Combat, Cohesion and Gender: the elementary forms of the military life

  • Awarded to: Professor Anthony King
  • Funding Awarded to Exeter: £144,096
  • Dates: 1 October 2011 - 31 August 2013
  • Sponsor(s): ESRC

Can women be infantry soldiers? Combat is one of the most extreme forms of human activities and throughout human history it has been almost exclusively a masculine domain. However, with the professionalization of the armed forces and the recent pressures of operations in Afghanistan, female participation in the army and on operations has been increasingly accepted and even normalised. Canada and Denmark now allow women in the infantry and, while the UK and US still maintain their bans on females in the infantry, female British and American soldiers have increasingly served on the front line in combat situations. This research addresses this important and potentially historic issue of the increasingly active participation of women in war.

Although the physical differences are not irrelevant, women's exclusion from the infantry has typically been justified by reference to its presumed effects on cohesion among the male soldiers. Females threaten the combat performance of male troops. In order to examine whether women can be members of the infantry and to identify the cultural and institutional conditions which might facilitate or limit this participation, this research adopts a historic and comparative perspective. It investigates the thesis that soldiers in mass conscript armies of the twentieth century were poorly trained and generally performed badly in combat. From the First World War to Vietnam, cohesion was encouraged primarily (and often not very successfully) through appeals to extraneous social values; masculinity, ethnicity or nationalism. Conscript soldiers were bound together by their social likeness, as comrades; as brothers-in-arms. There was little room for women in these groups. By contrast, the basis of cohesion in the professional armies of the twenty-first century may ironically be both more effective and more impersonal. Professional armies now prioritise training. They engender cohesion and high levels of collective performance through the inculcation of drills which soldiers are trained to execute together.  Cohesion seems now to be based primarily on practical competence not social criteria; skill not social homogeneity is now regarded as paramount.

This seems to be having important sociological consequences. Crucially, in the light of this professionalization, it is becoming acceptable for women to operate with infantry soldiers on the front line and, in some cases, to perform as infantry soldiers themselves. There has been a fundamental shift in the way in how combat soldiers unite themselves and perform their roles in battle, allowing individuals who were once excluded from the front-line to become members of these highly cohesive groups. Through documentary, fieldwork and interview research with the armies of Canada, Denmark, Germany, France, the UK and the US, this research seeks to explore the possibilities and limits of women's participation in the infantry.

In this way, the professional army perhaps reflects wider social changes. While societies in the twentieth century, especially in its first half, were ethnically and racially homogenous with clearly defined gender, ethnic and class hierarchies, globalised society today is characterised by increasing hybridity as tradionally boundaries erode. In civilian society, too, it might be possible to claim that new forms of solidarity are emerging based not on what people are - whether they are men, women, black, white, gay or straight - but on what they do; in terms of careers, consumption, leisure activity, lifestyle and activism. The cohesion of infantry soldier fighting in southern Afghanistan may be a military version of the kind of specialised, localised and practice-based solidarity which is increasingly defining the lives of people today. Through the investigation of one small but dramatic form of social practice, combat, this research aims to explore these profound changes in social existence.

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