Saturday, January 20, 2018
Opinion

Women in combat: Get used to it

Three women have just graduated from the Marine infantry training course. They're the first female candidates to pass it. The list of things women supposedly can't do is evaporating.

This is what happens when you stop excluding groups of people from tests and careers. Some of them want those careers. Some of them can pass those tests.

How many? You don't know. In sports parlance, that's why you play the game. You open the competition and let it surprise you. Not everything turns out equal. But sooner or later, you get a Jewish swimming prodigy, a gay diving champ, a black golf legend or a Chinese basketball star.

Until this year, no woman had attempted the infantry course. Girls weren't allowed. Under the military's Direct Ground Combat Definition and Assignment Rule, women were "excluded from assignment to units below the brigade level whose primary mission is to engage in direct combat on the ground." In January, then-Defense Secretary Leon Panetta rescinded that policy. The new policy seeks "the best-qualified and most capable people, regardless of gender."

Critics said the military would have to lower its standards to let women make the cut. But the Marines held firm. Their infantry course is two months long. You sleep in holes. You march 12 miles wearing 85 pounds of gear. You run 6 miles. You learn marksmanship, martial arts and urban combat.

In September, 114 women graduated from the Marine boot camp at Parris Island, S.C. At every stage, their numbers dwindled. Forty-two passed the physical requirements for training. Nineteen volunteered to do it. Fifteen followed through. Seven made it through the first month. Three graduated.

That's a lot lower than the male success rate. Why? Some of the difference is cultural, but much of it is physical. On average, women have less upper body strength than men do. Under heavy burdens, they're more prone to stress fractures. But these are averages. Many men can't hack it. Some women can.

The three women who graduated last week are just the beginning. Forty more have entered the pipeline. The next, more strenuous challenge is the Marine Infantry Officer Course. So far, 10 women have attempted it. Only one passed the hardest part, the Combat Endurance Test, and a stress fracture later forced her out. Once that barrier falls, the Army and Navy will have to open their own ground combat training to female candidates.

The old guard is falling back on other excuses. Rep. Duncan Hunter, R-Calif., a former Marine whose father chaired the House Armed Services Committee, thinks the paucity of women attempting the Marine officer course shows they don't want the job. He tells the Washington Post, "If you only have 10 women who are interested, then what is the uproar all about?" That's hogwash. One reason why so few women apply is that they're denied the incentive given to men: Even if the female candidates pass, the Marines won't let them earn an infantry specialty. The broader level of interest among women has surprised Marine officials. In a survey last year, 34 percent of female Marines said they'd volunteer to serve in a ground combat unit. At Parris Island, 51 percent said they'd consider infantry training.

What's keeping women out of the infantry altogether isn't the weakness of women. It's the weakness of men. In last year's survey, 17 percent of male Marines said they'd probably leave if women were allowed in combat jobs. Commanders are afraid to lose those men. The few, the proud, the insecure.

A century and a half ago, Theodore Parker, the great abolitionist, declared that the arc of the moral universe bends toward justice. Sometimes that arc leads to equality of outcome.

In the case of gender and physical strength, it doesn't. Women, on average, will always be weaker than men at climbing a rope or carrying a pack. But some women can make it to the top. Some can finish the course. If we substitute merit for prejudice, we can't be sure where the universe will take us. But it will certainly take us away from group-based exclusions.

© 2013 Slate

Comments
Editorial: Criminal charges should finally wake up FSU fraternities to hazing’s dangers

Editorial: Criminal charges should finally wake up FSU fraternities to hazing’s dangers

The death last fall of a 20-year-old Florida State University fraternity pledge revealed pervasive dangerous behavior within the school’s Greek system. Andrew Coffey, a Pi Kappa Phi pledge, died from alcohol poisoning after an off-campus party, and a...
Published: 01/19/18

Editorial: Confronting racial distrust in St. Petersburg, one conversation at a time

The St. Petersburg Police Department’s heavy presence in Midtown on Martin Luther King Jr. Day and the community animosity it stirred have raised a familiar, troubling question: Can St. Petersburg’s racial divisions ever be reconciled?That big ideal ...
Published: 01/19/18
William March: Tampa Bay Democrats line up for state legislative races

William March: Tampa Bay Democrats line up for state legislative races

A surge of Democrats seeking local legislative offices and hoping for a "blue wave" in the 2018 election continued last week, led by Bob Buesing filing to run again versus state Sen. Dana Young, R-Tampa.In addition:• Heather Kenyon Stahl of Tampa has...
Published: 01/19/18
Editorial: Saying ‘thank you’ helps Tampa police build needed trust

Editorial: Saying ‘thank you’ helps Tampa police build needed trust

The smiles, applause and at least one hug belied the grim impetus for a gathering last week at a neighborhood center in Tampa — the Seminole Heights killings.The Tampa Police Department held a ceremony to thank those who helped in the investigation t...
Published: 01/19/18

Editorial: State’s warning shot should get attention of Hillsborough schools

The state Board of Education hopefully sent the message this week with its warning shot about the slow pace of the turnaround at Hillsborough County’s low-performing schools.The board criticized the school system for failing to replace administrators...
Published: 01/18/18
Updated: 01/19/18
Editorial: More talk, answers needed on future of USF St. Petersburg

Editorial: More talk, answers needed on future of USF St. Petersburg

The Florida Legislature’s abrupt move to strip the University of South Florida St. Petersburg of its hard-earned separate accreditation and transform it back into a satellite of the major research university lacks detail and an appreciation for histo...
Published: 01/18/18

Another voice: Self-dealing by nursing home owners threatens patient care

The outsourcing of logistical support services, which became commonplace in the U.S. military in the 1990s and later was adopted by state prison systems, has now come to dominate the nursing home industry. And while nursing homes, unlike the military...
Published: 01/17/18
Editorial: Making illegal sewage discharges legal is wrong answer

Editorial: Making illegal sewage discharges legal is wrong answer

Three years into a crisis with its sewer system, St. Petersburg has a dandy new idea for dealing with the environmental fallout of dumping dirty water into the aquifer. Instead of committing to banning the outlawed practice, a consultant suggested th...
Published: 01/16/18
Updated: 01/17/18
Editorial: Tighten substitute teacher rules in Hillsborough

Editorial: Tighten substitute teacher rules in Hillsborough

A substitute teacher at a Plant City elementary school berated a class of fourth graders — and then the school principal. Another compared a student to a stripper. Others were caught napping, hitting children, making sexual remarks, giving students b...
Published: 01/16/18
Updated: 01/17/18
Editorial: Balancing the playing field for workers’ compensation

Editorial: Balancing the playing field for workers’ compensation

For the longest time, injured workers in Florida were basically at the mercy of the whims of employers to treat them fairly. A 2003 law aimed at reducing the cost of workers’ compensation coverage for businesses had the desired impact, but it also di...
Published: 01/16/18