The Marine Corps just spent $36 million to learn that an average-sized woman is not as big and strong as an average-sized man. I’m as shocked as you are. This misuse of your money was part of a nine-month experiment by the Marines to argue against allowing female Marines to serve in the combat infantry. Instead of proving their point, however, all they showed is why the only standard for combat positions should be whether someone can do the job.
The Marines could have saved $36 million (enough to buy six Black Hawk helicopters for the Army) by looking at the experiences of male and female soldiers in Afghanistan and Iraq, where camo is the new black. Anyone who has read “Ashley’s War” or who remembers what happened to Private First Class Jessica Lynch knows that American women have served in combat for years now, albeit unofficially.
There’s a Jan. 1, 2016, deadline to open up all jobs in the Armed Forces to women. Defense Secretary Ashton Carter supports integrating women into combat units, and Navy Secretary Ray Mabus, who oversees the Marine Corps, has not shown a lot of patience for lollygaggers on this issue.
“That’s still my call, and I’ve been very public,” Mabus said in response to the Marines’ stufy. “I do not see a reason for an exemption.”
On Oct. 1, the Marines will let Mabus know whether they recommend opening up their combat positions to women, but their bias was evident not just in referring to women as “females” in the report but also in how they constructed their experiment.
If you wanted to truly measure whether mixed-gender combat units could perform as well as all-male units, you would set one standard for inclusion, right? It’s the same with roller coasters; regardless of your gender, you must be this tall to go on this ride. Set a standard, and anyone who meets it is eligible to serve regardless of arbitrary factors such as gender.
If you wanted to ensure a preordained result, though, you would pick female Marines straight out of infantry schools and noncombat jobs and put them up against men who had served in combat before. Also, you’d make sure the women were smaller. In the Marines’ study, the female Marines weighed an average of 26 pounds less than their male counterparts and were measurably less strong.
Guess what happens when you put stronger, better-trained men against smaller, less-experienced women? The men shot more accurately and were able to carry things better. Also, they got injured less often and had less body fat. I’m serious. The Marines spent $36 million to tell some female Marines that those fatigues do in fact make them look fat.
The study did find that mixed-gender units performed better at firing the 50-caliber machine gun in both traditional and provisional rifleman units. In admirable understatement, the Associated Press noted, “Researchers did not know why gender-mixed teams did better on these skills.” You don’t need $36 million to learn why: When given tasks that minimized the arbitrary variables of training and strength that were baked into the study, Marines were able to draw on the talents of dedicated women and improved. A bigger talent pool equals a more talented Corps.
You don’t want women who are weaker and smaller than men? Fine, only let in the biggest, strongest women. You want women who can shoot as accurately as men? Here’s an idea: Only let in the best shots. Set the right standard, and only a few women will meet it, but some -- the few, the proud -- will.
True, the stuff about women was only a tiny piece of an important study to make our Marines safer and more effective, but you wouldn’t know that from the way how the Marines leaked the results about mixed-gender units. That, not research into the weight of backpacks, made headlines, and it was more than a waste of your money.
By setting women up to fail, the Marines didn’t prove that women can’t serve in the Marine infantry. They proved that the Marine Corps is having a hard time grasping the obvious: It’s time to let women into all combat positions, no exceptions.
Jason Stanford is a regular contributor to the Austin American-Statesman, a Democratic consultant and a Truman National Security Project partner. You can email him at firstname.lastname@example.org and follow him on Twitter @JasStanford