Saturday, June 28, 2014

An Open Letter to the Editor of the Marine Corps Gazette

Dear Colonel Keenan,

Please excuse my addressing you directly, but I feel it is imperative to draw your attention to two significant fallacies in your recent open letter to the Secretary of Defense.

The first is your assertion that arguments for the full integration of women in the military fall into two categories; yours, and those that are “uninformed opinion… agenda and ideologically driven.”

Let us be honest; there are two sides to this debate, and both are driven by agendas and ideology. Neither side, one hopes, bases their arguments solely on uninformed opinion; both sides seek to leverage expert testimony, scientific research, public opinion, and all other relevant material which will benefit their side of this war of ideas, a struggle which is, as our foundational publication Warfighting describes it, “fundamentally an interactive social process”, the very essence of a Clausewitzian Zweikampf.

The second and more troubling fallacy is your statement that “the issue is putting women in a position where the majority will fail unless standards are lowered.”

The key word here is “standard”. What is this elusive standard of which you write? Like many Marines and others on your side of this debate, that so-called “standard” appears to be the current Physical Fitness Test (PFT) and in particular, the dead-hang pullup, which is not, in fact a standard measurement of upper body strength in either the U.S. military as a whole or for many of our Coalition partners, and has only the most tenuous historical basis in the Corps itself.

Not a single Marine who charged machinegun nests in Belleau Wood, raised the flag on Iwo Jima, or marched back from the "Frozen Chosin" passed the “standard” that you and your supporters deem critical to success in combat, since the original USMC "Physical Readiness Test" (PRT) wasn't instituted until 1956 (MCO 6100.3) and pullups weren't part of the routine - chin-ups (forward grip) were mandatory, and 3 was the "satisfactory" score for a man (as were 25 situps in 2 minutes, and a half-mile jog with no time limit). The other signature events of the original PRT included the "duck waddle", the "broad jump", and the 440 yard dash, 21 pushups (it seems Chesty was already getting his) and 15 squat-thrusts for good measure.

The PFT as we know it didn’t come into existence until 1972 – and the very same scientist that you have picked as your “expert witness” this time around, Dr. Davis, wrote in 1981 that the PFT:
Represents a fitness battery consisting of Items whose capability of predicting combat readiness has not been scientifically validated… Scoring the fitness battery is arbitrary, and does not take into account such factors as environment, loads carried or numerous other factors that will no doubt have a profound impact on combat capabilities and readiness. Once again, the relationship between combat performance and scores on the PFT has neither been investigated nor established on the basis of any empirical work.
Between 1972 and 1996, tens of thousands of Marines used their minds and momentum to work “smarter and not harder”, kipping their way to high scores that rewarded rhythm versus brute strength to knock out the “standard”.

And today’s dead hang pullup? As an arbitrary measure of upper body strength, like a push-up, a bench press, or any other number of exercises, it’s a good measure of how well any person can perform that particular movement.

But I challenge anyone who prides themselves on doing 20 pullups during the PFT to join me in donning a minimal combat load consisting of a flak jacket with front, back, and side SAPI plates, an IFAK, a dump pouch, an M-4 with 6 loaded magazines, a Kevlar, and a full Camelbak and then jump on the bar, preferably in 100+ degree temperatures after we’ve run for at least 100 meters. I guarantee those impressively high numbers will vanish.

As for the “standards” for the Infantry Officers Course, again, one should be careful what we call a “standard”. Unlike the enlisted Infantry Course, which is designed to build Marines up into basic infantry personnel and from which over 50 female Marines have already graduated, the first goal of IOC is to break down any officer who lacks an extreme degree of willpower, physical strength, endurance, and determination. The Combat Endurance Test, that infamous introductory gauntlet for IOC should not be confused as anything but what it is – a selection mechanism to weed out approximately 25 percent of the officers who attempt it. This is not a standard infantry-training event; enlisted Marines do nothing comparable at the School of Infantry.  It does not teach the officers anything they have not already learned in TBS – it is specifically designed to eliminate a significant percentage of the individuals who attempt it. Why? Because thirty percent of officers graduating from TBS will request an infantry MOS as their first choice. That’s approximately 510 officers, and the Corps only has a need for about 350 Second Lieutenants to serve as infantry platoon commanders. The Combat Endurance Test and other make-or-break aspects of the IOC curriculum are designed to winnow the number of candidates down to the Corps’ requirements. It’s also worth noting that you don’t have to pass the Combat Endurance Test to be a great infantry officer – the course has only existed for the last 35 years, meaning that none of the storied officers of World War I, World War II, the Korean War, or Vietnam ever had to pass that particular test. Yet, somehow, they managed to lead their Marines to victory in battle.

Standards change; physical standards, standards of dress, standards of behavior. We no longer powder our hair or carry swords at all times; we no longer challenge officers from other services to duels. We don’t physically abuse recruits, we don’t haze our fellow Marines. We don’t sing racially or sexually offensive cadences anymore, and thankfully, we no longer do “the duck waddle”. And yet, the Corps is stronger today than it has ever been.

So, Colonel Keenan, I will close this with a few of your own words – “the issue is not women in combat – they have performed magnificently, as well you know.”

They have, Sir, performed magnificently when and where it counted; killing the enemy, saving the lives of their fellow fighters, and giving their lives in the Long War. Let’s recognize that performance by opening the closed doors, breaking the glass ceilings, and acknowledging that potentially updating arbitrary and outdated standards is not the same as lowering them.

Most Respectfully,
Major Edward H. Carpenter, USMC


  1. Thank you so much for taking the time to write this Major Carpenter. While I don't believe anyone should have to serve in combat, I don't believe anyone should be denied the right to do so based on their gender. Certainly, standards are updated all the time as philosophies change and improvements are made. The inclusion of women in official combat positions can only lead to the strengthening and betterment of the US Armed Forces, and, one hopes, the world.

  2. Maj Carpenter,
    Thank you for your participation in the debate. You and I agree to disagree. In your Jan 2014 article in the Gazette,"The Marine Corps Diversity Task Force" you aver that the Corps should reflect population demographics and recruit to a goal of 50% women. An interesting point of view. At the end of the day the Corps has to recruit qualified and patriotic women to field the force the nation needs. Once recruited they have to be given equal opportunity for advancement. I believe it is already a level playing field. I actually came in under the old PRT and the PFT had an advantage of requiring nothing other than a pullup bar. We could go all the way back to Teddy Roosevelt and his General Order Number 6 mandating a fitness test for all Naval Officers. Arbitrary and outdated standards have been changed throughout our history. It seems that any standard that women disproportionately cannot achieve needs to be revised as arbitrary. It is true that 50 women have completed the course at ITB. That is a success rate of around 45%. Over 90% of the men completed the course. Institutionally it is not in the best interest of the Corps to send Marines to a course knowing that they have a higher chance of failure and will contribute to T2P2. It is not about the individual, it is about what is best for the Corps as an institution and in this case what is best for a large class of Marines is best for the Corps. I like your analogy of a minimal combat load and pullups. The question is how much upper body strength do you need to pull yourself up over a wall with a full combat load? At the end of the day we agree that women have performed magnificently in combat. That is not the issue. The issue is what is best for the institution. I spent most of my career in the infantry. However, I am not making an emotional appeal, but a logical one. I believe that the politicians have already decided this issue, the Corps will be ordered to open up MOSs and not be given a waiver. If that happens, Gen Dunford or his successor will be on the Hill explaining why women in the combat arms are disproportionately passed over or not offered career continuation. The answer is we did what we were told and it worked to the detriment of a group of Marines.

  3. Sir, I appreciate your perspective, and imagine you must shake your head that in many ways, the Corps has come full circle – no longer is a pull-up bar all that’s needed to measure physical fitness – we now have the Combat Fitness Test as well, a rather ludicrous series of sprinting, crawling, lifting of ammo cans, and the throwing of a token dummy grenade which provides an assessment of a Marine’s fitness that (man or woman, young or old) rarely varies more than a few percent from their PFT score, and almost always on the plus side.

    With regards to the institution, and specifically the idea that “women in the combat arms (will be) disproportionately passed over or not offered career continuation,” I have to invoke the commandment to “Know Your Marines”, and to key on a recurring theme that is reflected in the online discussions of our young combat arms Marines – the fact that for the majority of them, there’s not much of a future beyond the now-ubiquitous “Terminal Lance”.

    It’s not women in combat arms who are currently being passed over – it’s a very large number of our young men – combat veterans – who come up against the harsh math that for every Private, Private First Class, or Lance Corporal in the fire team, the Marine Corps only needs one Corporal. And for every 3 Corporals in the squad, the Corps only needs one Sergeant. Yes, there’s a little wiggle room in those numbers for school slots, Special Duty Assignments, etc. – but that’s the basis.

    How and whether to address this issue is beyond the scope of this note – I just wanted to highlight the fact that there’s already a very real issue with career continuation in the infantry. One radical solution? Give every infantry Marine who is “above average” in the First Term Accession Program the option to make a “priority lateral move” into a boat-space in a combat support or combat service support MOS where they will be able to pick up rank and continue to make a contribution to the Corps. Implementing such a strategy would mean recruiting fewer Marines into those support MOS in anticipation of retaining more first-termers – but it might go a long way toward keeping the faith with the junior Marines who have borne the brunt of the Long War.

  4. Major Carpenter,

    You have wandered into discussion about a career field that you know next to little about. You might want to consider staying in your lane, in aviation supply management, which is a different universe from Infantry, Combat Engineer, or Artillery.

    For everyone I have discussed this topic with that is or was actually in the Infantry, we all know that the moment a female attempts to don and carry common infantry loads, she is going to collapse. Take the Assistant Machine Gunner's, Radio Operator's, Ammo Bearer's, Mortarman's, or Machine Gunner's rucksacks, for example.

    These are loads and duty positions you are neither familiar with, nor will you ever be. It appears you are operating under the false propaganda that every Marine = rifleman, therefore every Marine = Infantry Rifleman duty position capable, therefore every female Marine = rifleman = Infantry Rifleman duty position capable, if only the misogynist, racist, white brotherhood of discriminatory culture could be penetrated by forward-thinking, societal pariahs who have the high mindedness to pull the Corps out of the dark ages.

    This thinking is childishly flawed, and again, totally ignorant of the facts. Your description of what you think just a fighting load is demonstrates this clearly for those who know, while civilians and other soft skills Marines might read it and think it's totally legitimate.

    I have actually worked with female soldiers in coalition armies who are harder than most civilian males I know. I was able to evaluate their performance over an 8-day International Long Range Recce Competition, which they actually finished, (with the unauthorized help of locals who stashed caches for them throughout the training area). Even then, their loads were maybe 1/3 what I was used to carrying in the Infantry, and maybe 1/4 of what we carried in Reconnaissance units.

    They were shattered at the end, and these are women who live in a society without A/C, walk everywhere, endure harsh winters, and a significantly lower standard of living compared to a female Marine living in even a FOB or barracks Stateside. At the end of dismounted movement, the Infantry soldier needs to be able to execute actions on the objective, sustain operations through contingencies, ruck up, wash, and repeat until the missions are accomplished. There are no females capable of these types of operations with common Infantry loads. As a Marine Officer, you only have credibility with civilians and duty positions other than Infantry. Within the circles that know what this job requires, your ideas are literally a joke, not because of gender discrimination, but because of reality.


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