studies.

Spc. Nikayla Shodeen/US Army/Reuters/File
Then-Army 1st Lt. Kirsten Griest (C) and fellow soldiers participate in combatives training during the Ranger Course on Fort Benning, Ga., in April.

With the lifting of the ban on women in special operations forces earlier this month, female service members are no longer automatically disqualified from being Navy SEALs, Delta Force operators, and Army Rangers because of their gender.

The Pentagon’s next big step is figuring out how to make it work. To this end, Defense officials launched a couple of big studies earlier this year to give them a sense of the major concerns and points of resistance among the troops who do these jobs.

What they found was that, while the men in these elite units express concerns about women meeting the grueling physical standards, they are generally quick to concede that they all know a woman or two who could make the cut.

The far bigger hurdle is the culture of special forces operators, who perceive themselves as “hyper-masculine, elite alpha males,” according to one of these newly released studies, conducted by the University of Kansas (KU) in partnership with the US Army Research Institute.

Hundreds of special operators interviewed earlier this year in another study commissioned by the Pentagon and conducted by the RAND Corp. lamented an end to “towel-snapping” locker room bonding, and expressed concerns about everything from the ways in which menstruation might affect women’s rationality to how foreign enemies might not be as frightened of being hunted by coed military units. 

But, the studies’ authors say, the comments sound very similar to complaints voiced by servicemen in earlier eras as the military broadened its definition of who would be allowed to serve. Many of these fears, for example, echo the worries that white troops expressed with racial integration, and males expressed with the integration of women into their ranks in World War II – and again in the 1970s, when women were first admitted to the military service academies. 

“I don’t think the hang-up is around physicality, but around these broader cultural issues” that, historically, tend to fade as men work with women, says Shannon Portillo, an associate professor at KU who worked on the study.

For example:

  • “Integrating females will be seen as a sign of weakness. They are going to lose their fear of us,” a Marine in special operations complained.
  • “Special Forces will stop being looked at as elite,” another special operator said.
  • “It’s a slap in the face telling us that chicks can do our job. It’s not the physical aspect that bothers me. My issues are morale and retention. This wouldn’t be special to anyone anymore,” another argued. 

The simple fact that male-only units exclude women is actually “an artificial source of prestige and elitism,” the KU study notes.

“We heard a lot of that from men in special forces – that they were going to leave because it wasn’t as elite as it used to be,” says Professor Portillo.

Researchers found the reasoning counterintuitive, Portillo says, given that Pentagon officials have stressed repeatedly that physical standards for these military occupational specialties will not change.

“The idea is that if competition is more open and not restricted to only men, then somehow it loses its competitiveness,” Portillo notes.

Yet in many ways, the men’s arguments against women are also “heartening,” she adds, since researchers found that the “physical arguments were where those conversations started, but they were really quickly pushed to the side by men.”

The RAND study on the integration of special operations forces (SOF), conducted in the spring, found that in 24 focus groups of special operators nationwide, roughly 40 percent cited potential benefits of having women in their units, including in “conducting sensitive operations” as well as communicating with local populations.

Many also knew women who had been plucked out of their units to take part in “black ops” missions that are often more physically intense than the average SOF assignment.

The problem with these black ops missions is that the women who take part in them can’t talk about them. 

“For a woman, even if she has the ability to do this work, she can’t use it as a résumé builder,” Portillo notes.

Men in the study “would often say that they had met or worked with women who have kicked their butts, and most said they knew women who could pass the physical tests” required of special operations forces.

As the Pentagon moves ahead, the key, analysts add, is to point out incongruities in their concerns, and to cite how the US military has repeatedly overcome them in the past. 

“A lot of the barriers men discussed were very traditional” in the special operations community, including concerns centered around women’s emotionality or rationality, as well as what is seen as their “lack of control over their reproductive abilities,” says Portillo.

Many of the men who discussed their views of women in these terms had never worked with women as adults. “Many of them went into the military at age 18 and worked exclusively with men since then.”

Portillo and her colleagues call it “gender oblivion.”

Most men they surveyed believe some women can do the job, but perceive them as too “emotional” for the battlefield. 

“They’re indecisive and they’re trying to process multiple things, connecting it to emotionality and then freezing – I think there’s a huge potential for that,” one special forces soldier said in the focus group that accompanied the Army Research Institute study. 

“I have a wife. She’s very independent. But when that time of her month comes, she’s weaker,” another argued. 

Men often brought up their own spouses in discussing their worries. “They were concerned that their wives would just say ‘no’ to their deployments,” Portillo notes, for fear of infidelities that might result from them working in close quarters with female colleagues.

They also lamented what they saw as an end to important male bonding. “As strange as it sounds, someone slapping someone with a towel in the shower – that’s an element of the male cohesive unit,” one special operator said. 

“We just don’t have the time or patience to deal with thinking about how we walk, or talk around females. It’s not part of our nature,” added a Navy SEAL. “We are expected to be misogynistic. That is our job.” 

These are concerns that women have had to grapple with for some time. A 1954 report on Women’s Army Corps during World War II​ noted that the presence of women was widely feared by men because of what was seen as their potentially negative impact on military performance and unit morale, as well as their ability to become pregnant. 

Yet “women’s morale held up excellent,” as the 1954 study put it, and pregnancy rates for those in deployed locations was less than one half of the world WAC pregnancy rate.

Years later, in the 1970s, when the Navy was contemplating bringing women on ships, most men agreed that women were “more emotional,” and one third expressed the belief that women were “less stable” and had innately “less leadership ability.” 

Fully three quarters of men disagreed with the statement that “women officers should be given the same opportunities as male officers, including sea duty and flying status.” 

Today, the Navy is one of the most integrated military services. 

In short, the study notes, women were “able to gradually convince the enlisted men that their roles were to achieve military missions.”

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