Ridiculous Order: Presidential Pushback Against the U.S. Military’s Gender-Inclusive Efforts

Seth Behrends, University of Illinois at Chicago

Published on February 17, 2021

Photo: Dignity and Respect, the U.S. Army's 2001 training guide on the homosexual conduct policy, gave official guidelines on what can be considered credible information of someone's homosexuality or bisexuality.

“…Forged by adversity, he stands alongside America’s finest special operations forces to serve his country, the American people, and protect their way of life. I am that man…”

-Former Navy SEAL Ethos

In December 2015, the U.S. military repealed its Direct Ground Combat Definition and Assignment Rule which excluded women from officially entering the combat arms branches. Generally, the combat arms branches have been dominated by White men, as women were unable to enter these spaces and non-White men largely gravitated toward support roles. By opening the doors of the combat arms to women, the repeal of the exclusion rule represents one of the U.S. military’s major steps toward establishing a combat troop force more-accurately reflecting the diverse civilian U.S. population.

As the U.S. military has made efforts to become a more gender-inclusive organization, it has experienced pushback from the public, military personnel, and policymakers alike. Because the military represents one of the most salient figures of masculinity, egalitarian changes to its gendered policies and practices are often seen as attacks on masculinity itself. One example that deserves particular attention is former President Donald Trump’s recent move to reaffirm the myth that heterosexual men are ‘natural’ warriors and the belief that women do not belong in the combat arms branches.

Since the repeal of the exclusion rule, the military branches have continually made changes to promote greater gender-inclusivity. In the case of the Navy, leadership within the Navy SEALs and the Navy Special Warfare Combatant-craft Crewmen (SWCC) have recently moved to replace the existing gendered language within their ethos and creed statements with gender-neutral language. Lieutenant Commander Matthew Stroup believes these recent changes represent the organizations’ intention to “develop a culture of tactical and ethical excellence that reflects the nation we represent, and that draws upon the talents of the all-volunteer force who meet the standards of qualification as a SEAL.” While no women have yet received SEAL contracts or have become special warfare combatant crewmen, a number have made attempts and others were in the training process as of September 2020.

In a tweet on October 1st, 2020, Donald Trump declared that he would be overturning the Navy SEALs’ and SWCC’s efforts, calling the decision a “ridiculous order.” This was an ‘all bark and no bite’ situation, however, as no evidence has surfaced suggesting he followed through with his proclamation prior to leaving office on January 20, 2021. Yet, I argue, a bark was all Trump needed to achieve his goal. Trump’s public reaction to this gendered change represents a clear effort to preserve the myth that the Navy SEALs, and perhaps the combat arms branches altogether, is the realm of men and is therefore no place for women. Using only eight words, Trump told the Twitter world that while women may now be able to enter these spaces, they are still spaces meant for men. And in an all-volunteer force such as the U.S. military, knowing that the former commander-in-chief and any number of his supporters are unabashedly unsympathetic to gender-inclusivity may be more than enough reason for women to continue avoiding the combat arms branches or military service altogether.

Perhaps this is a moot point considering all that has transpired since Trump’s Twitter tantrum. President Joe Biden has taken office, has chosen Kamala Harris as vice president and Lloyd Austin as secretary of defense, and has now reversed the Trump-era policy largely barring transgender people from military service. Perhaps there is hope that the new administration will contribute to the gender-inclusiveness of the U.S. military both formally (i.e., gender-neutral ethos and creed statements) and informally (i.e., eroding the myth that men are the ‘natural’ warriors). Or perhaps the myth will endure and we will witness yet another instance of desegregation without integration. Only time will tell.