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Charles Paige / September 25, 2015

Marines Push Back on Women in Combat

The branch is looking for a waiver to a DoD mandate.

The Marine Corps’ unique position among the armed services gives it a strong argument in favor of a waiver to Secretary of Defense Ash Carter’s plan to remove restrictions “excluding women from assignment to units and positions whose primary mission is to engage in direct combat on the ground.” When the policy to include women in combat roles was first announced in 2013, the services were given a deadline of Oct. 1, 2015, to implement “gender-neutral” occupational standards and conduct studies related to the change. Any service that believed assignment of women to a particular position or specialty was detrimental could request an exemption to the policy and maintain its restriction.

The Marines plan to request a waiver based on their findings from a nine-month evaluation of the effectiveness of mixed-gender infantry units. Women were injured more frequently, were not as accurate marksmen as men, had trouble with combat duties such as removing the wounded from the battlefield and had a detrimental effect on unit cohesion. (We wouldn’t put a woman in a boxing ring with a man, so why would we throw them into combat?)

That didn’t stop Secretary of the Navy Ray Mabus from opposing the waiver. He framed his opposition with the rebuttal that “the SEALs aren’t asking for one.” Given the general public’s perception of SEALs as the pinnacle of all things manly and military, this would seem to be a convincing argument. But lest anyone discount the opposition to Mabus as the work of sexist males who aren’t up with the times, a female Marine who participated in the study added that Mabus “completely rolled the Marine Corps and the entire staff that was involved in putting this [experiment] in place under the bus.”

And, in fact, Mabus’ statement is the equivalent of showing us an apple to persuade us that we should like oranges.

In the unlikely event that any females survive (none has even been granted an opportunity to start at this point) the SEALs grueling rite of passage — the Basic Underwater Demolition Course or “BUDS” — the number will be so small that it will have minimal impact on the community. Not requesting a waiver is a win-win and makes sense for the SEALs. They’re seen as relatively open-minded and therefore score political points, and they incur very little risk that a significant number of females will join the teams and jeopardize readiness.

Given two female officers’ successful completion of what’s viewed as the Army’s most physically demanding course — Ranger School — the Army would’ve had a difficult time persuading its civilian leadership that a waiver was warranted in its case. This course-based approach to answering the question highlights a subtle but important distinction between the Army and Marine Corps. While the Marine Corps believes the small unit is the essential element on the battlefield and orients its training toward building esprit and cohesion within the unit, the Army’s philosophy is that unit performance will be maximized by filling it with individuals who have completed schools and earned certain qualifications — Ranger, Airborne, Sapper, etc. This is reflected in their respective uniforms: Marines — defined by their Eagle, Globe and Anchor — favor anonymity (not even requiring names to be displayed on uniforms until the 1990s) and interchangeability, while a soldier wears his credibility on his chest and sleeve. One approach is not necessarily superior to the other, and the differences make sense given the services’ size and roles, but they are significant enough variables that they should be factored into the discussion.

In light of the distinctions, it’s easier to understand why the Army and Marines respectively sought to answer different questions in response to the policy. Whether other organizations are requesting an exception may be interesting, but it’s also irrelevant. Mabus’ comments highlight his fundamental lack of understanding of one of the services he’s supposedly leading and should disqualify him from playing a decisive role in the exemption request process.

Then again, Mabus is merely a product of Barack Obama’s influence on the military. From rules of engagement to budget cutbacks to naming a homosexual Army secretary, Obama has had a devastating effect on military morale. And we can expect the beatings to continue until morale improves.

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