Combat fitness standards should promote coolness under fire over physical strength
In March, the commandant of the Marine Corps laid out his perspective on women’s potential service in the infantry. Quoted in The New York Times, he said the Marines are running a test by allowing female officers to attempt the difficult Infantry Officer Course at Quantico, Va. He further said that they won’t let women enlist in the infantry until female officers are present in infantry units. And he said that if there aren’t enough women who make it through the infantry officer course, then it probably just isn’t worth the effort to include women in the infantry.
While his comments sound reasonable and considered, the commandant has outlined a classic and subtle means of exclusion. Akin to reading tests at Jim Crow-era voting booths, it raises a structural barrier to women’s integration into combat units.
Let’s deconstruct the logic. There are two subjective ideas being advanced by this position. One is the notion of a “critical mass” and the second is the idea of “cost.” The commandant links them by saying that if there isn’t a critical mass of qualified women, then it isn’t worth the cost of integrating them. What he fails to do is to define either critical mass or cost. For starters, women only make up 7 percent of the Marine Corps. Does 7 percent constitute a critical mass? It sounds like a pretty small percentage, but it must meet some critical-mass threshold since we continue to let women serve in the Marine Corps. So let’s use it to define “critical mass” for the sake of this argument. There are about 1,590 infantry officers in the Corps. Applying a 7 percent rule would require 111 female Marines be assessed into the infantry officer branch before the Corps would consider letting women enlist in the infantry. But the Marine Corps only assesses 110 female officers across all specialties each year. Simple math makes this level of critical mass, at least, impossible to achieve.
Second, the idea behind critical mass, ostensibly, is to ensure that female Marines in the infantry have access to female mentors and leaders. There are at least two problems with this. First, it ignores reality: There is not a woman in the Marine Corps today who has not found herself in the position of being the only woman in a given unit, squad or staff at various points in her career. How could this not be the case when they make up just 7 percent of the force? I serve in the Army, where women are 15 percent of the force, and in 29 years I have never had a woman as my rater, my senior rater or as a mentor. But I have served with many good leaders, all of whom were men.
Worse, this notion violates the professional foundations of the Corps itself. The Marine Corps is proud of its long-standing tradition of “once a Marine, always a Marine,” which codifies a sense of unity and professionalism not found anywhere else in the world. Why would any Marine not be a suitable mentor to any other Marine? Why can’t male Marines mentor and lead female Marines? The answer is that they can, and they do, every day.
Finally, the commandant says that the efforts to integrate women may not be “worth it.” Worth what? Is he talking money, or effort, or is he really talking about some sense of lost honor accrued by men who serve in the combat arms that will be undermined by the presence of women who can meet the standards?
Detractors of allowing women into combat specialties generally fall back on the argument that women’s relative size and strength makes them poor candidates for combat arms. They argue that the small percentages of “one off” women who could actually meet the existing physical requirements don’t make it “worth it” to allow them to serve in combat branches. But these arguments ignore deeper questions. What makes a competent infantryman? Is it size and strength or is it something less tangible but more important?
In 1942, after being rejected by the Marine Corps and the Army paratroopers for being too small, Audie Murphy was allowed to enlist in the Army as a light infantryman. (He stood 5 feet 5 inches tall and weighed less than 120 pounds) When he passed out during basic training, the Army tried to reclassify him as a cook, but he successfully lobbied to stay in the infantry. It is highly probable that Murphy would not have made it through the Marine Corps infantry officer course today. But he went on to become the most decorated combat soldier in the history of the United States. He received the Medal of Honor and every other decoration for valor that this country has to offer, some of them more than once. He also received a battlefield commission and commanded an infantry company before World War II ended.
Veterans of a later war, in Vietnam, have often acknowledged the courage, ferocity and fighting capabilities of the North Vietnamese soldiers that they faced. But if you follow current logic on what constitutes a capable infantryman, Vietnamese soldiers were at a distinct disadvantage. The average Vietnamese soldier was five inches shorter and 50 pounds lighter than the Americans they fought.
In the current debate, much is made of what are construed as “critically important” physical standards, but these are neither buttressed by history nor set in stone today. The physical requirements to be an infantryman vary by age and service branch: The Army and the Marines have different standards, and a young infantryman must be fitter than an older infantryman.
With the lifting of the combat exclusion policy, the U.S. services were directed to develop gender-neutral physical standards for all combat occupational specialties. In the Army, Training and Doctrine Command was tasked to lead this effort. Unfortunately, TRADOC is headed down a path that will arrive at a less-than-optimal solution to the physical-standards question. One of its approaches is to interview soldiers in various combat specialties about their daily duties and activities, gathering information that will inform gender-neutral physical standards. But this technique has yielded unreliable data. A 2011 study by Columbia Business School found that men overwhelmingly exaggerate their workloads and accomplishments. Researchers call it a “confidence factor” that causes men to think they are doing more than they really are.
The Canadian Forces discovered this for themselves some time ago while developing gender-neutral standards for their own combat-arms branches. They began, like the U.S. Army, by interviewing troops about their workloads. But then they put tracking and load-bearing devices on deployed soldiers, allowing them to determine how far soldiers traveled in a given day and under what loads. The results were quite different from what had been self-reported. Furthermore, they found that their previous emphasis on strength was misguided. Combat specialties, it turns out, are inherently endurance-based occupations. Evidence in hand, they shifted from strength-based standards to endurance-based standards, and far more women began to qualify for combat specialties.
In light of the success of small men like Audie Murphy and the Vietnamese soldiers, this shouldn’t be a surprise. Perhaps it is time to take a hard look at what really makes a competent combat soldier and not rely on traditional notions of masculine brawn that celebrate strength over other qualities.
If the going-in assumption is that physical standards are the only thing that needs to be examined, then we are also assuming that we have everything else just right. This is belied by our less-than-optimal performances in many instances during the past 12 years. Fixating on physical standards is a tactical-level approach that misses a strategic-level opportunity.
What traits did Audie Murphy possess that we are not assessing in today’s soldiers? Are those traits as relevant today as during World War II? He was clearly courageous, incredibly resilient and highly competent in the use of small arms and other tactical tools. But Murphy’s award citations and eyewitness accounts of his deeds reveal a more interesting pattern, as well: an uncanny ability to stay calm and focused under intense pressure coupled with the ability to think rationally and creatively to solve tactical problems in the heat of battle.
The first phase of the Marine Corps’ IOC consists of a timed, endurance- and strength-based obstacle course. A large percentage of candidates, including three of the four women who have attempted the course, wash out in this phase. We can’t be sure, but odds are that Murphy would have washed out here, as well. An obstacle course that relies on physical prowess tests none of the important qualities that Murphy possessed.
Another problem with our current emphasis on physical strength is that it celebrates the use of violence at the expense of other methods of gaining power and influence. Every Medal of Honor recipient received his medal because he exhibited courage and self-sacrifice under incredible physical and mental duress in violent situations. However, many instances exist of soldiers who exhibited bravery and heroism under extreme duress who are not recognized simply because they were not engaged in violence. For example, in 2003, Army Lt. Col. Chris Hughes made a creative but calculated decision that was counterintuitive to every soldier who was present that day. When an angry mob of Iraqi citizens began converging on and throwing rocks at him and his well-armed and nervous soldiers, Hughes ordered his men to “take a knee” and point their weapons at the ground. When the mob suddenly quieted, Hughes rose and placed his open hand to his heart in an Islamic gesture that means “peace be with you.” The situation was defused, violence was averted, and, more than likely, American and Iraqi lives were saved. Although a number of news sources celebrated this act of courage, it did not garner awards and widespread recognition in the military. Why not? Because we celebrate acts of physical strength and courage in violent situations.
By doing so, we diminish the importance of what are probably more important traits in soldiers: the ability to remain calm, focused, creative and quick-thinking in times of extreme duress. These are the traits that we should be measuring as we assess soldiers for combat specialties. Physical strength is important, but it shouldn’t be the most important trait that we assess, and it certainly shouldn’t become a way to filter out the Audie Murphys of our population.
Today, as we study standards, we should avoid only looking at the physical, for this causes us to lose sight of the traits and attributes evident in the most successful soldiers. The real question is: Should the combat arms branches of the future be “just like today, but with women?” Mirroring the recent past clouds our ability to envision a more capable future combat force. As the security environment changes and as the world evolves and values and beliefs change, our approach to allowing women into combat specialties should be that this presents us with an opportunity to improve our capabilities.
Finally, the costs of not fully integrating women far outweigh any other conceivable consideration. How can this country continue to operate in foreign countries among civilian populations and wag our collective index finger at other people for their treatment of women when we formally and informally exclude our women? More importantly, what are we giving up in terms of the collective intelligence of our force? Collective intelligence studies have reliably shown that when we add women to our teams, the collective intelligence of the group, from small to large, increases exponentially. We need to return to our best traditions and offer all Americans an equal opportunity to excel, regardless of sex. We shouldn’t create artificial barriers that limit the potential competence of the force.
If the commandant of the Marine Corps wants to keep women out by establishing nearly insurmountable barriers that rely on antiquated notions of strength as the basis of warrior competence, then the Corps will continue to cede soldiers like Audie Murphy to the Army. And if the Army follows suit, we may not get such troopers. AFJ
Col. Ellen Haring is on the staff at the Army War College. In May 2012, she filed suit against the Department of the Army challenging the constitutionality of the ground combat exclusion policy. In January, the Defense Department lifted the ban. The lawsuit remains open pending a review of the combat integration implementation plans.