Why Marines, unlike Army and Navy, are so against women in combat

The Marines made it known this week that they see the idea of women in combat as a disaster waiting to happen. That contrasts sharply with how the Army has approached the topic. It puts the Pentagon in a potentially tough spot.

Manuel Balce Ceneta/AP
Defense Secretary Ash Carter, seen here speaking during a news conference at the Pentagon last month, has expressed support for women serving in combat jobs.

This week, the Marine Corps left very little doubt about its view of women in its combat ranks: It does not want them.

A study by the corps released Thursday painted a bleak picture of the effectiveness of women in combat, suggesting they are weaker, more prone to injury, less adept at shooting weapons accurately, and their presence was a potential catastrophe for unit morale.

The day before, an opinion article penned by a retired Marine Corps general suggested that the “mysterious chemistry that forms in an infantry unit” included “clearing the urinals” and “nights of hilarious debauchery” – precluding women.

Just last month, however, two women graduated from the Army’s storied Ranger School, and the Navy announced that its SEAL program would be open to women.

Why was the Marines’ response this week to the prospect of women in combat so wildly different?

The force has long been associated with hard-drinking, hard-fighting “Great Santini”-style warriors, whose chest-thumping does – and by necessity should, supporters add – trump any nod to what is widely seen by many Marines as political correctness. 

It’s a tough-guy culture cultivated by a force that prides itself on being the tip-of-the-spear – used by the US military to, say, take a beach from enemy forces by any means necessary.

That attitude, critics say, has prevented the Marines from taking steps toward integrating women more seamlessly into the force – steps the Army took long ago, such as opening support jobs in combat units to women.

The result is that the Marines largely remain where they were 20 years ago, while the rest of the military has shifted dramatically around them.

Come January, the Pentagon will have to decide whether the Marine Corps should open all its combat jobs to women, since it looks increasingly likely that the corps will request an exemption. This week offered insight into how difficult that decision could be.

Within the halls of the Pentagon, the Marine Corps has widely been regarded as foot-dragging on the matter of women in its combat ranks.

Secretary of the Navy Ray Mabus, who has authority over the Marines, questioned this week’s study, saying the fact that it “started out with a fairly large component of the men thinking this is not a good idea, and women will not be able to do this” could quite possibly have impacted results. 

Many of the Marine Corps’ adherents argue that, beyond any physical differences between men and women, combat is a savage pursuit that should remain the sole domain of men who, as retired Marine Corps Lt. Gen. Gregory Newbold put it in his opinion article, have “shared the duties of cleaning the urinals, the pleasures of a several nights of hilarious debauchery, and multiple near-death experiences.”

While conceding that women had impressively met the physical challenges of Army’s “very, very difficult” Ranger School, as he put it, Mr. Newbold argued that fighting in combat is something only men can understand.

“The characteristics that produce uncommon valor as a common virtue are not physical at all, but are derived from the mysterious chemistry that forms in an infantry unit that revels in the most crude and profane existence so that they may be more effective killers than their foe,” he writes in an entry titled “What tempers the steel of an infantry unit” in the online military magazine, “War on the Rocks.” “Polite company, private hygiene, and weakness all step aside.” 

Women would bring to units “sexual dynamics,” he adds, that would “degrade the nearly spiritual glue that enables the infantry to achieve the illogical and endure the unendurable.” 

The article was widely seen as being encouraged by Marine leadership to help pave the way for the Marine gender integration study released the following day.

But critics say it promotes and seeks to maintain a bygone era. Multiple Pentagon studies have found that the more experience men have working with women, the less likely they are to be concerned that they affect unit cohesion.

“It was disturbing to read his piece,” says Greg Jacob, who served as a Marine trainer. “What’s really frustrating about this is that there’s a whole network of retired generals that the Pentagon relies on for advice.”

The perpetuation of this exclusionary “band of brothers cohesion” argument “is perpetuated on the reliance on these retired old guys,” he adds. “Newbold’s piece has a lot of the same tired old arguments that go back to the Carter administration.” 

The male graduates of Army Ranger School, widely considered one of the toughest in the military, praised their fellow female soldier graduates last month, declaring that they would be proud to fight beside them anytime, anywhere. 

Beyond that, they said, the matter of sexual dynamics was a moot point when they were exhausted and pushed to their physical limits in the midst of an ambush. Then, it only mattered that women could do the job, and they did, the male Rangers added.

The male Rangers’ praise was welcomed by advocates for women in the military. But it was the product of more than a few months of Ranger School, they add.

Many male soldiers see women differently because the service itself sees women differently.

When Pentagon leaders decided to end the 1994 policy excluding women from combat, the Army began opening support jobs in combat units to women.

“They pushed these women down into these units as fast as they could,” says Mr. Jacob, who is the former policy director for the Service Women’s Action Network. 

This created a different sort of mind-set, Jacob adds. Young male soldiers began seeing female noncommissioned officers as crew chiefs responsible for the maintenance of their Bradley Fighting Vehicle, for example. 

The Marines, by contrast, decided not to open these combat support jobs to women until they opened the combat jobs themselves to women. “The thought process was to keep women out of the units rather than bringing them in,” Jacob says. 

“And what we’ve seen play out over the years is that the Marines are behind the power curve, and the Army is out in front,” he adds. 

The Marine Corps study speaks to the soft bigotry of low expectations for women, says Marine Corps Lt. Col. Kate Germano.

During the Marine Corps’ integration study, “two major issues were at stake: female physical capability and the culture of the infantry,” she says.

“It stands to reason that the women tested were slower, had less upper body strength, and did not shoot as well as their male counterparts,” she adds, because “that’s exactly what we taught them was acceptable at segregated recruit training.” 

Lieutenant Colonel Germano has questioned these separate training standards, pushing the Marines under her command – the service’s only all-female recruit battalion – and holding them to tougher standards. She was subsequently fired amid complaints of overstepping authority. 

Jacob did the same when he was training Marines from 2001 to 2004, insisting that they be held to the same standards. Initially, the female recruits – and some of the men – “couldn’t do them, and they were embarrassed, but the standard wasn’t changing, so they trained to that standard,” he says.

Women went to the gym, and the men helped them, building rapport. “The guys were like, ‘Here are some exercises you can do to build your lats [muscles], here’s how you do the free weights.’ In six months, they could all do it.”

Jacob had some of the best-performing units at his installation. 

The widespread belief that women cannot be held to male standards has led to female Marines being “undervalued and under-appreciated,” Germano says. This mind-set also leads to comments like those made by Newbold, she adds. 

“General Newbold’s insinuation that women in the infantry would automatically undermine cohesion due to sexual tension and jealousy was insulting and degrading,” she says.

Pentagon leaders have long stressed that integrating women into combat ranks is about “talent development.”

“A more diverse force is a stronger force,” said Mabus, the Navy secretary, in an interview with NPR on Friday. “If you have the same outlook, if you have the same mindset, you don’t get much innovation.” 

The resistance to women in the military for cultural reasons ignores the positive contributions women have made in the past dozen years of war, critics add. US military commanders repeatedly used women to go into battle spaces where men could not go, most notably interaction with women in Muslim countries. 

“They are not thinking of the value-added of women – of the impact that may come from not having them within the ranks,” says Jacob.

To achieve this, quality training must be in place, advocates argue. The Marine study did not evaluate mixed-gender teams with similar prior experience but in essence “pitted untrained women fresh from school against fleet Marines with years of experience,” notes Sue Fulton, a West Point graduate and Army veteran.

In the Marine study, noncommissioned officers were unaccustomed to working with women and, as a result, were “tentative” in correcting them, “unsure of how to treat them,” notes Ms. Fulton. She adds that a good first step would have been to simply correct them as they would have done any Marine.

“Let’s face it: Women Marines start with a disadvantage,” she says. “They go through boot camp separate from men, and the expectation of failure surrounds them.”

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