If you were surprised by the fact that two women are graduating from the Army’s Ranger School this week, you haven’t been paying attention. At the end of May, after all 19 women who began the course had washed out, the Army's top general announced that the trial program had been a "success," and that further iterations of the course would likely be opened to female students. At the same time, it was announced that three of the women who had failed, including the two who have now made it to graduation, had been offered the opportunity to begin the course over again. This is not an unprecedented opportunity for stellar soldiers who have underperformed on one or two events, but it is not a widely available opportunity, either.
"Stellar soldiers" does seem to be a good description for the two graduates. Shaye Haver, 25, is a captain, a graduate of West Point, and flies Apache helicopters for her day job. Kristen Griest, 26, is a first lieutenant in the Military Police Corps, and also a graduate of West Point, where she ran competitively. These officers are not average soldiers. Both have been approvingly described as "beasts" by those familiar with their performance at the school, and they deserve congratulations and credit.
This has been a good week for those advocating for the inclusion of women in combat jobs—not only did Haver and Griest graduate Ranger School, but the chief of naval operations, Admiral Jonathan Greenert, announced that SEAL training is likely to be opened to women in the near future. It has been obvious for some time that the Army, Navy, and Air Force were going to open ground combat jobs to women, and the process is now picking up speed.
That leaves the Marine Corps. Having run a multi-year trial examining women’s integration in its ground combat units and schools, the Marine Corps’ leadership has not publicly revealed its hand, though the conventional wisdom is that it may apply to keep its infantry exclusively male. If so, it’s going to face a brutal fight with the activist civilian leadership at the Defense Department, which now enjoys the political cover of the SEALs, no less, planning to open their ranks—not to mention the aid of friendly journalists who are aggressively promoting integration.
If the Marines are planning to ask for an exemption, the coverage of the SEAL announcement must be aggravating. What the SEALs know, but which doesn’t get discussed in the press, is that there is very low chance that a woman will ever graduate from the SEAL’s training course, BUD/S, barring a significant lowering of standards for that school. Put simply, Ranger School just isn’t BUD/S, and no one credible argues that the physical demands of the two schools are similar. (The Army’s rough equivalent to BUD/S would be the Special Forces Q Course, an entirely distinct affair from Ranger School.)
Consider that the most generous way of running the numbers is to say that the graduation rate for women at Ranger School stands at 10.5 percent, while the graduation rate for men there hovers around 50 percent. And this calculation ignores the extraordinary effort it took for the Army to get to this result. Last year, the Army said it wanted 70 to 80 women to be in Ranger School’s trial class. All interested female soldiers had to attend a prep course, something recommended but not required for male soldiers. In the end, only 19 women could pass a preparatory course and be available to begin the school. All 19 failed the school. Three were then allowed to start over, and now two have graduated.
So what do we think the graduation rate for women at BUD/S will be?
The SEAL’s opening of their ranks amounts, in essence, to a politically advantageous gesture of good faith, unlikely to ever effect the SEAL community in practice—or if it does, only with great infrequency. The Marines, on the other hand, run a light infantry organization. It is elite, but it is entirely different in character from the special operations community.
Based on the Corps experiments over the last few years—some women were able to graduate from the enlisted School of Infantry at a significantly lower rate than men, but no women have been able to graduate from Infantry Officers Course—the consequence of opening the Marine infantry to women would be that a small number of 18- and 19-year-old enlisted women would make it into each infantry battalion, where they would be vastly outnumbered by male infantrymen of the same age. There would be effectively no female infantry officers. Because rates of injury in combat training are typically much higher for women than for men, attrition would result in proportionately fewer female non-commissioned officers in the infantry.
If you don’t think that mixing in handfuls of young women into infantry battalions, with effectively no female officers and, in the long run, very few female non-commissioned officers, poses serious problems—well, fine. Feel free to move on so that the adults can continue the conversation. Now there is, of course, an obvious solution to the lack of a critical mass of females who meet the standards: lower those standards, especially for officers. But this will have all sorts of negative effects that the Marine Corps would like to avoid, like getting Marines killed on the battlefield. The formation of all female units, as in Israel, is an interesting possibility—but where are the officers going to come from, if you don’t lower the current standards?
These are legitimate concerns. No one, to my knowledge, has provided a solution for them. They apply to the Army as well, though, to be frank, the Army’s physical standards for the infantry are lower than in the Marines, and so the problem doesn’t manifest in exactly the same way.
The political pressure that is going to be brought to bear on the Marine Corps’ leadership will be—likely, already is—intense. The DOD will not be happy if the Marines make an honest case for themselves and ask for an exemption. But Marine officers are taught to do the right thing, even under intense pressure, and even when everybody else disapproves.
What now, General?