The implication that no woman can perform ably in combat, regardless of personal strengths and abilities, bleeds into every corner of the Corps today. If women cannot perform in combat, as the policy clearly declares, what else can’t they do? That is the unanswered question that the policy begs asking. It drags into question the capabilities of female Marines serving in every other MOS, placing an asterisk in boldface type after each “USMC.” This can result in highly negative consequences that damage the unit cohesion that we seek to cultivate, especially in combat. We have experienced this firsthand.
As Marines, with our force and our nation at war, we hope—pray—that any policy so divisive is in place to truly strengthen our Corps. But a comparison of the spirit of the Combat Exclusion Policy with its application over the past decade shows otherwise. We have been at war now for more than ten years, and female Marines have fought and died in combat. How is this possible, given the existence of the policy? And what does this say about our Corps today and the policy itself?
The debate on women in combat has recently been reinvigorated in the news, ranging from a Marine Corps Gazette article stating that one woman’s poor physical performance in ground combat speaks for the capabilities of all women, to news of a lawsuit filed by two senior female soldiers calling for the elimination of the Combat Exclusion Policy, along with countless Internet posts and anecdotes throughout the blogosphere describing service members’ experiences with women in combat, many calling for the removal of the policy. As a Marine Corps infantry officer and an AH-1W Cobra pilot, we too have our own experiences, and those have informed our opinions on the subject. We believe that the Combat Exclusion Policy has been rendered irrelevant. Beyond that, we firmly believe that it runs counter to the core values of the Marine Corps, and far from strengthening our force, it damages our unity and cohesion by institutionalizing the concept that women are not “real” Marines.
Combat Exclusion Policy and the ‘Risk Rule’
Telling our own stories would only add a little to the vast black hole of the debate. What is truly called for is a comprehensive examination of the policy and its actual implementation. What informed it historically? What are its basic premises? And how do those premises compare with how the Marine Corps and DOD at large have conducted the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan? And finally, should the policy be revamped, or repealed altogether?
The Combat Exclusion Policy, created and refined with the intent of keeping women out of combat or the risk of combat and capture, reflects the societal, political, and physical assumptions and customs of past decades. The policy as we know it today evolved from the original 1988 “Risk Rule,” which restricted women from combat units or noncombat units based on a puzzling formula of risk comparison between supporting and supported units. 1 When Operation Desert Storm rendered the Risk Rule obsolete, Congress and DOD ushered in sweeping changes for servicewomen: Between 1992 and 1994, regulations prohibiting women from flying combat aircraft or serving on board most combatant ships were overturned, and the Risk Rule was replaced by the Combat Exclusion Policy as we know it today. 2 Throughout, the intent behind these shifting policies remained consistent: to keep women away from direct ground combat.
But in the past decade, nearly 300,000 servicewomen have served in Iraq and Afghanistan, in a range of jobs unmatched in modern history. 3 While forward-deployed, female Marines have participated in ground combat operations at historic rates, both attached to ground combat units and in their assigned units that, because of the nature of these wars, are constantly at risk of enemy exposure. How and why has this happened, given the intent of the policy? It turns out that to employ the Marine Corps as a total force (in accordance with doctrine) and to accomplish our mission, we cannot leave the women of the Marine air-ground task force (MAGTF) at home.
The nature of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq—asymmetric, nonlinear, and susceptible to constant shift from nonkinetic operations to high-intensity combat—puts all service members at near-constant risk of direct fire and/or capture. This reality exposes the flaws in what deployed commanders have denounced as a confusing and unrealistic policy, given the character of the fight on the ground and structure of our forces. 4 Instead of allowing commanders to accomplish the mission with the best assets and greatest amount of flexibility, the convoluted Combat Exclusion Policy focuses on keeping women out of the (nonexistent) front lines, a feat that with today’s military, in today’s wars, can only be achieved by operating in the grayest area of the original policy’s intent.
Which are we to believe? On one hand, the policy implies that women are not suited for combat. But on the other, we have the Corps’ performance over the past decade. We should compare the policy’s assumptions to the Marine Corps ethos, to what it truly means to be a Marine. Then we can assess the need to continue applying this policy.
To that end, we should revisit the two primary premises that informed the Combat Exclusion Policy and its predecessors in the first place to see how they stand up in light of our shared experiences.
The primary argument in defense of the policy—and a key reason for its initial birth and continued existence—holds that women do not have the physical attributes necessary to conduct ground combat operations. Conventional wisdom states that women cannot physically perform to the necessary standard. It assumes women cannot carry the weight of the gear or the weapons, that women are less aggressive, and that their bodies cannot endure extended physical hardship. It also states that women cannot stand harsh environments, cannot go long without showers, and need special facilities for hygienic reasons. Women, accordingly, are incapable of performing in combat. This assertion has begun to ring hollow.
We do not debate the capabilities of the average man versus the average woman. Neither the average man nor the average woman joins the Marine Corps. We do, however, take issue with the assumptions that informed current policy and argue against applying such stereotypes today in the face of mounting evidence quite to the contrary.
Throughout modern history, the idea that women cannot perform certain physical activities—from running marathons and flying airplanes to serving in combat—consistently falls prey to reality as women continue to accomplish feats that supposedly were only possible for men. With the 2012 Olympics recently concluded, the differences between what women accomplished athletically in 1988 when the Risk Rule was written and what women accomplish now, 24 years later, are striking. In the 1988 Olympics, women brought home 31 percent of the medals for the United States, but the women of Team USA 2012 earned 56 percent of the nation’s medals. And for the first time in history, female American athletes outnumbered males; reporters called 2012 the “Women’s Olympics” for the way women starred throughout the games. 5
Impact of Title IX
While most Marines are obviously not Olympic-caliber athletes, Title IX (gender-equality legislation passed in 1972) and the widespread encouragement of female physical participation and competition have together spawned incredible advancements in American women’s fitness and abilities. Women joining the Marine Corps today and the women medaling in the Olympic Games share a common history as the third generation benefiting from Title IX. Raised in a culture that constantly reinforces the benefits of strength and fitness, those women grew up surrounded by stories of increasing female athletic prowess, from Joan Benoit Samuelson and Gabby Douglas to thousands of women running marathons.
With the increasing expectation that women will participate in sports from an early age, what we supposedly knew about women’s physiology three decades ago has been proved wrong far beyond anecdotal evidence in professional sports and daily life. Traditional notions about the capability gap have been destroyed; in some sports, male records from the 1970s have been eclipsed by recent female records. 6
What women have done for the past ten years in Iraq and Afghanistan backs this up. Female Marines carry the same gear, hike the same distances, and handle rough conditions right alongside male Marines. They train, suffer, and wear down, just like men. Yet we still have a Combat Exclusion Policy based primarily on assumptions that date back decades, and on the “average” male or female performance in physical tasks. The average woman is likely not cut out for military service at all, much less the infantry. But neither is the average man.
Declaring that all women cannot perform the duties of combat because some women cannot is as foolish as declaring that all men can because some men have. Any restrictions on women should be based on a quantitative evaluation of actual ability, not presupposed capability. We have an established physical fitness test, and a male Marine must merely pass it to serve in a ground combat arms MOS. Establishing one physical standard—either a gender-neutral PFT or a separate test—would let the Marine Corps determine physical qualifications for specific billets. Enforcing a physical standard may restrict some female Marines from serving with ground combat units; it may also restrict male Marines who already serve there. But at least it will be a clear, concrete way to ensure that those handed the toughest tasks can physically perform their duties, and will be based on tangible proof as opposed to generalized assumptions that policymakers assume true of all members of each gender.
‘Unit Cohesion, Readiness, and Performance’
As Marines, we consider high unit cohesion, readiness, and performance invaluable. A unit that lacks these attributes may fail, and the price paid can cost lives and sacrifice mission accomplishment. Those who oppose allowing women in ground combat units argue that a female presence negatively impacts unit cohesion, readiness and performance. They argue that women—through assumed physical weaknesses, improper relationships, sexual misconduct, perceived preferential treatment, or mismatched abilities—will damage units from the inside out. We hear that men cannot adapt to the presence of women in combat or will be fatally distracted by women. Therefore, women should not be allowed.
Such assumptions undermine the integrity, intelligence, dedication, and professionalism of all Marines of both genders who have served capably and honorably together under the broadest conditions and place responsibility for any interpersonal conflict squarely on the shoulders of women. Whatever happened to leadership, professionalism, and responsibility for one’s actions? This argument also ignores the reality of years of coexistence among male and female Marines. To many of us who have served in today’s Corps, it is self-evident that as we train together and develop trust in one another, gender disappears, just like any other label. Claiming that the presence of women is detrimental to a unit underestimates our Marines and shows basic ignorance of what successfully occurs daily throughout our Corps.
The Marine Corps now has a decade of evidence to show that the presence of women does not contribute to decreases in readiness, performance, or cohesion within units participating in combat operations. Female Marines have served throughout Iraq and Afghanistan since the wars’ inceptions, providing an observable environment that demonstrates no degradation to units in combat. Furthermore, the current practice of “temporary attachment” exercised in Iraq and Afghanistan that augments ground combat units with capabilities comprised in part by women further corroborates the truth. The sky has not fallen. Unit cohesion is solid, morale and reenlistment rates are high, the MAGTF is accomplishing its mission, and men and women are serving side by side, performing complex counterinsurgency operations. If the presence of women breaks down unit cohesion and reduces readiness, shouldn’t we see resulting mission and unit failures?
Let the Discussion Proceed
Physiological factors and impacts to combat arms units are not the only reasons cited for continuing the Combat Exclusion Policy. While often brandished in debate as serious arguments supporting the continued exclusion of women, topics such as women’s field hygiene, the supposed intolerance of the American public for female casualties, and facilities costs associated with integration supply little more than rhetorical narrative. None bears up under educated scrutiny. The meat-and-potatoes of the debate can thus be narrowed down to the two primary arguments named here.
Worth exploring is the cultural divide between policy makers and senior military leadership, and the preponderance of the force—the 62 percent of the Marine Corps under the age of 26. 7 Those 124,000 Marines belong to the so-called “Millennial Generation.” As the results of this discussion will greatly affect them, and they are primarily the ones serving in combat, their opinions should carry some weight. Their stories are everywhere thanks to the Internet. Each opinion reflects just one individual’s perception and should be weighted accordingly. Taken together, however, these anecdotes offer a fairly comprehensive look at how young service members view the role of women in our military. A pattern emerges: Those supporting the elimination of gender-based restrictions have often either served in co-ed units and/or belong to the Millennial Generation. Those who want the restrictions kept in place tend to be older, often with limited co-ed experience. There are exceptions to the rule, but not as many as one might think.
Millennials grew up and are coming of age in a world where homosexuals seek equal rights, dual-income households are commonplace, and women comprise the majority of college graduates. The world experienced by these young Americans differs markedly from that of our leaders. The truth is that the teaming of men and women is status quo to Millennials; they have often been doing it all along.
The Millennial Generation’s reaction to the “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” repeal provides a telling example. Prior to the repeal, opponents warned of the harm homosexuals would cause to unit cohesion, readiness, and morale. But the repeal was met by most current service members with what can best be called a collective yawn. Since then, we have yet to see the negative trends in unit health or performance that the DADT repeal supposedly would cause. Ending the Combat Exclusion Policy will most likely have a similar effect.
‘A Major Flaw in the System?’
The real danger arises in staying the course with current policy. Drawing a line between male and female Marines based on gender alone implies that women are not expected to perform to the standard demanded of all Marines. The policy draws lines between Marines based on presupposed abilities and not an evaluation of each individual Marine on his or her own merit, debatably exposing a major flaw in the system by which we evaluate performance. Many of us have known women who are well suited to combat and men who are plainly not. But the Combat Exclusion Policy tells us differently, based on assumptions about all women and all men. It generalizes all Marines and their individual abilities, a dangerous assumption and a stomach-punch to meritocracy.
Continuing to place barriers between Marines sans evaluation of the individual or any defined standard for performance goes against our core values. We joined the Marines because of what the Marine Corps stands for; striving to reach and exceed high standards is what we do best. Do we really want to tell some of our young Marines that they can be Marines, but only to a point? And that after that point, they are not good enough, and not wanted or needed?
We should let the best Marine have the job, period. The Combat Exclusion Policy saddles the Marine Corps with a policy distinction that runs counter to our combat experiences and our generational views on the role of women in society, creating an issue from what is largely a non-issue.
Senior Marine Corps leadership repeatedly emphasizes the need to keep faith with our Marines. We must make sure we are keeping faith with all of our Marines, and letting ability speak for itself. Open up all MOSs and billets to every Marine, set the highest standards, and erase presumptive barriers that divide our Corps. Let Marines be Marines.
1. Jimmie O. Keenan, “The DoD Combat Exclusion Policy: Time for a Change?” in Women in Combat Compendium, Michele M. Putko and Douglas V. Johnson II, eds. (Carlisle Barracks, PA: U.S. Army War College, Strategic Studies Institute, 2008).
2. Women’s Research & Education Institute (WREI), “Chronology of Significant Legal & Policy Changes Affecting Women in the Military, 1947–2003.” www.wrei.org/Women%20in%20the%20Military/Women%20in%20the%20Military%20C...  .
3. Gretel C. Kovach, “Female Marines Report for New Combat Jobs,” San Diego Union-Tribune, 1 June 2012, www.utsandiego.com/news/2012/jun/01/  female-marines-report-new-combat-jobs/.
4. Sharon M. Johnson, “Women in Combat: a Policy Paradox for Commanders,” (Carlisle Barracks: U.S. Army War College, Strategic Studies Institute, 2010).
5. Christine Brennan, “In Historic Shift, Women Take Lead Role in Olympics,” USA Today, 5 August 2012, www.usatoday.com/NEWS/usaedition/2012-08-06--Girl-power--at-the-Olympics...  .
6. Swimming world records, www.ishof.org//exhibits/world_records.htm  .
7. Marine Corps Demographics Update, December 2011. www.usmc-mccs.org/display_files/Demographics%20Update%20Dec%202011.pdf  , 2.
Major Jeannette Haynie is an AH-1W pilot currently drilling with the Joint Staff (J-34, Homeland Defense/Theater Security).