By Colonel (Ret.) James M. Pendergast, US Marine Corps
Memorial Day historically is set aside for Americans to honor those military service members who laid down their lives for their nation and their fellow citizens–the ultimate sacrifice.
This year—the first since the Obama administration’s edict requiring admission of females into the ranks of U.S. Army and Marine Corps infantry and other Ground Combat Elements—mandates we memorialize the lives of those serving soldiers and Marines still alive, too. Because sadly, but surely as sunrise, too many unnecessary deaths await only the outbreak of the next war and deployment of these coed combatants that multiple, unnecessary lives will be lost as a consequence of this nonsensical, purely politically-driven decision.
Forget for a moment the politics and consider instead the reality of this decision, and as if not more importantly, the rationale that led to it:
Women who currently serve their county’s cause through voluntary service in the armed forces contribute a magnificent, irreplaceable value. That is a non-debatable fact. It is one that will be authenticated by every open-minded soldier, sailor, Marine and airman who ever served with women during his own military service. Overall, they present far fewer disciplinary issues to their commanders, and generally perform their job or specialty requirements, as good or better than their male counterparts through their ability to think quickly and clearly and act decisively. When the U.S. military’s difficulty in attracting a sufficient number of qualified young men is factored into the equation, there is no doubt the military service of young women is essential to the nation’s security.
Then comes the madness of the notion that somehow or the other the priority of equality rather than combat readiness should be the central concern of America’s military. Arguments began to spout forth from feminist activists in the 1970s that females were being denied equality and equal opportunity for promotions because federal law prohibited their service in combat. And that rationale, not whether their service in ground combat units will enhance or detract from readiness to wage and win war became the defining criterion of this life and death decision.
And make no mistake about it: Opening the doors to Army and Marine infantry organizations, and the Special Operations Forces, will certainly lead to increased combat deaths of both male and female ground pounders.
Indeed there are few truisms in life. One of them is Thomas Reid’s 18th Century proverb, “a chain is no stronger than its weakest link,” taken from his “Essays on the Intellectual Power of Man,” written barely a decade after this nation’s birth. Writing in the figurative, it included this line: “In every chain of reasoning, the evidence of the last conclusion can be no greater than that of the weakest link of the chain, whatever may be the strength of the rest.”
Relative to the issue of female infantrywomen, it is a fact that in general females lack the upper body strength possessed by males. It is another fact that upper body strength is a central requirement to performing successfully as an infantryman. Perhaps not everyday, but there are undeniably frequent occasions when upper body strength is essential to successfully accomplishing routine tasks required of infantrymen. This could come in many common forms: scaling a cliff by rope, rappelling down one, or merely carrying the weight required on one’s back. And significantly, in terms of my essay today, that upper body strength is an imperative in saving the lives of fellow, fallen Marines who have been struck down on the battlefield. I and every other veteran of actual deadly ground combat operations has likely observed a fellow Marine rush forward to rescue a fallen comrade, frequently one mostly or totally immobile and unable to crawl under his own power to safety under a mass of still blazing bullets. There the dead weight of that fallen man must be dragged or lifted and carried to a safe distance by his rescuer. Those occasions are entirely too frequent in the violence of infantry combat. They happen. They just do.
The mission of Marine Rifle Companies/Army infantry is “to locate, close with, and destroy the enemy, by close combat (hand-to-hand) if necessary.” Now, please take a minute and contemplate what that means. It is a violent, filthy, mostly miserable job that requires sometimes nearly super-human strength, stamina and speed, among other attributes. Realistically there are a minute number of females physically capable of meeting the requirements to fulfill that capability. Indeed, there are few exceptions out there somewhere who ultimately might qualify. Ronda Rouse, the acclaimed Mixed Martial Arts (MMA) phenom, comes to mind, but she is clearly among the exceptions and not the rule. The notion, though of finding a sufficient number of young females who both possess the desire and the physical capabilities to serve as infantrywomen is simply not practical. One must consider to what extraordinary expense and effort should the military go to try to satisfy the personal inclination of so few? Yes, it is entirely understandable that some females absolutely, and under the most selfless motives, want to serve in the infantry. But, although the word, “Marine,” indeed has an “I” in it, Marines are not about “I.” Marines are about the good of, and success of, the team—the Corps, not the individual.
This is obviously a foreign concept to the politicians who make these sorts of decisions. But they all seem to have one concept nailed: counting votes. And they obviously know female voters now outnumber male voters.
Surprisingly, the issue seems to be non-partisan, too. Once President Obama’s Secretary of Defense issued the directive, the Republican-dominated Congress opted not to exercise its policy oversight duty by calling hearings to assess the readiness impact of the decision. Thus far, the Republican Trump administration has not moved to reverse the decision. That team can count votes, too.
So the casual, questioning citizen may rightly ask, “Just why is all of this emphasis on physical ability so essential in this age of technology? That answer is as simple as it is straightforward. It has all to do with fighting and winning.
Remember that “locate, close with and destroy” mission of the infantry? It is not uncommon for a Marine Rifle/Army infantry company to have to respond to “the locate” portion of its mission by force-marching miles to follow-up an intelligence report of suspected enemy activity. Each Marine/soldier must do this carrying 70-90 pounds on his back; in addition, some of those Marines must carry even extra weight, such as the 30- or 40-pound part of a heavy machine gun or mortar, or the ammunition required for those weapons. These are not extraordinary occasions; these are everyday type requirements in combat.
And, oh, yes, they must be capable of doing this in 100+ degree heat or in sub-zero conditions of snow and ice. More importantly, once they have accomplished this, then the real test begins. They must then be capable of calling upon the inner strength necessary to engage and defeat the enemy they have discovered, perhaps face-to-face and hand-to-hand; or finding none, they may instead be diverted to yet another objective instead, and repeat the process yet again. That’s the nitty-gritty life of an infantryman. So where do the Marines find a sufficiently significant enough number of females both willing and able to do these sorts of things? Likely nowhere in the quantity and quality necessary to make it real.
Because the common fact is this: the Marine Corps currently and historically attracts some of the most mentally and physically capable young women in America to become Marine Officers. These women who qualify to become Marine Officers are given the most demanding training one can imagine. Yet, among the 30 most qualified of those–women capable of running marathons in less than three hours, sprinting nearly as fast as some college football running backs, and lifting weights that many males would fail at trying, not a single one of the 30 who has tried has passed the extraordinary testing requirements of the Marine Corps’ Infantry Officer Course. Essentially, all fail because they lack the upper body strength required to meet the minimum standards for passing. Not a single one of the exceptional young females has passed the rigorous (but not as rigorous as actual combat) course.
Yes, a few enlisted women have passed the Basic Infantry Course at Camp Lejeune, and a total of three have already been assigned to infantry units in the 1st Battalion, 8th Marines. Three females… That is quite an accomplishment for those exceptional young women. But therein lay the problem: They are the exception, and rare exception at that. At some point, some politician—actually many—must pose the question, “At what cost does the effort to pursue female infantrymen (and tankers, artillerymen, and combat engineers) constitute a combat readiness return on investment?
And that last point is relevant to the entire issue. Since the decision to integrate females into the Ground Combat Elements (Infantry, artillery, armor, combat engineer) the number of volunteers has been underwhelming–close to zero. So, aside from the theory of how nice it would be to provide this gender equality, when does the practical cost of doing so deserve attention? How much cost and disruption of perfectly fine organizations is acceptable in trying to identify an insignificant number of females, who could not possibly provide added value, is worth the effort? These are indeed the sorts of questions the America public should contemplate, discuss and then decide whether or not to pursue. Politicians seem unwilling to do so.