|Yes, they can.|
The 2013 MajorGeneral Harold W. Chase Essay contest was won by Captain Lauren F. Serrano, but one really has to wonder why. This contest is meant to recognize “articles that challenge conventional wisdom by proposing change to a current Marine Corps directive, policy, custom, or practice. To qualify, entries must propose and argue for a new and better way of 'doing business' in the Marine Corps. Authors must have strength in their convictions and be prepared for criticism from those who would defend the status quo. That is why the prizes are called Boldness and Daring Awards.”
Unfortunately, Captain Serrano’s article does not challenge the “conventional wisdom”, but instead supports a deeply entrenched position held by the Old Guard that women (like blacks and gays before them) have no place in the infantry. It might be considered a “bold and daring” statement by a female officer, if it hadn't already been made by Captain Katie Petronio back in 2013.
The idea that women do not belong in the infantry is only the latest in a long string of “women do not belong” quotes; women do not belong in the voting booth, in public office, in the military, in aircraft, on spacecraft, on ships, in submarines. Having run out of places to attempt to exclude women from (because they seem to thrive wherever they’re given a chance) Captain Serrano ignores the legacy of fearsome female fighters from Joan of Arc to Lyudmila Pavlichenko and suggests that no, really, all those other cases may have just been a bit of an oversight, but seriously, women do not belong in the infantry. The U.S. infantry, at least – many other NATO countries have already largely eliminated this form of discrimination in the ranks.
Instead of arguing for a “new and better way of ‘doing business’ in the Marine Corps,” Captain Serrano advocates for business as usual – with the infantry reserved as a boys-will-be-boys club, where “men… raging with hormones and… easily distracted by women and sex,” can freely “fart, burp, tell raunchy jokes, walk around naked, swap sex stories, wrestle, and simply be young men together.”
This environment, Captain Serrano tells us, “promotes unit cohesion” – an “essential element in both garrison and combat environments.” Wow. Thank you, Captain Serrano! My Master Gunnery Sergeant and I have been pondering what we could do to increase unit cohesion among our Marines, and your bold and daring article has opened my eyes. I just need to transfer all my stellar female officers, Staff Non-Commissioned Officers, Sergeants, Corporals, and junior Marines to other commands and give my remaining male Marines the go-ahead to engage in behavior that’s clearly outside the bounds of common courtesy, good order and discipline, and the “proper and professional climate” directed by the Commandant in his Policy Statement on Equal Opportunity. Here on the East Coast, it would also clearly be a direct violation of the Second Marine Expeditionary Force policy letter on Equal Opportunity, which requires “every member of this command to promote an environment of dignity, respect, equality and fair treatment.” I suppose while everyone else was enjoying their new-found unit cohesion, I could just go ahead and prepare myself for my Court Martial.
Is it possible that this was reason that Captain Serrano won the contest? Was the bold and daring challenge to conventional wisdom actually to suggest that at least some units should be exempted from the standards that the Commandant has said are “as venerable and important to us as the 14 Leadership Traits?”
Perhaps. But if her real intent was in fact to beat the drum against equal rights for all Americans volunteering to serve their country, allow me to continue to close with and destroy by logic and evidence the rest of the flimsy foundation on which she rests her case.
Because that’s one of the first problems with her paper. If you’re going to make an assertion like “women do not belong in the U.S. infantry,” you’d think it would be on the basis of some pretty solid evidence. But she only gives cites three sources, the first being of “anecdotal evidence” by someone identified only as Colonel Weinberg. The officer in question is in fact Colonel Anne Weinberg, and her excerpted statement from an NPR interview, is used out of context by Captain Serrano; a reading of the full text shows that Colonel Weinberg is actually quite optimistic on the topic – "I think we're going to have a lot of female marines who are able to meet those standards… My generation, you know, is a different breed from the young women who are coming into the Marine Corps now. They are very tough, very strong, and they have that mindset of 'I want to go and do these types of jobs.' "
Captain Serrano conveniently brushes aside whether or not women can pass the requirements to get into the infantry (pssst – spoiler alert – they can! Forty and counting…) In fact, she claims, these women (much like those who lobbied in times past for the right to vote, equal pay, etc.) are just selfish troublemakers, who “pose a threat to the infantry mission and readiness.”
These women should shut up and exult in the fact that by being arbitrarily excluded from the infantry, they will avoid long careers resulting in career-ending medical conditions. But wait! The average length of military enlisted service is 7 years (Pages 18-19) - and it’s already a well-documented fact that male infantry also suffer from “blisters, plantar fasciitis, achilles tendonitis, shin splints, stress fractures (most commonly in the tibia and metatarsals), anterior compartment syndrome, chondromalacia patellae and low-back strain,” according to this NATO report.
Men, on the other hand, seem to be arbitrarily separated into two categories – those in the infantry, who are 18-22 and full of testosterone and masculinity, and all the rest of male Marines, who are, on the average… Wait, 18-22 years old and full of testosterone and masculinity? Because unless I am very much mistaken, there is no part of the entrance examinations where testosterone levels are screened and masculinity is tested, with those on the high end being shuffled off to don a pack and grab a rifle, and less-virile specimens sent to fill a cockpit, shuffle papers, or issue parts. Yet somehow all the men who aren't in the infantry still manage to get by with a fairly high level of esprit de corps, despite being obliged to serve side-by-side with equally gung-ho women, all without becoming too distracted by their raging hormones or depressed from a lack of raunchy jokes and nude ramblings.
Captain Serrano acknowledges that continued exclusion would be unfair, but claims that it would be justified because we live in an age where “U.S. hegemony is slowly decreasing and nations like China, Iran, and North Korea are building their conventional forces.” But the gender equity in an infantry battalion is hardly going to be a deciding factor in any conflict with the rising powers that Captain Serrano calls out as potential adversaries (ignoring the fact that we have just wrapped up joint naval exercises with China, and are moving toward cooperation with Iran against the unconventional forces of the Islamic State, which already employs its own female battalions) – instead, breaking through increasingly advanced networks of anti-ship and anti-aircraft weapons, countering cyber offensives, and defeating asymmetric threats is where we should be focusing our attention.
Similarly, she first acknowledges and then attempts to discredit the successful inclusion of women in the Kurdish Peshmerga and Israeli Defense Force, claiming that only nations (or non-state actors) on the brink of an existential fight for life can afford to include women. Perhaps Kurdish and Israeli men don’t do as much burping, farting, or naked walking as American infantry Marines do – or maybe their female compatriots do it all as well. In any case, it works, according to Serrano, only due to the looming threat of Arab/Palestinian/Iraqi/Turkish/ISIS/insert your boogeyman here. Which makes sense, until you realize that Canada, Denmark, Finland, France, Germany, the Netherlands, Norway, Poland, Romania, Australia and Sweden have also all successfully integrated their infantry forces, and none of them currently face an existential military threat.
In fact, it’s worth reading an excerpt from a study done by the British government on this topic, wherein, referencing the Danish experience:
During deployments, there is no gender-related differentiation between roles and functions performed by men and women. Women are treated and regarded as normal soldiers who are expected to perform as trained, and to participate in all operations on equal terms with their male counterparts. Women have been employed in combat in Afghanistan whilst undertaking a variety of functions from administration to Combat Commander. This number has increased, possibly as a result of an overall change in the number of women serving in the Armed Forces increasing from 715 in January 2007 to 780 in January 2008, and then to 832 in March 2008. As far as the Danish Personnel Policy Section of the Danish Defence Personal Organisation are aware there have been no reported difficulties with employing women in combat roles. Although team cohesion and operational effectiveness have not been assessed, there have been no reports to indicate that this may be an issue.
The same study makes some interesting notes on how the sort of discriminatory message exhibited in Captain Serrano’s essay, and in similar writings by male Marines may be impacting current or future female Marines, and also shows how to fix it through positive, engaged leadership:
As far as the women are concerned it makes little difference where the negative attitude towards them comes from, but it leaves them feeling angry and frustrated, their confidence is undermined, and a strong need to prove their abilities in combat is felt. Motivation to serve in combat positions is relatively high, and as many as 20% of prospective female soldiers have listed combat as one of their main preferences….
Interviews with female combatants who participated in the Second Lebanon war, revealed that… if the Commander was to express belief in their ability and considered them to be equal to their male counterparts, then they would eventually become ‘one of the gang’. Surveys of females serving in combat roles in the IDF have therefore concluded that whilst the incorporation of female combatants has been a success, there is still much progress to be made with regard to allowing them to utilise their full potential.
The same old predictions of “ruined unit cohesion”, which were used to delay the integration of black and gay servicemembers are dutifully trotted out – in her bid to be bold and daring, Captain Serrano leaves no tired, dis-proven argument unused.
Her assertion that women in the infantry will “disrupt the brotherhood,” and “take the focus off the mission” are the same clichés voiced by the current Commandant, General Amos in reference to the repeal of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell (“…strong potential for disruption at the small unit level…”) andthose of the 19th Commandant, General Cates in his opposition to integrating blacks (“a dangerous path to pursue inasmuch as it affects the ability of the National Military Establishment to fulfill its mission.”)
Time has proved both Commandants wrong; it will prove Captain Serrano wrong as well, but the fact is, we don’t have time to waste, because, prejudice has a long reach – recent studies of Marine personnel still show that blacks are significantly underrepresented in the infantry and combat arms specialties, over 50 years after those fields were opened to them.
I’m not going to waste space by dignifying the questions of whether allowing women to serve will require special provisions for “womanly needs” (whatever those may be) or whether we should care that some spouse back in garrison is worried because their significant other is serving beside a member of the opposite sex – news flash – that happens every day in the Corps. Nor am I going to try to figure out what the “drama” that Captain Serrano repeatedly refers to is, but judging from at least one infantryman’s popular perspective, I’m pretty sure there’s plenty of it in the infantry, too.
Instead, I’ll close by addressing her most egregious, unsubstantiated, and untenable reason for keeping infantry closed to women. Do it for their own good – do it to prevent sexual assault and harassment. No. Absolutely not. The way to prevent sexual assault and harassment is not to attempt to blame the victims, to keep men and women separate and unequal – it is to educate all servicemembers, male and female alike, create a culture of respect and consent, and absolutely crush with the full weight of military justice anyone proven guilty of breaking the shared ethos where we stand by our brothers and sisters, protecting them equally on the battlefield and in garrison.
Captain Serrano suggests that without women in their midst, infantry Marines are less likely to commit sexual assault – but she conveniently ignores the fact that sexual assault is not just a male-on-female problem, and that even those specific assaults are still perpetrated by infantry troops. To give an idea of the scope of the issue, note that the Army’s 25th Infantry Division had 52 reported cases of sexual assault in the 9-month period from July 2012 to Mar 2013, with 60 percent (31 cases) being substantiated. Clearly, sexual assaults can and do occur in infantry units whether or not female Marines or soldiers are serving within them.
An infantry Marine, Corporal Maximillian Uriarte said it best:
…if you’re the kind of piece of shit that will sexually assault someone, it’s you that is in fact the problem… I hate that sentence, “We can’t let women in the infantry, think of all the sexual assaults,” is basically giving shitty men a free pass to rape women. One can only hope that if, in fact, sexual assault does occur in the infantry, that the men perpetrating it will be punished accordingly.
The Marine Corps infantry is broken. It lacks the amphibious lift to get it into the fight, its members are more heavily laden than any infantry soldiers since the dawn of time, and its primary weapons systems are decades old. But beyond that, its continued exclusionary policy stands in stark contrast to the sentiments enshrined in our Constitution and its Amendments; that all Americans are created equal, and should be treated accordingly. We don’t deny the other broken aspects of our infantry battalions or shy away from working to fix them - let’s not deny that our gender bias needs fixing, too.
Maj Edward H. “UTAH” Carpenter is an Aviation Logistician, a Foreign Area Officer, and the author of "Steven Pressfield's THE WARRIOR ETHOS: One Marine Officer's Critique and Counterpoint"