U.S. Department of Defense A U.S. Army cultural support team member with the Combined Joint Special Operations Task Force scans the terrain while sitting in a Humvee in Sarobi district, Kabul province, Afghanistan, Dec. 6, 2013.

True Grit

The Myths and Realities of Women in Combat

By January 1, 2016, all positions in the U.S. military, including frontline combat roles, will become open to women—that is, unless the services seek exceptions before October 1. Whether they do will drastically shape the future of the U.S. military.

The exclusion of women from combat in the United States and elsewhere has persisted primarily because of myths and stereotypes associated with female and male capabilities and the military’s “band of brothers” culture. The most persistent of these myths—that women are physically unfit for the demands of war, that the public cannot tolerate female casualties, and that female soldiers limit the cohesion of troops in combat—have been rigorously dismantled by scholars and female soldiers alike in recent years. Today, most Americans support the inclusion of women in combat.

U.S. Marine Corps Lance Cpl. Sienna De Santis and U.S. Navy Petty Officer 3rd Class Heidi Dean on a patrol in Sangin Valley, Afghanistan, October 2010.

U.S. Marine Corps Lance Cpl. Sienna De Santis and U.S. Navy Petty Officer 3rd Class Heidi Dean on a patrol in Sangin Valley, Afghanistan, October 2010.

But as the services prepare for female integration, a new myth has come to dominate the debate around the subject: that women who have already served in combat situations—including those who were part of frontline, female-only teams in Afghanistan and Iraq—were in fact deployed primarily to build relationships with local communities and to add a “soft touch” to counterinsurgency operations. Women in the U.S. military, this line of thinking holds, serve as "lady soldiers," not as true combatants.

In discussions of this myth, the cultural support teams (CSTs), the small female-only units attached to Special Forces and Ranger teams in Afghanistan and tasked with both combat and civilian engagement, have attracted particular attention. Although CSTs were assigned to units on some of the most dangerous combat missions in Afghanistan, claims from public figures that these women took part in the war to “soften” the presence of U.S. troops have contributed to false perceptions that female soldiers remained far from hostile action and that their primary contributions to war relate to their gender, not their capabilities.

Media and military characterizations of CSTs tend to focus on their supposed deescalating effect in hostile areas, their roles in winning "

Loading, please wait...

Browse Related Articles on {{search_model.selectedTerm.name}}

{{indexVM.results.hits.total | number}} Articles Found

  • {{bucket.key_as_string}}