Pressure Grows for Marines to Lower Standards for Women

Marines-Female General

When it was reported at the beginning of October that three female Marine officers had passed the Combat Endurance Test (CET), the initial entry screener for the Corp’s challenging Infantry Officer Course, the news was widely reported. You can read about it here, here, here, here, here, and here.

The story was indeed news. Up to that point, of the 24 women who had attempted the CET, only one had passed, and she had reportedly later been dropped from the overall course due to an injury. Struggling to get enough female officers into the course to produce a statistically significant result for its study of introducing women into combat roles, the Corps had directed that more seasoned female officers could attempt the course. Now three had made it over the first hurdle.

When all three were cut from the course last week for not meeting physical standards in subsequent training events, the news was not as widely reported. I have only found it here in the Christian Science Monitor, which, to its credit, has closely covered this issue from start:

When they begin the 13-week IOC, officers are told that if they “fall out” of more than one “tactical movement” during their time in training, they will be asked to leave the school.

“That has always been IOC policy,” Major Flynn says.“The key part is not just to conduct a movement. You need to lead that moment, and you can’t do that if you’re falling out.”

The standard pace for “tactical movements” – otherwise known as hikes – at the IOC is about three miles per hour, he says.

During the first march in which the three female – as well as three male – officers were issued a warning, the Marines were given about two hours and 40 minutes to move 7-1/2 miles. At the time, they were assigned to carry roughly 104 pounds each.

If at any point one of the students falls 75 or 100 meters behind the unit, an instructor “will start walking with that Marine,” Flynn says. “We start sticking on them.”

The instructors ask: “Hey, where’s your unit right now? OK, you need to get up with them, because you’re not leading anyone from back here.”

From that point, the officers have about five minutes to start catching up. If they don’t, they are put in a truck. 

Officers at the IOC say it’s a safety issue. If the unit gets strung out too far, it’s dangerous not to know where troops are.

The Marines are then told that if they fall behind to a similar degree again, they are out of the course.

“The class adviser pulls them aside and says, ‘That’s your one. You don’t get any more. Understand?’ ” Flynn says. “They’ve been counseled that they have failed a hike, and we don’t tolerate more than one failure of a tactical movement.”

That’s what happened last week, this time during a nine-mile march. The students had three hours to complete it, carrying 124-pound packs. 

When three men and three women fell behind for a second time, Flynn had to break the news that they were out.

This story highlights what IOC graduates already knew: that despite the hype surrounding the initial Combat Endurance Test in the press, that event is by no means the most difficult evolution at the three-month course. It may not even crack the top three. Passing it is a meaningful accomplishment, but only insofar as it certifies that the officer has demonstrated sufficient mental and physical toughness to attempt the rest of the course.

Perhaps there is less enthusiasm in covering this most recent turn of events because, unlike the three officers passing the CET, their subsequent departure from the course is part of a repeating and, as yet, unbroken pattern: By my count, 27 female officers have attempted the course, and zero have made it to graduation—with 23 not making it past the CET on the first day. (Roughly a quarter of male lieutenants also do not graduate.)

The law of averages being what it is, if the Marine Corps continues on this course long enough, a female officer will eventually graduate from the course. This Marine will have every right to be extremely proud of herself and of her accomplishment.

But advocates outside the Marine Corps are getting impatient, and pressure is beginning to grow on the Marines to lower their standards.

The change in tone is well summarized in the headline the editors at the Christian Science Monitor chose to give their story: “Three pioneering women in Marine infantry course are asked to leave. Why?” The first half of the story is a by-the-book recounting of the news, after which advocates of getting women into the infantry by any means necessary are given a substantial amount of space to air some good, old-fashioned special pleading:

Retired Army Col. Ellen Haring, an advocate for women in combat, says that although the entire formation was supposed to complete the hike in three hours, it took most of the group closer to four hours.

“Despite the fact that none of them could keep the pace that was set that day, they were considered failures. But the whole unit failed to meet those parameters, not just those six people,” she says. “Who maintains the rate of the march?”

The Marines haven’t always been clear about the parameters for the course, says Greg Jacob, policy director for the Service Women’s Action Network.

At the enlisted training school, Mr. Jacobs, who served as a Marine, recalls that students were told they could walk no faster than three miles an hour, and every hour they had to take a 10-minute break.

In the IOC, “it’s up to the person in front to set the speed of the hike,” he says. “There doesn’t seem to be a standard around these movements.”

As a result, he adds, “it seems like the goal posts just keep moving.”

Colonel Haring argues that this is particularly tough for the women who are endeavoring to become infantry officers. “I’m sure all of these women did this course because they thought they could complete it,” she says.

Considering the objections presented by Haring and Jacob, all that can be said is that the Marines who were cut from the course, especially the women, must be mortified. With friends like these, who repeatedly imply that female officers deserve special treatment in order for them to pass the course, who needs critics?

Much of the pressure for integrating women into combat arms comes from DC-based pressure groups like the radical feminist Service Women’s Action Network and from activists like Haring. Grassroots support for such a move is more limited.

Among female Marine officers, including those who support the introduction of women into combat arms, and those who are personally ambitious to try the infantry for themselves, I have never heard anyone assert that they would like standards lowered for them, so that they can pass the course. Why would they? It would entirely undercut the value of their achievement, and diminish the overall fighting capacity of the Marine Corps. These officers are Marines first and individuals second. They want to succeed on fair terms.

But the objections cited in the Monitor article clearly indicate that outside activists do not share this concern. Under the paper-thin guise of asking for fair treatment, they actually engage in special pleading. Ellen Haring is a retired Army officer who received a fair amount of attention over the summer for arguing that the CET ought to be scrapped as an entry barrier for IOC. Having made an extensive argument for lowering and changing the standards for IOC so that women can more easily pass it, she displayed a remarkable level of rhetorical shamelessness by concluding her article with, “Women Marines don’t want standards to be lowered or changed.  They just want a fighting chance to become Marine infantry officers.”

Haring and the spokesman for SWAN, Jacobs, bounce back and forth in their objections to the Monitor between implying that the female officers deserve special treatment to implying that the Marine Corps, presumably from the instructors at the school all the way up to the Commandant, are engaged in thumbing the scales. Their complaints about the procedures of the school indicate that they are perfectly happy to alter and lower the quality of the training to achieve their goal.

There are those whose objections to introducing women into combat arms units—and especially to mixing very young enlisted men and women in such units—extend beyond physical to disciplinary and moral concerns. But setting aside those arguments for the moment, it should be clear that advocates outside of the Corps are engaged in a pressure campaign to lower infantry standards.

Despite the debate on this issue, the maintenance of high standards should be something every Marine should support, as should their friends in the Department of Defense’s leadership and in Congress, not to mention the public. Those Marines who support integrating women in the infantry should consider just what that accomplishment will mean if advocates like Haring and SWAN have their way.