Owing to well-documented physiological differences, 55 percent of female Marine boot camp trainees, compared to 1 percent of men, were unable to perform a new minimum test: three pull-ups to demonstrate upper body strength. Plans for women in combat, still moving forward, just hit an iceberg that is bigger than boot camp.
Today's female recruits are just as capable as women previously trained at the Parris Island boot camp. And the Marines announced the new test and practice training more than a year ago. What happened? The problem began when the Obama Administration ordered the armed forces to prepare women for land combat units, such as the infantry, by January 2016. These plans should be re-assessed.
If it is too much to require female recruits to do three pull-ups in basic, it is a thousand times worse to expect women to serve in direct ground combat units, meaning Army and Marine infantry, armor, artillery, and Special Operations Forces. In these small "tip of the spear" fighting teams, which seek out and destroy the enemy with deliberate offensive action, survival and mission accomplishment often depend on physical strength and endurance.
At a Pentagon news conference last year, Joint Chiefs Chairman General Martin Dempsey said that the Pentagon intends to assign "significant cadres" of women to achieve a "critical mass" in direct ground combat units, including Army and Marine infantry. Dempsey further noted that if a particular standard was found to be "so high that a woman couldn't make it," officials would ask the services, "Does it really have to be that high?"
Even if the honest answer is "Yes," compliant generals will continue passive acquiescence, following orders to achieve Pentagon-endorsed "gender diversity metrics," another name for "quotas." Officials will "make it work" by weakening male-oriented training. Any program deemed woman-unfriendly eventually will be eliminated, modified, or rated with gender-normed standards that create illusions of "equality."
Even in elite Ranger training, officials will question and eventually gender-norm or drop the toughest combat-related tests, all the while insisting that different scores for men and women are "gender-neutral." They are not.
As stated in a recent report of the Congressional Research Service (CRS), "the term 'gender-neutral physical standards' raises questions depending on how it is defined." Contrary to expectations that men and women would be required to meet the same physical standards in tough training for the combat arms, the services have used misleading terms to suggest that men and women are training to meet identical standards with the same scores, "Equal effort," however, is not the same as equal results.
The "Asterisk" on "Gender-Neutral" Standards
The Marine Corps stated in a report to Congress last June that their plans for women in land combat would involve "gender-neutral" standards. The "catch" was in the fine print. Footnotes explained that in physical fitness tests, obstacle courses, and combat fitness tests, "gender-normed" requirements and scores would be used "to account for physiological differences between genders."
Under the physical fitness test that the Marines just suspended, for example, minimum requirements are the same, but men still have to do twenty pull-ups to earn a perfect score, compared to eight for women. The Marines have yet to disclose their research on how differences such as this will work in grueling land combat missions that have not changed.
If Pentagon officials keep pretending that women can take the places of men in the infantry, female trainees will suffer more injuries and resentment they don't deserve, and men will emerge from training less prepared for the burdens and violence of direct ground combat. For a vision of what that means, see the film Lone Survivor.
In a recent Military Times interview, Army Chief of Staff Gen. Ray Odierno bragged about the progress of what he called "social engineering" to move "low-ranking females" into "all-male organizations." The general and other Pentagon leaders should read an article titled "Data Predict Spike in Female Troop Injuries." Military.com correspondent Bryant Jordan reported that the Veterans Administration has begun "ramping up" for dramatic increases in injuries to women in future "ground-pounder" positions that used to be all-male. Jordan cites an Army report stating that disability costs are staggering, and Army women are 67% more likely than men to receive a physical disability discharge for a musculoskeletal disorder.
It is unseemly for General Odierno and the Commandant of the Marine Corps, Gen. James Amos, to ignore results of the Marines' boot camp experiment, and to keep pushing for policies that would deliberately expose women to known higher risks of debilitating, sometimes lifelong injuries.
There is no evidence that the majority of military women, especially those in enlisted ranks, want to be ordered (not "allowed") into the combat arms. In that violent environment, women do not have an equal opportunity to survive, or to help fellow soldiers survive. Marine Lt. General Robert Milstead told the House Armed Services Personnel Subcommittee in July that such assignments would not be voluntary. "That's why we call them orders," he said. Civilian women also could be affected by a predictable court order issued after military women become eligible for the combat arms, mandating that women be subject to Selective Service obligations on the same basis as men.
Why Congress Should Intervene
No one questions the courage of military women who have served "in harm's way," but the administration's demands for "significant cadres" of women in the combat arms have made sensible training practices untenable. Gender-normed standards will not work in fighting teams that seek out and attack the enemy with deliberate offensive action. Generals who support military women should start applying logic.
The 1992 Presidential Commission on the Assignment of Women in the Armed Forces considered all aspects of this issue. Members ultimately approved of gender-normed scores in basic, pre-commissioning, and entry-level training, but the recommendation was contingent on women's exemption from direct ground combat.
To solve the Marines' dilemma, Congress should codify women's exemption from direct ground combat, with the stipulation that the policy not be changed without an affirmative vote of Congress. That way, both men and women would receive the best training possible, without the consequences and dangers of pretending that they are interchangeable in all roles.
The military services should train women to the best of their abilities, while upholding high standards in the combat arms. Congress still has time to restore sound policy, drawing the line at the point of the bayonet.
* * * * * * *
Elaine Donnelly is President of the Center for Military Readiness and a former member of the 1992 Presidential Commission on the Assignment of Women in the Armed Forces.A shorter version of this article appeared in the Washington Times Commentary section on January 12, 2014: