Their progress through Ranger School is a pretty interesting window into a persistent question in military sociology: the relationship between social cohesion, task cohesion, and unit performance. The concern that women would undermine fraternal bonds among male soldiers, or social cohesion, is often cited as a reason to bar women from combat, along with their supposed inability to meet the physical rigors of the job. Skeptics raised similar objections to integrating openly gay and lesbian soldiers, and for that matter to black soldiers, in earlier eras.
But I think a very good way of thinking through this issue is through costly signals. In a recent article about desertion published in International Studies Quarterly, I argue that when soldiers send costly signals of their commitment to their unit-mates (such as volunteering for service rather than being conscripted), they build trust and desert less often.
Passing through Ranger School is a hugely costly signal – far more than just volunteering. It is brutal. And in forcing these costly signals from its candidates, Ranger School itself seemed to undermine social differences among them. By showing they were capable of enduring and succeeding in the same challenges as their male peers, 1st Lt. Haver and Capt. Griest showed what they could do and overcame stereotypes about women’s physical capabilities. Here are some of their unit-mates quoted in the Army Times:
"I was ignorant and assumed that because they were women, it was going to be harder for them," said 2nd Lt. Zachary Hagner, who was Griest's Ranger buddy for much of the course.
During the last day of the Mountain Phase, Hagner said he had been carrying the squad automatic weapon for three days. Exhausted, he asked his teammates if they would help him out and take over the load for a while.
"Everyone said 'no,'" Hagner said. "But [Griest] took it from me. She, just as broken and tired, took it from me, almost with excitement. I thought she was crazy for that, but I guess she was just motivated."
Haver was the same way, said 2nd Lt. Michael Janowski, an infantry officer and Haver's Ranger buddy.
Janowski said he also struggled with extra weight during the Mountain Phase, and Haver "was the only one who volunteered" to help, he said.
"I probably wouldn't be sitting here right now if not for Shaye," he said.
Second Lt. Erickson Krogh, an infantry officer, said his skepticism was "smashed pretty fast."
Griest and Haver almost looked embarrassed as their classmates praised them for their efforts during Ranger School. "I got to know a few of the other females [in the course], they're absolute physical studs," he said. "When I completely believed they would run into physical walls, that was never the issue."
After a while, the students said, gender didn't matter.
"When you're out in the field and you're starving and you're tired and you're cold and you're miserable, you really don't think about gender," said 2nd Lt. Anthony Rombold, an armor officer.
Staff Sgt. Michael Calderon, a sniper section leader from Fort Carson, Colorado, agreed.
"You're way too tired and way too hungry to honestly care," he said. "At the end of the day, everyone was a Ranger. It didn't matter, as long as the team pulled through and accomplished the mission."
Look at the process of learning. The other candidates learned what Griest and Haver were capable of, and gender stopped mattering in the teams: “everyone was a Ranger.”
Ranger School is a classic costly signal in that it separates, brutally, those who have a certain level of physical fitness and mental and emotional toughness from those who do not. (Were the standards lowered for the female candidates? It seems not: most of their female peers washed out. Maj. Jim Hathaway, a senior Ranger School officer, pushed back strongly on any suggestion that the standards had changed. Indeed, recognizing the concerns that would emerge from an accusation of favorable treatment, senior officers apparently stayed away from patrols involving female candidates, to avoid any notion that top brass was trying to secure their success.)
With costly enough signals of your commitment and your capabilities, soldiers can establish task cohesion – trust in their unit-mates’ efforts towards a common aim – regardless of initial social differences. This suggests a contingent relationship: at high levels of demonstrated commitment, social homogeneity doesn’t matter for intra-unit trust and performance.
This, and the similar experience of DADT repeal, adds a new dimension to what we know about task cohesion and social cohesion. Other research has also shown contingent relationships between task and social cohesion, but with different results. My article shows that social homogeneity mattered more in reducing desertion in volunteer units than in conscript units. Similarly, Peter Bearman found that among North Carolina troops in the American Civil War, more socially homogenous units had lower desertion rates at the start of the war (when things were going well for the South), but higher desertion rates by the end of the war than heterogeneous units (when everything was falling apart). My work, and Bearman’s, suggest that social homogeneity helps military units more among the relatively committed and enthusiastic than among the uncommitted and those who don’t want to be there. If nobody wants to fight (either in a losing Confederacy or among conscript units in Spain), it doesn’t matter if you trust each other—in fact, trusting each other can help you desert together. These results stand against unambiguous, unqualified claims that it’s social cohesion that keeps a unit fighting – a long tradition in military sociology. Social cohesion can’t rescue an uncommitted unit.
But aren’t my findings, and Bearman’s, also in tension with the experiences of Griest and Haver? For them, training among the most committed, the toughest mentally and physically, washed away social differences – they didn’t matter anymore. Based on their experience, shouldn’t we expect social homogeneity to matter less, not more, in more committed units?
But I think costly signalling theory helps us figure out the apparent paradox. As I note in the conclusion to my article, the upper end of commitment in my study and in Bearman’s is still not extremely highly committed – or at least they don’t show it through costly signals. Volunteering for service is a long, long, long way from Ranger School – in an all-volunteer army, only a very small number of soldiers even try to get through Fort Benning, and only a fraction succeed. Bearman and I just don’t cover the full range of possible levels of commitment and costly signals that it’s possible for a soldier to display.
Putting all of this together, it looks as though social homogeneity promotes unit cohesion only at middling levels of task cohesion. It can help reinforce a sense of trust that’s potentially there, but needs a boost. It’s useful for startup armed groups of volunteers to build on social networks. But social homogeneity won’t rescue a group of conscripts who don’t want to be there, and simply won’t matter among the toughest of the tough. Capt. Kristen Griest and First Lt. Shaye Haver, and their Ranger unit-mates, have shown that it isn’t an excuse.