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Increase, Don’t Decrease, Marine Lethality

US Army female soldier in Iraq, courtesy of Technical Sergeant William Greer, United States Air Force/Flickr

This article was originally published by War on the Rocks on 23 March 2016.

On February 2, the Senate Armed Services Committee heard conflicting testimony from the Army and Marines about integrating women into the infantry. The Marine Corps had opposed the change, drawing the ire of Navy Secretary Ray Mabus. So he took gender integration a giant step farther, ordering the Marines to abolish their separate male and female boot camps and to replace them with co-ed facilities. Mabus gave the astonished Marine leadership 14 days to present him a plan that included “removing ‘man’ from job titles.”

Mabus had previously antagonized Congress with his ideological agenda. His plan to shift half the fleet to alternative energy sourcing was so costly that Congress moved to prevent it. The 18 weeks of maternity leave he installed, much more generous than corporations, was rolled back by the secretary of defense. But targeting boot camp is more than ideological overreach. It will do grave harm to America’s battlefield ferocity.

The military remains one of the most trusted institutions in America — and the public ranks the Marine Corps as its most prestigious branch. The American people admire the tough discipline that makes a Marine. In male boot camp, encountering and surviving the DI, or drill instructor, marks the rite of passage into manhood. Every minute of 56 grueling days has been choreographed over the decades. No gesture, no glare, no scream is left to chance. Boot camp is the crucible that shapes every Marine.

Similarly, female DIs have been making women into Marines since 1949. Different techniques and standards are applied, based on decades of performance science. Women recruits gain self-confidence seeing what other women, who serve as role models, have achieved.

At the February 2 Senate hearing, Gen. Robert Neller, the commandant of the Marine Corps, said he wanted to increase women from 8 percent to 10 percent of the Marine Corps. Marine male boot camp is physically harder. But the female boot camp attrition rate already is twice as high. So in a coed camp, the minimum standards will have to drop and procedures will soften. Grueling exercise penalties for minor infractions and the rough tongue-lashings intended to strip away old, smug notions will be softened.

In 1997, a bipartisan congressional panel concluded that mixing genders resulted in “less discipline, less unit cohesion, and more distraction from the training programs.” The Army, Navy and Air Force had already switched to coed training, but the overwhelming consensus in Congress was not to force the Marine Corps down the same path. Mabus dismissed the congressional panel’s findings as “completely irrelevant.”

Mabus is also insistent upon inserting women into the Marine infantry. He rejected the recommendations of Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Joseph Dunford, who previously served as commandant of the Marine Corps. Dunford was in both battles of Fallujah, the city that gave birth to Al Qaeda in Iraq. He opposed women in the infantry based on many factors, including combat experience.

Two years ago, the Marines spent $36 million conducting hundreds of tests to quantify performance differences between all-male and coed units. This included evaluations of hiking, shooting, and dozens of other grunt tasks. After 18 months, the civilian evaluators submitted their peer-reviewed findings. The all-male unit was superior in 93 tasks; the coed unit was superior in two. The female injury rate was double that of the males. Mabus rejected the study, questioning the Marines’ integrity by claiming the evaluators harbored negative attitudes toward women. At the hearing, several senators took turns upbraiding him for his dismissive attitude.

After the test, Commandant Neller recommended that infantry ranks remain all-male. Additionally, he raised the physical standards for infantry and other combat specialties. Female Marines, he argued, should be attached to infantry units depending on the specific mission, as was the case in Afghanistan. Regardless, with the enthusiastic recommendation of the secretary of the Navy, Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter ordered the Marines to admit women into the infantry.

Some women do possess astonishing physical prowess. One of us (Owen) has competed in the 400-mile Eco Challenge and climbed mountains alongside the hardiest women in the world, who could run circles around the average Marine grunt. But they are a tiny fraction of the female population. Theoretically, the Marines could pay large annual bonuses to recruit 100 extraordinary female athletes, assigning one to each of 100 rifle companies. That would still swiftly reduce combat effectiveness. Dynamics change fundamentally when men and women interact in extremis. In 1991, a former commandant of the Marine Corps, Gen. Robert Barrow, testified before the Senate that coed infantry platoons would destroy the unit’s moral foundation, the belief that “a band of brothers” can win by killing and dying amidst savage conditions. Changing that to “a band of coeds” forever softens the ferocity. The notion that we are asexual creatures is risible; intimate scandals have upset the team balance in most coed units and across all ranks. Once you introduce sex, affection, favoritism, protectiveness, jealousy, anxiety and all the other co-ed dynamics to an infantry platoon, you degrade the focus of infantry combat: killing.

Canada and several European countries permit women to enter the ranks of the infantry. The actual number of female volunteers is low, hovering around 1 percent. Practically speaking, most U.S. Marine platoons will continue to be all-male. Political tokenism will suffice — for the moment.

But eventually a price will be paid. Like hurricanes and tornadoes, major wars recur. When the next one hits, some American youths will be drafted. Asked by the Senate if women should register for the draft, Gen. Neller said yes. Mabus ducked the question. He advocated “equality of opportunity,” not equality of obligation.

Within the Marine Corps, however, Mabus intends to insert divisiveness and softness. His coed boot camp will graduate a smaller number of women, if simultaneously the commandant toughens the standards. That is an insane outcome.

Congress should stipulate that both now and in the future, no funding be used to disrupt the current boot camp system. To paraphrase retired Marine Gen. John Kelly, any change in Marine training should increase, not decrease battlefield lethality.


Since WWII, three generations of the West family have served as Marine infantry. Bing West served in Vietnam; Owen West served in Iraq. Between them, they have written a dozen books about combat.

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