When the Department of Defense announced that it would be opening combat roles to women, I immediately began receiving questions regarding my opinion on this issue. I strove mightily to be noncommittal, and begged off for the most part because I really didn’t want to poke the sore. Then, a couple of days ago, 2LT Sage Santegelo wrote an OpEd in the Washington post decrying the “double standard” she endured, which made her fail the Marine Corps’ Infantry Officer Course, and so I decided to blog. Against my wife’s better judgment, because no matter what I type I’m going to aggravate someone, here’s what I think.
First, whenever I hear this issue debated, the two sides are typically talking about separate topics, and neither seems to understand that. The argument has two consistent points: A. Should woman engage in direct combat, with all the baggage that entails, and B. Can woman handle the physical demands of the Military Occupational Specialties that engage in direct combat, whether bullets are flying or not.
I’m not going to deal with point A, since it’s a sociological element beyond the scope of this blog. I don’t know whether or not America will crumble if women start coming home in body bags, or whether unit cohesion will be destroyed because all the males will be focused on either protecting the females or trying to bed them. Only another war, with multiple engagements over time, will decide that fate. I will say that, personally, I have no problem with women engaging in direct combat, and have known plenty of females on active duty who I would not have any reservations whatsoever being on my left or right during a fire-fight. It isn’t a question of the female gender’s leadership, courage or judgment.
Point B, on the other hand, does cause me some concern. People say this issue is no different than the integration of the Army in the fifties and sixties, but to me, that makes about as much sense as all the talking heads who compare Vietnam to Iraq or Afghanistan. Topically, there are some similarities, but at the root, where the solution will be found, they are profoundly different. The fact remains that women and men are not the same. Period. Most of the differences are irrelevant, but one is not: Women, as a gender, are inherently physically weaker than men. I know that might mark me as a chauvinist, but it’s simply a fact, and that fact could very well cause someone’s death.
My argument here is about selected units, and not combat in and of itself. People may be scratching their heads right now, saying, “But one of your primary characters is Jennifer Cahill, a woman you put in combat situations. Even Pike Logan appreciates her abilities.” And that’s absolutely true. There are plenty of combat units in which females are currently banned from serving within, but only because of point A – engaging in combat. Point B – the physical demands of the job – doesn’t really come into play. Not all combat jobs are equal in physical demands. Can females drive a tank? Sure. Can they fire artillery? You bet. They can fly a fighter, drive a submarine, man an air defense gun, be a combat engineer, and successfully tackle a plethora of other combat jobs out there if they want to get their jihad on. In fact, they may actually be better equipped than men for some of them. A recent study showed that woman, who make up 10% of the Army aviation corps, only account for 3% of accidents, and that mixed-gender Apache crews had better performance than all-male crews. But there are also combat jobs that require enough physical ability to mandate keeping a ban on those specific occupational specialties. This very thing can be seen on the national sports stage. There’s a reason that Danica Patrick can race NASCAR competitively but there aren’t any woman in the NFL, and it’s all about physical ability. If we want true gender equality, then let’s stop having the Olympics with females racing females and males racing males. Throw them all in together. In the 2012 summer Olympics, the fastest female marathon time ever recorded would have finished in 20th place against the males.
This entire turmoil started, like most things in America, with a lawsuit brought by four female service members who stated they were being discriminated against because of their gender. In effect, they didn’t have the same opportunities for advancement because they weren’t allowed to get shot at. In the words of one, “I left in 2011 when my active commitment was complete, in large part because I felt the combat exclusion policy limited my opportunities in the military.” On the whole, I find this a straw man argument. The highest ranking general our country ever had – General Eisenhower – was in charge of not only all of American forces during World War II, but ALL allied forces in the greatest war the world has ever seen, and he hadn’t served a single day in combat. Not one. In fact, he spent most of his time in staff positions. He was promoted because of his capabilities, period, not because of some mythical badge of honor after having been shot at. And the promotions were deserved, as history will attest. The straw man of “limited opportunity” does not hold up. In modern combat, from Desert Storm through Operation Enduring Freedom, for every combat arms position there have been roughly three support positions, mostly filled by men who will never see combat. Are we to believe that 70% of the military has no hope for advancement?
The purpose of our military is to fight and win our nation’s wars. Period. It isn’t a social experiment designed to make sure everyone gets everything they want, regardless of the needs of national defense.
The fact is that males and females have different physical abilities, and all the wishing in the world won’t change that. The Army has had lower physical training standards for females as long as there have BEEN standards, not because it’s patronizing of women, but because females as a group are simply not as strong as men. A multitude of physiological studies have been conducted to define what PT Test is best suited for determining fitness for the Army, and the Army Physical Fitness Test has gone through multiple changes – four in my time in the military alone – but one thing has always remained consistent: The male standard was higher than the female standard. Currently, for a 20-year-old male to pass the pushups with the bare minimum – in effect, do just enough to remain in the Army – he needs to do 42 (for the uninitiated, a score of 60 is minimum on any Army APFT event). For a 20 year old female to get the maximum score possible – be the top, ass-killing cream of the crop – she needs to do the exact same. 42 pushups. The bare minimum time for males to remain in the Army on the 2 mile run is 15 minutes and 54 seconds. A perfect score for females is 15 minutes and 36 seconds. This isn’t a reflection of chauvinism in the US Army. It’s a reflection of basic facts gleaned through years of research. In the Marines, every male has to do a minimum of 3 pullups. The females have to do what’s called a flexed-arm hang, basically hanging from the bar for a minimum of fifteen seconds. The Marines decided to make all standards the same, and chose the 3 pullup minimum. Before they were set to implement it Marine Corps wide, they tested it at recruit training. 55% of the females failed, causing them to reconsider, as they might be forced to kick out a hell of a lot of Marines.
Once again, I’m not saying keep the ban on women in combat as a blanket statement, but I DO think we need to be smart about how we integrate. Certain combat units are physically demanding, and that physicality is beyond what the average female can accomplish – especially over the long term. Before I get stoned as a Neanderthal, I’m not the only one who says this. Last summer, a Marine Corps Captain made the same argument, stating that females have no place in the infantry. The captain speaks from the experience of two separate deployments in both Iraq and Afghanistan working alongside the infantry, and the toll it took on her body. Yes, the captain is a female. More importantly, a collegiate athlete, and a Marine. She gave her opinion in an article for the Marine Corps Gazette because the Marines were about to admit the first two females to their infantry training as a precursor to what we are debating today. Both failed. Since that time, fourteen females have attempted the course, and all have failed. Only one made it to the second day (make no mistake, a ton of men failed as well).
2LT Santegelo makes the case that because she was treated like a female in OCS, with female standards, she wasn’t prepared for the follow-on Infantry course. In effect, a self-licking ice cream cone – and an unintentionally embarrassing indictment of her mindset. So she knew she was going to the Infantry Officer’s school, and knew her physical training was not as rigorous as the males, and yet did nothing on her own to prepare? Does she not realize that there isn’t a man out there who, before attempting Ranger school, Special Forces Assessment and Selection, or Navy BUD/S, did not rely solely on his unit PT, but instead put in the extra sweat and hours to ensure success? In her words, “Female lieutenants aren’t as prepared as male lieutenants for the Infantry Officer Course’s tests of strength and endurance because they’ve been encouraged to train to lesser standards.” So because the Marine Corps didn’t dictate a harder PT schedule she failed to make it past day one? And that’s the Marine Corps’ fault for treating her like a female to begin with? But I digress.
2LT Santegelo argues that women have performed exceptionally well in combat, and uses a few real world examples, but in so doing she confuses the issue like everyone else. The examples she gives all revolve around point A – Should women be allowed in combat, whereas she failed the Infantry course because of point B – She couldn’t physically handle the tasks of the MOS. As I said earlier, it’s not a question of courage, judgment, or leadership. It’s a question of strength. Humping a rucksack in the Hindu Kush at 13,000 feet is hard, demanding work, and that work has nothing to do with pulling a trigger. But maybe the Marine Corps Infantry Officer Course standards are “unnecessarily high”. Maybe that course has been knocking the males about for no damn good reason for years. The Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, GEN Martin Dempsey, is on record saying that if enough females fail any combat occupational standard, that standard would have to be justified as necessary. Getting rid of the brutal first 48 hours of the Marine Infantry course is one way to solve the problem, but unfortunately, the true standard is Infantry combat, on a two-way rifle range, and that is unforgiving.
I know people will say I’m simply “protecting the tab” and trying to keep females out of Special Forces or Infantry, but I’m not. My fictional character Jennifer Cahill provides a tangible contribution to the realities of the global war on terror that the military currently does not recognize – despite Hollywood portrayals to the contrary. The Israeli Defense Force is continually bandied about as a model for female integration (which in this case is a little disingenuous precisely because the IDF prohibits females from direct combat roles), and they actually provide a very good example. In 1973, Sayeret Matkal – the Israelis version of 1st SFOD-D – conducted Operation Spring of Youth, a mission pulled straight out of a Pike Logan novel. They penetrated Beirut and eliminated three PLO leaders who were responsible for the 1972 Munich Olympic massacre. They infiltrated the stiff security as tourist couples, with half the force dressed as females (because females in Israel don’t do these missions, despite what everyone says). Now, would you rather try to trick a hostile security force into believing you’re a couple out on a date with a guy who’s wearing a bad wig and a bra stuffed with socks, or a female with skills you trust? For me, it’s the female all the way. There is a role for females in combat.
The endstate of this entire effort shouldn’t be about egalitarianism. It should be about national security. If including females in military occupational specialties previously banned doesn’t detract from our combat effectiveness, then by all means let’s do so. But if it does, then let’s have the courage to say so. Combat alone should not keep females from serving in a job, but by the same token, gender equality, in and of itself, isn’t a strong enough argument to open up every military occupational specialty. There remains a need for a logical, unemotional appraisal of the best way to secure our nation, regardless of gender.
Because at the end of the day, someone’s life will be on the line, which should weigh more heavily than someone’s career aspirations.