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What the First Female Rangers Prove

Elizabeth D. Samet is editor of "Leadership: Essential Writings by Our Greatest Thinkers" and professor of English at the U.S. Military Academy.
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Ranger School was one of the first things I learned about when I came to work in military culture. Its mythology is inescapable, and I've seen its powerful effects on many soldiers of my acquaintance, arming them with mental and physical discipline, confidence, poise and endurance.

In a nearly two-decade association with the U.S. Army, I've heard more Ranger School stories than war stories. Hurting after a rigorous physical workout with some of my infantryman friends, I learned a new nickname for the pain reliever Motrin: "Ranger Candy." I was taught that "Winter Rangers," who had endured the school in cold weather, once sewed their Ranger tabs on their uniforms with white thread. I vividly recall sitting around a dinner table listening to a group of retired officers, who had experienced close-quarters combat in Vietnam, regale each other for hours with anecdotes from Ranger School. It was clear that Ranger School, not war, was the central crucible of their lives, the source of an enduring bond.

On Friday, for the first time in history, Ranger tabs were pinned upon the shoulders of women. Capt. Kristen Griest and 1st Lt. Shaye Haver have joined the approximately 77,000 men who have completed Ranger School since the program's founding during the Korean War. Fewer than three percent of soldiers serving today have earned the tab. Many observers are celebrating these two officers' achievement and arguing that it should spell the end of policies excluding women from the historically male military enclaves of the infantry and armor branches, as well as elite units such as the 75th Ranger Regiment and the Special Forces. But will it earn women something akin to full citizenship in the Army? And what does that mean?

Throughout the recent debates over the combat-exclusion policy, opponents have argued with increasing desperation that allowing women access will somehow produce an erosion of standards. Their chief arguments rest on a flawed assumption that current standards will have to be changed to accommodate women -- that the Army somehow lacks the integrity to preserve them. Fears percolate that women will also destroy military cohesion, culture and combat readiness. Writing in the Wall Street Journal in 2012, Stephen Kilcullen warned that admitting women to Ranger School "would erode the unique Ranger ethos and culture -- not to mention the program's rigorous physical requirements -- harming its core mission of cultivating leaders willing to sacrifice everything for our nation." Others express the perennial concern that mixing sexes in such contexts would tax the human species beyond its limited capacity.

Yet the stakes of such mixing remain unexplored in these critiques, as does the very real possibility that diversity enhances readiness by multiplying perspectives and enriching a unit's capacity for solving problems. No one -- man or woman -- can succeed at Ranger School without the support of his or her squad. Clearly, Griest and Haver both gave and received such support.

Sociological studies have found that task cohesion plays an even more important role than social cohesion in the success of human groups. Organizations, including military units, tend to be more strongly motivated by a common commitment to a task than by members' emotional connections to each other. There are also potentially harmful aspects of social cohesion: insularity, groupthink, resistance to change, degraded professionalism.

Before the repeal of "don't ask, don't tell," threats to unit cohesion were similarly cited -- sometimes by retired military personnel out of step with the attitudes of current service members -- as the rationale for excluding openly gay service members. Repeal turned out to be a nonevent. Questions of standards and cohesion were likewise the crux of arguments against racial integration of the armed forces, which President Harry Truman ordered in 1948.

Male exclusivity isn't the essence of Ranger School, yet it has become a key element of its mythology, and one of the most energetic, if implicit, sources of resistance to change. But the purpose of sending women to Ranger School isn't to arm them with stories so they can entertain one another around the dinner table in retirement.

Ultimately, this debate isn't about whether women can meet a physical standard (they can) or serve in combat positions (they've been doing so unofficially for the past 14 years). It's about something bigger: whether women can run an army.

Access to Ranger School, and combat units, is really about access to leadership opportunities. Of the 12 four-star Army generals currently on active duty, all are men. Eleven began their careers in the infantry or armor branch. Ten wear the Ranger tab. In other words, if you want a chance of running the Army, you would do well to go to Ranger School.

Ranger School has never been simply about technical competency or tactical skill. The first chapter of the "Ranger Handbook" isn't even about survival; it's about leadership, which it defines as "the most essential element of combat power." The handbook also includes the story of Maj. Robert Rogers, who led what were then called "Ranging" units during the French and Indian War. In addition to giving his rangers practical advice in his 28 rules, Rogers meditated on the elements of war that no rules can anticipate, noting "a thousand occurrences and circumstances which may happen that will make it necessary in some measure to depart from them and to put other arts and stratagems in practice; in which case every man's reason and judgment must be his guide, according to the particular situation and nature of things; and that he may do this to advantage, he should keep in mind a maxim never to be departed from by a commander, viz. to preserve a firmness and presence of mind on every occasion."

Rogers's emphasis on reason, judgment and the occasional need to depart from rules ought to strike home as we watch an army in the midst of great change. Whether enduring the rigors of Ranger School is what best prepares an officer to run an army is the subject of a different essay. But until the U.S. Army imagines other viable paths to its highest echelons, the surest way for a woman to lead it will be to get the Ranger tab on her shoulder and to wear the crossed rifles of the infantry on her uniform.

(The opinions expressed do not necessarily represent those of West Point, the Department of the Army or the Department of Defense.) 

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

To contact the author on this story:
Elizabeth D Samet at eliz.samet@gmail.com

To contact the editor on this story:
Francis Wilkinson at fwilkinson1@bloomberg.net