Hey Army: Why You So Far Behind the Marines When It Comes to Women?

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US Marines with Female Engagement Team during a patrol in Gamser, Helmand province southern Afghanistan on February 18, 2011.

The recent announcement by Marine Corps Commandant Gen. James Amos that he is exploring ways to better integrate female Marines into combat units came hot on the heels of a policy shift that will allow women to attend the Marine Corps Infantry Officers Course. As Mark Thompson explained, this is great news for women in the Corps, as it will allow them to gain the kind of experience that leads to promotions. It is indeed, a great crack in the brass ceiling.

As James Dao of the New York Times explained, the Marine Corps is the most male-dominant of the services, with only 13,800 women in a force of nearly 200,000 Marines. That’s 7%. The Marines are also the service that has tailored their entire culture towards infantry combat–”Every Marine is a rifleman” is one of the Corps’s basic principles. They are also the last service where all basic training is gender-segregated.

Despite these male-centric characteristics, the Marine Corps is also the service that’s proven, in some areas at least, the easiest to modify. In Afghanistan, Marine units developed female engagement teams to reach out to women in Afghan villages, and female Marines have been patrolling alongside their male counterparts for quite some time. That kind of inspired thinking has allowed the Marines to actually be a fairly nimble service, in everything from recruiting to combat to the Marine Corps Museum. (Here are another couple great videos just for fun.)

That flexibility extends to assignments too. My uncle served as a Marine JAG lawyer for 30 years. As Lieutenant Colonel, he was offered the chance to command the Military Police battalion that provides security for Marine Corps Base Quantico. In a three-decade career filled with challenging and crucial legal work, he said the opportunity to command those Marines was the absolute highlight.

It was also a chance he would likely never have been afforded in the Army. For all of its strengths (I take great pride in the Army as a veteran of the institution), it’s a giant, lumbering, compartmentalized branch of service. There’s no way that the MP branch would have allowed a JAG lawyer to take a coveted command slot in the Army. Cross branch assignments do happen: young Armor and Combat Engineers can lead Infantry platoons or companies, but for the most part, assignments remain in one’s designated specialty.

Right now, in the Army and the Marine Corps, women cannot be assigned to the Infantry, Armor, Artillery, Combat Engineer and Special Forces branches (or MOS’s in the Marines). The Marine Corps has taken the first steps by opening infantry training to women and testing them in the physical skills infantry combat demands. That’s exactly what should happen. I knew many women who ran faster than me and some who could match me pushup for pushup. I served with many woman in combat who demonstrated bravery and abilities exactly like my male soldiers.

There will be some who will say, “But many women don’t have the physical strength required to be in the infantry.” True, but many men don’t have that ability either, and they won’t be assigned to the infantry. The most effective fighting force is one that matches up individuals with jobs they’re good at. The Marines do this well. And while it’s not clear not whether that means women will someday command an infantry platoon, it will likely happen in the Marines before it happens in the Army.