Sailors and Marines man the rails aboard the USS Arlington (LPD-24) in New York City for Fleet Week, May 22, 2018.

Sailors and Marines man the rails aboard the USS Arlington (LPD-24) in New York City for Fleet Week, May 22, 2018. Navy photo by Petty Officer 3rd Class Zach Sleeper

Mind The Gender Capability Gap

It's a strategic blind spot for the Pentagon, but gender and warfare are inextricably intertwined. Let’s train our forces to face that.

In 2009, frustrated that several male insurgents had escaped a cordoned area by disguising themselves as Afghan women in burqas, U.S. Marine Corps Capt. Matt Pottinger established the first U.S. Female Engagement Team in Afghanistan, taking a leaf out of the U.S. Army’s book in Iraq. Though these teams were an ad hoc, undertrained, and to varying degrees misused solution, they were nonetheless a significant institutional attempt to grapple with a growing realization: America’s enemies understand and exploit gender dynamics better than we do.

Fortunately, the Defense Department is now recognizing gender as a strategic and operational blind spot, but there is more work to do.

Several U.S. allies, including Australia, Britain, and Canada, are fielding a cadre of gender advisors: specialists trained and dedicated to help their armed forces understand how the socially constructed roles, responsibilities, and needs of men, women, boys, and girls affect and are affected by conflict. The United States has begun to do the same, but as of last month the military had fewer than one dozen gender advisors advising its combatant commands. Only one is in a full-time position; the rest are dual-hatted employees, juggling other responsibilities. Only two have received gender training, in a NATO two-week operational gender advisor course run out of Stockholm.

Thankfully, a group of dedicated specialists, led by Elizabeth Lape, the Joint Staff’s deputy director for Individual/Collective Training, have successfully piloted the Defense Department’s first Operational Gender Advisor course, more than doubling its number of gender advisors in the process.

Commanders across the military should send more staff to this five-day course. It was recently held at U.S. Indo-Pacific Command, in Hawaii, but will likely be held at least twice more over the next year at Africa Command and European Command, in Germany. To bring the training to other services and commands, Congress must provide more funding. Fortunately, the $100,000 required to do so represents less than the rounding error of the defense budget. That’s a small price to pay for better understanding the needs of more than half of humanity, and even smaller when one considers the cost savings of peace over conflict. 

The implications of our military’s gender capability gap — that is, its inability to address gender dynamics in military strategy, operations, and tactics — are showing up in large-scale exercises. At the recent Talisman Saber exercise held biannually with Australia, U.S. commanders focused on the kinetic battle while rape and gender-based violence ravaged the make-believe internally displaced persons camps. The few “Gender Advisors” who were on hand warned that this violence would likely exacerbate conflict, but few American participants understood how to best integrate their advice.

Gender dynamics also shape the battlefield in real life. Boko Haram uses more female suicide bombers than male ones. Women are the frontline caregivers in the battle against Ebola and other epidemics. And women make up the vast majority of North Korea’s defectors and its breadwinners. Using data from 80 countries, a recent study by Texas A&M University found that social acceptance of violence against women; high bride prices; women’s disempowerment in property rights; and a lack of brotherhood or fraternity ties within a society are all statistically correlated with a society’s propensity to produce foreign fighters for ISIS.

“Gender in operations is complicated and widely misunderstood as ‘women’s issues’ or ‘equal opportunity,’ Cmdr. Suzanne Mainor, the political-military advisor for Women, Peace, and Security on the Joint Staff explained last month, “but it is much broader than that.”

Related: Want Peace in Syria? Put Women at the Negotiating Table
Related: Inside The World’s Most Radical Experiment in Women’s Rights

Gender training helps us see populations not as monolithic blocs, but as collections of different sub-populations, particularly women, men, boys, and girls, whose differing roles and behaviors mean they will impact and be impacted differently by conflict. ISIS, for example, intentionally recruits and indoctrinates young children, commonly known as the “cubs of ISIS,” teaching them to hate their own families and involving them in torture and murder. Children as young as 6 years old are reportedly being held in Iraqi jails on suspicion of being ISIS fighters, or are slipping back into their communities without rehabilitation or reintegration assistance.

We also ignore gender dynamics at our own troops’ peril: in 2001, the New York Times reported that U.S. Army Special Forces Capt. Dan Quinn was relieved of his command and pulled from Afghanistan after he beat up an Afghan militia commander for chaining a boy to his bed as a sex slave. The U.S. failed to train Quinn, as well as Special Forces Sgt. 1st Class Charles Martland, who joined him in the beating, to grapple with the differences between International Humanitarian Law violations and what they were told was gendered “Afghan culture.” Because they were not prepared to deal with such sexual and gender-based violence, the boy, his family, and the American soldiers all paid a price.

Integrating a gender perspective will help the U.S. military and its partners better protect troops and the populations around them, whether it’s engaging local women’s networks to warn civilians of scattered landmines, realizing that an unusual absence of children outside or homes can foreshadow an attack, or understanding that in some conflict areas, men and boys may be more at risk for sexual violence than women and girls.

Furthermore, it’s now U.S. law. In October, President Donald Trump signed the Women, Peace, and Security Act, which requires that relevant personnel receive training in “gender considerations” and women’s meaningful participation in peace and security initiatives. The new law comes atop existing DOD commitments, some mandated by executive order.

The drumbeat of accountability is growing. Many combatant commands already include a gender perspective in their theatre campaign plans. Last summer, Adm. Harry Harris, then-commander of U.S. Pacific Command, signed an instruction requiring commanders at all levels to designate gender advisors, where available, and/or “Gender Focal Points” within units. Similar instructions are expected at other combatant commands and across the Defense Department.

We still have a long way to go, but gone are the days when gender was considered the prerogative only of international humanitarian and development agencies. As thousands of years of history — and now the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, the WPS Act, and DoD’s Operational Gender Advisor Course — tell us, gender and warfare are inextricably intertwined. Let’s train our forces to face that.

Olivia Holt-Ivry is the former deputy director of Inclusive Security, where she focused on advocacy and civilian-military cooperation, providing guidance for women’s and civil society’s effective integration into peace and security processes.