Category Archives: Blog

Women in combat: How to lead mixed gender units.

This post on leading women in combat was originally written in early 2016 the wake of the US opening all combat roles for women. It was a guest post on the now closed Carrying the Gun blog. Although presented here as a five paragraphed list, the message is rather simple: Lead your troops and focus on the task. Having women the front-line is not a big deal.

Whether women are eligible to serve in combat units in the US is no longer a discussion. The first women have already passed basic infantry training and American junior officers will soon face the challenges of leading mixed units.

As a Danish army officer I have led mixed platoon-size combat units in Iraq and Afghanistan. Here is what I have learned about leading women in combat.

Do not focus on gender.

Gender is not important. Ethnicity is not important either. What is important, however, is this simple question: Does this person deliver the results expected as a part of the team. The only standards to measure by are the soldiers’ ability to do their job. Do not focus on anything else.

Measure your soldiers by the same standard

Make sure you measure your troops by the same standard. The idea that women have to prove themselves more worthy than the males by making tougher demands on them is as wrong as the opposite – lessening standards in an attempt to stuff more women into the unit. Remember: It can never be an objective to have a specific number of women in a given unit. The objective is to train and maintain a fighting force able to carry out its tasks.

Protect your unit from attention

Along with arrival of the first women in your unit comes a lot of attention. Imagine the interest of the media in the first mixed unit deployed in combat. All sorts of commentators might have an interest in the women in your unit in order to use them to promote a specific cause. Higher command might have an interest in telling the success story of women in combat.

Say no, politely. Your job as a leader is to protect your unit and focus on the task. The women in your unit are there for the same reasons as the men: to prove themselves and serve their country.

They did not become soldiers to attract the attention of the press, commentators, or higher command because of their gender.

Never accept sexism

Words have the power to move and to transform us. Never use nor allow language that implies negativity related to gender. An innocent joke about women’s lack of ability to do something, implying that it is OK to use gender as an explanation, is the first step down the wrong path.

Do not go there yourself, and strike down hard on any approach to sexism.

Allow women to be women

There is no such thing as a stereotype infantry soldier. Dark, light, big or small – the only thing that mattes is that you are able to do your job. You do not need to transform women and make them more manly in order to serve.

Allow them to be women as long as they do their job. Just as you allow the rest of your soldiers to be the individuals they are.

A final word

In the Danish army women are still a minority. Even more so in combat units. Few women make it into the infantry. The average woman certainly will not. But neither would the average man. The point is that we are looking for people who can get the job done. Gender regardless.

Focus on the task. Focus on the standards of the Field Manuals. Focus on your unit’s ability to capture the objective or to hold the ground. That is all there is.

2017 update: The most difficult task, by far, has been to shield my soldiers from unwanted attention. Interest from media, higher command and others seemed counter productive to what I was trying to achieve. And the women themselves did not join the army to become walking recruitment posters. They were here to serve.

Unwanted attention comes in many forms: Gender quotas, lowering fitness requirements for women and similar are all counter productive. Instead of helping the persons they were designed to help they single them out. Do not treat women or other minorities as problems to be managed. They are soldiers.

Shield them from unwanted attention. I think it is is a leader’s duty.

Related: The problem of women in combat units.

Five characteristics of a great combat leader

In a firefight everything is chaos. Noise and dust fills the air, the enemies’ actions are unpredictable, your own life as well as that of your troops is at stake. The best combat leaders are able to navigate in chaos, face the danger, and make rational decisions under extreme pressure.

Danish officer directing mortar fire during operation operation "Panthers Claws" Helmand, Summer 2009

Danish officer directing mortar fire during operation operation “Panthers Claws” Helmand, Summer 2009

But I am not only talking about formal leadership. In combat everybody has some responsibility of leading: The soldier who sees the enemy must be able to react. The soldiers around him must be able to return fire and take up positions without waiting for orders. The point man’s actions sets the stage for the unit’s handling of the situation. The five characteristics are thus useful not only for the formal leader but also for the soldier on the ground. Let us have a look at them: Continue reading

Ethical Decisions in Combat Leadership

The marksman aims at the insurgent sitting on a motorcycle. There are 400 yards between the muzzle of the soldier’s rifle and the target. As he is about to fire, the insurgent suddenly picks up a small kid and places it in front of him.

Military leaders often face ethical dilemmas on the battlefield. They are required to make tough decisions under time constraints in hostile situations. Ordering soldiers to kill other humans is a tough decision. The leader must be sure beyond any doubt that he is doing the right thing. Continue reading

Have you got the courage not to make decisions? How coping with uncertainty makes you a better combat leader.

Classic leadership attributes are generally described and manifested through work and achievement. The good leader thus makes good decisions. However, the ability to accept not knowing what the right decision is and to not make decisions is just as important for the good leader. The concept is called negative capability. Continue reading

Lead from the front: you are defined by your actions not your words.

The best combat leaders all have one thing in common: they lead from the front. They share the same burdens as their soldiers. They never spare themselves. They never ask a subordinate to carry out a task they are not willing to do themselves and in combat they physically place themselves in the line of fire shoulder to shoulder with the troops under their command.

But why does leading from the front work so well? Continue reading

Is a Danish court able to grasp actions taken on the front?

A Danish army officer faces trial over the alleged killing of civilians in Afghanistan. The trial will be the first of its kind in Denmark.

The officer was stationed in Afghanistan’s Helmand province as a company commander in 2011. On October 23 he authorized an attack on four Afghans who were presumed to be placing improvised explosive devices (IEDs) near a Danish base. This decision is now being questioned, and the officer is accused of “gross dereliction of duties during armed conflict” violating Danish military penal code.

This trial raises several questions: will a Danish district court in peaceful Copenhagen be able to grasp the war-like environment in which the Danish soldiers in Afghanistan operate? And is it even right to question our soldiers’ actions in war? Continue reading

Overcoming fear in combat: How your pulse affects your ability to think rationally and make sound decisions.


The air is filled with dust and sharp cracks from bullets passing by mere inches away.

I dive for cover and begin returning fire. After 10 rounds I look around. My sections are in position. Without stopping to think I make a dash across an open field to get to the front section for a better overview.

I find the section commander in a ditch returning fire. He immediately starts to brief me on the situation. The words make no sense to me. I take two deep breaths to calm myself down. Suddenly I am able to grasp what he is saying:

“Four enemy fighters are in position in the hedgerow in front of us. If you can get 1 and 2 section to provide suppressing fire we can close in on them head on.” Continue reading

It feels as if everything is moving in slow motion while the body is running on autopilot: How soldiers react to combat

”Soren, how does the body react in combat?”

I am often asked this during the Q & A when I speak about Afghanistan.

Reactions in combat are the body’s reactions to stress. Talking about them is often taboo. I had no idea how comprehensive such reactions were before I started studying them prior to my first deployment to Iraq in 2007

In their extreme forms a psychologist would label it ”acute stress reactions”. Such experiences are not limited to soldiers only. Any humans that are exposed to extreme stressors or traumatic events can suffer from acute stress reaction. Continue reading