Since the end of the Vietnam War, the U.S. Marine Corps has been transitioning from an industrial to an information age force. This transition requires a concomitant cultural shift away from a mindset epitomized by its hyper-masculine ethos.
The Corps, paradoxically, is both the most grounded and the most blinded when it comes to understanding the role humans play in warfare. More than any other military branch, the Marine Corps appreciates the human element inherent to warfare, and at times it resists the allure of easy technological solutions better than any other service. Yet its own human terrain has suffered from a significant blind spot. Despite a culture of flexing and adapting to external situations, it has not solved its internal problems because it is still not ready to wrestle with what it means to be a warrior. It continues to perpetuate images that suggest combat is for male Marines and not women Marines, although this trend has begun to change over the past five years.
To improve its human capital, the Marine Corps must discard outdated, highly gendered ways of thinking that continue to undermine its adaptability and flexibility. It must be just as sophisticated at reading its own terrain—to acquire and retain the best personnel—as it is at reading enemy terrain. It also must resolve its problems with discrimination and sexual assault, which have been aggravated by differing visions of what it means to be a Marine.
The Commandant’s Planning Guidance
Initially, Marine Corps General David Berger’s 2019 Commandant’s Planning Guidance (CPG) received significant praise for reaffirming the Corps’ connections with the Navy while divesting the institution of legacy equipment ill-suited for a future characterized by long-range “missile warfare.” Many said he had begun a much-needed slaying of sacred cows.
Notably, the Commandant’s guidance began with a photograph featuring a female Marine at the head of a formation, suggesting General Berger might be on the verge of offering a bold vision for the full integration of women. In viewing the guidance in its entirety, however, the photograph appeared to be more of a token nod to women, who constitute less than ten percent of the Marine Corps’ personnel. In recent years the Corps has taken some steps to increase the number of women, beginning to mail information to high school females in 2014 and using an advertisement with a woman in the starring role in 2017. Yet these recruiting steps are not enough to challenge the pervasive hyper-masculine ethos of the Corps, which is problematic for a number of reasons.
The ongoing challenges surrounding the integration of female Marines in the Corps is legion. In 2017, the Marines United Facebook group scandal rocked the Corps. The group infamously shared highly inappropriate pictures of female Marines while advocating illegal acts, including rape. And, at one point, the group had about 30,000 members.
The CPG did little to tackle the cultural problems that explain groups like Marines United’s existence. On page 22, for example, he simply stated, that there was “no place for those who are intolerant of their fellow Marines’ gender or sexual orientation.” This suggested that male Marines avoid acting on their negative impulses rather than providing positive leadership to create a more welcoming environment for women.
General Berger also noted a “significant” rise in hazing but provided no overarching rationale for this trend. Unlike the Marine Corps’ reinvigorated relationship to the Navy that he dwelled on at length, the actual mistreatment of personnel received the briefest of stern warnings. The rise in hazing suggests individual Marines are policing their own, seeking to enforce what they perceive as the institution’s real warrior ethos. Yet the Commandant avoided interfering with such “internal problems,” believing “company grade officers and mid-grade SNCOS” could resolve these issues. But if an institution’s highest-ranking leader does not get in front of an issue, it is unlikely others will. Real and lasting change requires consistent leadership involvement at all levels. Any other approach is unacceptable. One female Marine recently revealed in a DoD study, “When I first got here, all the people in my shop specifically, they live on third deck and I got put on first deck. . . . And when I asked why, they said it’s because I was going to get raped if I lived on third deck.”
That female Marines experience such horrific situations cannot be pushed under the rug, ignored, or explained away. General Berger’s guidance expressed his fundamental belief in the positive aspects of the Corps’ warfighting culture. But one cannot have one’s cake and eat it, too. In other words, if one establishes a causal relationship between positive aspects of institutional identity and warfighting, one must recognize the extent to which negative traits hurt the institution as well. Culture matters—good and bad.
Room to Improve
The Corps not only has to maintain its best tradition—including its appreciation for some human elements—but also must divest itself of its worst tendencies. This requires leaders willing to take decisive action. It must show why the Corps benefits from women rather than simply admonishing male Marines to tolerate them.
Recently, the Corps has begun establishing the foundation for some male and female Marines to work together from the very beginning of training, ending the complete separation of male and female Marines at Boot Camp. In the past, women and men were not integrated until reporting for additional training at Camp Lejeune’s Marine Combat Training. Because they had not trained together from the beginning, however, many men disparaged their female counterparts, who had not been trained to the same standards at Boot Camp. In rifle training, for example, women underperformed men until Parris Island officers decided to bring in male trainers from the West Coast who did not have preconceived expectations of how women should perform on the rifle range.1
Despite this integrated training success, the Marine Corps continues to segregate training and also largely excludes women from recruiting imagery. Some changes have been made. In 2017 the Corps released its first commercial, “Battle Up,” with a female lead. The ad powerfully conveyed a female fighter’s life-long development, from the first scene that showed her at a young age stopping girls from bullying others in school before showing her in combat. The ad’s follow-on scene also showed her volunteering, delivering blankets to the homeless. While heart-warming, in some ways such imagery aligns with early Corps messaging, which suggested that once war had concluded, female Marines should pursue seemingly more natural roles, like marriage. Similarly conveying mixed messaging, a video the Corps disseminated on social imagery earlier this year to announce the transition from rolled-down to rolled-up sleeves awkwardly included a female, whose arms appeared to morph into male arms at the end of the video.
Some improvement can be seen in changes to the Marine Corps’ recruiting website from last year until now to increase and improve female representation. The introductory page used to begin with an image that showed four males, conveying some racial diversity but no gender diversity.
With a few rare exceptions, further pages replicated this division of labor, showing men in combat and women most decidedly out of combat. The “Becoming a Marine” page, for example, featured numerous dirty and gritty male Marines, depicting an image of combat readiness. The token picture of a female (the lead image in this commentary), by contrast, showed her clean and standing against a blank background, relegated to the bottom of the page describing reservists. She was not doing anything, much less holding a weapon.
The frequently asked questions page continued this trend, showing men with rifles, but not a single woman. The “Contact a Marine” photograph on that page also replicated the initial “request information” page, suggesting—in case it had not been made clear enough—that real Marines were men, although it allowed some women to support it.
Likewise, the page providing information to parents about military service lacked a picture of a female recruit although it showed two images of male recruits with their smiling parents. Whether deliberately or not, the Corps depicted itself as a place few parents would select for their daughters.
Today, the Corps’ Instagram page does not differ significantly. Photographs mainly depict men participating in active training, often with weapons, in contrast to the more passive depictions of women. Compare this with this striking image of a female cadet from the British Royal Military Academy Sandhurst’s twitter account—who looks as if she belongs on a battlefield.
While it could be argued the images proportionally represent the Corps’ make up, the point of an Instagram account is not to provide an accurate historical record but to shape narratives, something the Corps has been actively doing for much of its existence.
In the past year, the Corps has taken strides to improve its recruiting website, although the passive image of the woman set against a stark white background mentioned above remains. The first page is more gender neutral, and in many cases it is difficult to determine if the photographed Marines are male or female.
The Corps also has begun taking steps to integrate its recruit training. These changes were not voluntary, though. Congress mandated them in the 2020 National Defense Authorization Act, requiring integration as low as the platoon level. And it has allowed the Corps five years to integrate recruit training to the determined level at Parris Island and eight years in San Diego, which has yet to graduate any female Marines.
As important as changes being imposed from outside is how leaders react internally. General Berger recently stressed the importance of conveying diversity’s value to Marines. He also noted the need to increase the percentage of women past ten percent of the force. These comments are to be commended, and it is essential that leaders continue to reiterate them. But those comments were made to the audience of the Women in Defense Virtual Leadership Symposium. They need to be made to the Corps itself repeatedly and positively about what women add to the Corps. Additionally, those responsible for the Corps’ recruiting and other imagery must continue to work to normalize images of female Marines in combat and combat training rather than as passive observers.
The Corps cannot live up to its hallowed reputation until it figures out how to do right by all Marines by institutionalizing positive changes—not because Congress tells it to but because the service that has a well-deserved reputation for flexibility and adaptation and applies that tradition to personnel issues. In attracting the best talent for great power conflict, no service can afford to write off half the population.
1. Kate Germano with Kelly Kennedy, Fight Like a Girl: The Truth Behind How Female Marines are Trained (New York: Prometheus, 2018), 103.