I have three vivid memories from Infantry Officer Course. The first was boxing a former Naval Academy football player everyone called Monkey Brains, who years later set up my first mortgage. The second was the burning — no, melting — sensation after being pepper-sprayed in the face and then doing hand-to-hand combat drills.
The third memory was a persistent feeling of exhaustion, both physical and mental. Numbness in my shoulders from over 100 pounds of on my back, body armor, weapons and ammo; rickety knees from climbing up steep, muddy hills; sweat and rain dripping from my forehead into your eyes; dozing off in the prone, while taking a knee or standing up. We humped at night, all night, off the main trails and roads, lest we get caught by the scores of corporals and sergeants patrolling the Quantico Highlands. Hunger gripped my stomach like a vice.
If you were role-playing one of the key leaders — platoon commander, platoon sergeant, one of the squad leaders — you faced a constant battle to keep razor-sharp focus through your own fatigue, pushing and pulling the others toward the next objective, because there was always a “next objective,” keeping everyone on task — eyes up, security out, listening, one mushy boot after the next.
This place got us ready for a decade of war. There were over 50 of us in Class 6-02, all of us men. IOC was informally called “Man School” for good reason — you had to have balls to finish.
Think women have balls, too?
The Assistant Commandant of the Marine Corps announced in April that IOC would be opened to women for the first time, reigniting the debate over women serving in direct ground combat roles — specifically in combat arms military occupational specialties (MOS) such as the infantry. The debate intensified this month after a female Marine captain argued in a Marine Corps Gazette article that most women can’t handle the extended physical rigors of combat, and after a New York Times feature about what will likely be the final male-only training platoon to go through IOC.
This is my effort to remove emotion and politics from this well-worn argument. I have no problem serving alongside women, the best of whom have proven time and again that they possess the courage, leadership, mental acuity and physical abilities that meet or exceed those of most men. They will excel at IOC and they would likely succeed when they arrive in the Operating Forces to lead a platoon of Marines, grunts or otherwise. The past decade of counterinsurgency and stability operations around the world has also showcased the value of having women serve with front-line Marines, especially when we operate in regions in which the cultural sensivities of men engaging indigenous women for information becomes a big issue. That’s why Female Engagement Teams were formed, members of which are known as Lionesses.
The Gazette article written by Capt Katie Petronio, a combat engineer with deployments to Iraq and Afghanistan, argues that women in general have physical limitations that preclude optimal performance in combat. Naturally, she is being pilloried for her position, which she formed from her experiences in combat alongside her male infantry and engineer counterparts. Here, she recounts the state of her body by the fifth month of her last trip to the Sandbox:
By the fifth month into the deployment, I had muscle atrophy in my thighs that was causing me to constantly trip and my legs to buckle with the slightest grade change. My agility during firefights and mobility on and off vehicles and perimeter walls was seriously hindering my response time and overall capability. It was evident that stress and muscular deterioration was affecting everyone regardless of gender; however, the rate of my deterioration was noticeably faster than that of male Marines and further compounded by gender-specific medical conditions.
Can her case be representative of the experiences of other women? Probably, but that hasn’t stopped some members of Congress from trying to repeal the ground combat exclusion policy for female service members.
I still think we will be able to find some stout, tough-as-nails women who can excel in these tough environments; that’s not the issue preventing full integration into the combat arms. There are legitimate support and infrastructure issues that would need to be addressed — for instance, mixed berthing or separate in an effort to prevent fraternization? That’s tough in a tiny patrol base. OBGYN treatment in the field or back at the big base? If in the field, will corpsmen require rudimentary OBGYN training, in addition to learning to how to deal with gunshot wounds and severed limbs?
Most significantly, I think the issue is “us” — you, me, Western society’s unwillingness to accept the worst consequences of war on the “fairer” gender. Read about the Israeli Defense Force’s combat exclusion policy here. This is not misogyny; it’s about our society’s perceptions and its ingrained instincts to protect.
Ever wonder what happens to a man when he gets captured?
Which horror is more acceptable? It’s not exactly fun banter for polite company. The issue is as much about the revulsion it triggers in us, as it is about the torture to which they are subjected.
Back at Camp Barrett in Quantico, the first women officers seeking to attend IOC won’t arrive until at least September. I think some of them will finish Man School — not because IOC was made it easier (we hold the line at one standard, right?), but because these women have the balls to perform in combat.
The question is, do we have the balls to watch them do it?