In April the Army will open its famous Ranger School to women, and some are concerned that the Army is tilting the evaluation to ensure that female soldiers will graduate the course.
Sixty female soldiers will attempt the school as part of the Department of Defense’s effort to open ground combat arms units to members of both sexes. This April’s mixed Ranger School class is a "pilot program," and the results will be used to determine whether the Army will open the school on a regular basis in the future. Yesterday, the Army Times reported that five women met the standards at a recent course designed to prepare soldiers for the training at Ranger School, of 26 women who attended the prep course.
Army leaders have stressed repeatedly that female students in the course will be held to the same standards as the males: "The Maneuver Center has had "no pressure to change the standards," said Major General Scott Miller, an officer with over-all responsibility for the course, last year. In January, General Ray Odierno, the Army’s chief of staff, was reported by the Army Times to be reinforcing this position, telling soldiers in an online town hall meeting:
"We're just going to let the statistics speak for themselves as we go through this. The main thing I'm focused on is the standards remain the same…We don't know if it's five people graduate, or 100 people graduate, or no one graduates," he said. "This is just a pilot to gain information for us to understand where we are, and then we'll take that data and make a determination on how we want to move forward."
Of course the question of opening the course at all is controversial to those who feel that such a policy is part of an overall pattern of social engineering in today’s military. But some who support allowing women to try the course provided that physical standards are maintained—and even some female soldiers who want to attempt the course themselves—are concerned by the fact that the Army has appointed a cadre of female "observer/advisers" to help supervise training. This group of 31 soldiers—said by the Army to be made up of 11 female officers and 20 female NCOs—are described by the Army as a "key" element of the plan for the pilot course.
The officer responsible for Ranger School, Colonel David Fivecoat, explained the role of the observer/advisers to the Army Times this way:
The observer/advisers will work alongside the all-male Ranger instructor cadre. They will serve as extra eyes and ears and as a sounding board for the RIs, but they will not evaluate or grade Ranger School students, Fivecoat said. That will still be done by the RIs.
"We’re looking for some high quality women officers and [noncommissioned officers]," he said. Their presence will ease the transition, something Fivecoat called "a major change for the organization."
"We thought it would be helpful to bring women into the course prior to the arrival of the first women students" to ease "isolation" issues or concerns among female students, Fivecoat said, and give them "an opportunity to succeed."
Interpreted generously, the Army’s thinking seems to be that female students will need female mentorship to have a chance of passing the course. After all, males attempting the course have plenty of male role models on the staff to admire. But it is not clear why the Army believes that female students would consider the mentorship of these female "observer/advisers" essential, or even useful, considering that the prospective mentors are not themselves graduates of the course.
Perhaps the Army feels that, without the presence of women, the instructors at Ranger School will conspire to keep women from graduating. Whether this is believed by the Army’s leaders to be the case or not, the appearance of such a belief is inescapable. The presence of these observer/advisers comes off as remarkably insulting to the regular staff of the school. There seems to be an implicit rebuke to their integrity: that without the observation and advice of a relatively senior group of female pseudo-staff members, the male instructors would not offer fair and responsible training to their female students.
The least generous interpretation of the policy is, of course, that the observer/advisers are there to pressure the regular staff into being more lenient to the female students. It must be said that there is no evidence that such an outcome is anyone’s intent. But, again, appearances matter, and no one has to state such a thing explicitly. One can quite easily imagine that the all-male regular staff—many of whom will be junior in rank to those on the observer/adviser team—will have plenty of occasions to think twice about being quite as strict or demanding or harsh to the female students as they might be to the males. Everyone has a family and a career to think about, after all.
Whether these observer/advisers are responsible mentors or de facto political officers, the outcome of this pilot program will be interesting to watch. The closest useful comparison will be to the Marine Corps’ efforts to integrate women at its Infantry Officer Course (IOC) in Quantico, Virginia—an experiment that has so far had a zero-percent success rate. Ranger School’s traditional graduate rate (an unforgiving 50%) is actually lower than the typical rate for all students at IOC and so it might seem reasonable to expect that the success rate for women will be similar at both schools.
This is a bit of an apples-to-oranges comparison, as IOC generally accepts only lieutenants in peak physical and mental condition, while Ranger School casts a wider net. Additionally, the sample size for the experiment at IOC has been very small, with only 29 attempts having been made by female officers. Nonetheless, both schools are respected within their own communities for being challenging evaluations, and both have the majority of their attrition during front-end, predominantly physical evaluations. Will women do better at Ranger School than they have at IOC? And if so, will the presence of the female observer-advisers forever impose an asterisk on their achievement?