Arguing Against Women in the Infantry Is Neither Bold nor Daring

Capt. Lauren Serrano is wrong about female Marines


Capt. Lauren Serrano’s essay “Why Women Do Not Belong in the U.S. Infantry” won the Marine Corps Association’s 2013 Major General Harold W. Chase writing contest.

I’m not sure why.

The association claims its essay contest recognizes “articles that challenge conventional wisdom by proposing change to a current Marine Corps directive, policy, custom or practice.”

“To qualify, entries must propose and argue for a new and better way of ‘doing business’ in the Marine Corps,” the association continues. “Authors must have strength in their convictions and be prepared for criticism from those who would defend the status quo.”

But Serrano’s article doesn’t challenge conventional wisdom. Instead it backs the old guard’s deeply entrenched position that women—like blacks and gays before them—have no place in the infantry.

You might be considering Serrano’s stance against women in the infantry “bold and daring,” since she’s a woman officer herself. But that’s not new. Female Capt. Katie Petronio made essentially the same argument back in 2013.

The idea that women don’t belong in the infantry is just the latest variation of an old notion. By the same thinking, women don’t belong in the voting booth, in public office, in the military, in aircraft, on spacecraft, on ships, in submarines.

Having run out of places to attempt to exclude women—because they seem to thrive wherever they get a chance—Serrano ignores the legacy of fearsome female fighters, from Joan of Arc to Lyudmila Pavlichenko.

She also ignores that many other NATO countries have already largely eliminated this form of discrimination in their ranks.

Soviet sniper Lyudmila Pavlichenko had nearly twice as many confirmed kills as the deadliest American sniper, Navy SEAL Chris Kyle.

Instead of arguing for a “new and better way of ‘doing business’ in the Marine Corps,” Serrano advocates for business as usual—the infantry as a boys’ club where, she writes, “men … raging with hormones and … easily distracted by women and sex,” can freely “fart, burp, tell raunchy jokes, walk around naked, swap sex stories, wrestle and simply be young men together.”

This environment, Serrano tells us, “promotes unit cohesion”—an “essential element in both garrison and combat environments.”

Wow. Thank you, Capt. Serrano! My master gunnery sergeant and I have been pondering what we could do to increase unit cohesion among our Marines, and your bold and daring article has opened my eyes.

I just need to transfer all my stellar female officers, staff non-commissioned officers, sergeants, corporals and junior Marines to other commands and give my remaining male Marines the go-ahead to engage in behavior that’s clearly outside the bounds of common courtesy, good order and discipline and the “proper and professional climate” that our commandant directed in his policy statement on equal opportunity.

Here on the East Coast, it would also clearly be a direct violation of the Second Marine Expeditionary Force policy on equal opportunity, which requires “every member of this command to promote an environment of dignity, respect, equality and fair treatment.”

I suppose while everyone else is enjoying their new-found unit cohesion, I could just go ahead and prepare myself for my court martial.

Is it possible that this was reason that Serrano won the contest? Was her bold and daring challenge to conventional wisdom actually to suggest that at least some units should be exempt from the standards that the commandant has said are “venerable and important?”

Perhaps. But if her real intent was in fact to beat the drum against equal rights for all Americans volunteering to serve their country, allow me to continue to close with—and destroy by logic and evidence—the rest of the flimsy foundation on which she rests her case.

A Marine Corps Female Engagement Team in Afghanistan. Defense Department photo

Because that’s one of the first problems with her paper. If you’re going to make an assertion like “women do not belong in the U.S. infantry,” you might want to provide some pretty solid evidence.

But Serrano cites just three sources, the first being “anecdotal evidence” provided by someone she identified only as Colonel Weinberg.

The officer in question is in fact Col. Anne Weinberg. And Serrano takes Weinberg’s statement—which the colonel originally made in an NPR interview—out of context. A reading of the full text shows that Weinberg is actually quite optimistic on the topic.

“I think we’re going to have a lot of female Marines who are able to meet those standards,” Weinberg says. “My generation, you know, is a different breed from the young women who are coming into the Marine Corps now. They are very tough, very strong, and they have that mindset of ‘I want to go and do these types of jobs.’”

Serrano conveniently brushes aside whether or not women can pass the requirements to get into the infantry. Spoiler alert—they can! Forty have already done so. But Serrano claims these women—much like those who lobbied in the past for the right to vote, equal pay, etc.—are just selfish troublemakers who “pose a threat to the infantry mission and readiness.”

If we believe Serrano, these women should shut up and be happy that, by being arbitrarily excluded from the infantry, they’ll avoid long terms of service resulting in career-ending medical conditions.

But wait! The average length of military enlisted service is only seven years—and it’s already a well-documented fact that male infantry also suffer from “blisters, plantar fasciitis, achilles tendonitis, shin splints, stress fractures … anterior compartment syndrome, chondromalacia patellae and low-back strain,” according to one NATO report.

Serrano seems to arbitrarily separate male Marines into two categories. Those in the infantry, who are 18 to 22 years old and brimming with testosterone—and all the rest of male Marines, who are, on the average …

Wait, also 18 to 22 years old and full of testosterone? Because unless I am very much mistaken, there is no part of our standard military entrance examinations where we measure testosterone levels and separate only the most masculine recruits into the infantry.

Yet somehow all the men who aren’t in the infantry still manage to get by with a fairly high level of esprit de corps, despite serving side-by-side with equally women—and apparently without becoming too distracted by their raging hormones or depressed from a lack of raunchy jokes and nude ramblings.

Serrano acknowledges that continued exclusion would be unfair, but claims that it’s justified because we live in an age where “U.S. hegemony is slowly decreasing and nations like China, Iran and North Korea are building their conventional forces.”

Female Israeli soldiers. Photo via Wikipedia

But sex equity in an infantry battalion is hardly going to be a deciding factor in any conflict with the rising powers that Serrano calls out as potential adversaries—ignoring the fact that we have just wrapped up joint naval exercises with China and are moving toward cooperating with Iran against the unconventional forces of the Islamic State, which already employs its own female battalions.

Never mind unadulterated testosterone. What we need to defeat a high-tech foe is some means of penetrating increasingly advanced networks of anti-ship and anti-aircraft weapons while also countering cyber offensives. Sex is beside the point.

Similarly, Serrano first acknowledges and then attempts to discredit the successful inclusion of women in the Kurdish Peshmerga and Israeli Defense Force, claiming that only nations—or non-state actors—on the brink of an existential fight for life can afford to include women.

Perhaps Kurdish and Israeli men don’t do as much burping, farting or naked walking as American infantry Marines do—or maybe their female compatriots do those things, as well. In any case, it works, according to Serrano—but only due to the looming Arab/Palestinian/Iraqi/Turkish/Islamic State threat.

Which makes sense, until you realize that Canada, Denmark, Finland, France, Germany, The Netherlands, Norway, Poland, Romania, Australia and Sweden have also all successfully integrated women into their infantry forces—and none of them currently face an existential military threat.

In fact, it’s worth reading an excerpt from a British government study on this topic which, in referencing the Danish experience, notes that “during deployments, there is no gender-related differentiation between roles and functions performed by men and women.”

“Women are treated and regarded as normal soldiers who are expected to perform as trained, and to participate in all operations on equal terms with their male counterparts,” the study continues.

Women have been employed in combat in Afghanistan whilst undertaking a variety of functions from administration to combat commander. This number has increased, possibly as a result of an overall change in the number of women serving in the armed forces increasing from 715 in January 2007 to 780 in January 2008, and then to 832 in March 2008.
As far as the Danish Personnel Policy Section of the Danish Defense Personal Organization are aware there have been no reported difficulties with employing women in combat roles. Although team cohesion and operational effectiveness have not been assessed, there have been no reports to indicate that this may be an issue.

The same study makes some interesting notes on how the sort of discriminatory message we find in Serrano’s essay—and in similar writings by male Marines—may be impacting current or future female Marines, and also shows how to fix it through positive, engaged leadership.

As far as the women are concerned, it makes little difference where the negative attitude towards them comes from, but it leaves them feeling angry and frustrated, their confidence is undermined, and a strong need to prove their abilities in combat is felt. Motivation to serve in combat positions is relatively high, and as many as 20 percent of prospective female soldiers have listed combat as one of their main preferences. …
Interviews with female combatants who participated in the Second Lebanon war, revealed that … if the commander was to express belief in their ability and considered them to be equal to their male counterparts, then they would eventually become ‘one of the gang.’
Surveys of females serving in combat roles in the IDF have therefore concluded that whilst the incorporation of female combatants has been a success, there is still much progress to be made with regard to allowing them to utilize their full potential.

Some people cited the same old predictions of “ruined unit cohesion,” in order to delay the integration of black and gay service members. Serrano leaves no tired, disproved argument unused.

Her assertion that women in the infantry will “disrupt the brotherhood” and “take the focus off the mission” are the same clichés the current commandant Gen. James Amos, made in reference to the repeal of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell … and that the 19th commandant Gen. Clifton Cates rolled out to oppose integrating blacks.

Time has proved both commandants wrong. It will prove Serrano wrong, as well. But the truth is, we don’t have time to waste, because prejudice has a long reach. Recent studies of Marine personnel still show that blacks are significantly underrepresented in the infantry and combat arms specialties, more than 50 years after those fields opened to them.

I’m not going to waste space dignifying the questions of whether allowing women to serve will require special provisions for “womanly needs”—whatever those may be—or whether we should care that some spouse back in garrison is worried that their significant other is serving beside a member of the opposite sex.

There are already thousands of female Marines serving with male Marines. The women’s needs—and this purported sexual temptation—have not degraded the Corps’ readiness.

Nor am I going to try to figure out what the “drama” is that Serrano repeatedly refers to. But judging from at least one infantryman’s popular perspective, I’m pretty sure there’s already plenty of it in the all-male infantry.

Instead, I’ll close by addressing her most egregious, unsubstantiated and untenable reason for keeping infantry closed to women. Do it for their own good—do it to prevent sexual assault and harassment.

Marine Corps photo

No. Absolutely not. The way to prevent sexual assault and harassment is not to attempt to blame the victims, to keep men and women separate and unequal. The solution it is to educate all service members, male and female alike, create a culture of respect and consent and absolutely crush under the full weight of military justice anyone proved guilty of breaking our shared ethos.

Serrano suggests that without women in their midst, infantry Marines are less likely to commit sexual assault. But she conveniently ignores the fact that sexual assault isn’t just a male-on-female problem — and that infantry already perpetrate those offenses against non-infantry Marines.

To give an idea of the scope of the problem, note that the Army’s 25th Infantry Division had 52 reported cases of sexual assault between July 2012 to Mar 2013, with 60 percent — 31 cases — being substantiated.

Clearly, sexual assaults can and do occur in infantry units whether or not female Marines or soldiers are serving within them.

Infantry Marine Cpl. Maximillian Uriarte says it best. “If you’re the kind of piece of shit that will sexually assault someone, it’s you that is in fact the problem.”

“I hate that sentence, ‘We can’t let women in the infantry, think of all the sexual assaults,’ is basically giving shitty men a free pass to rape women,” Uriarte continues. “One can only hope that if, in fact, sexual assault does occur in the infantry, that the men perpetrating it will be punished accordingly.”

The Marine Corps infantry is broken. It lacks the amphibious lift to get it into the fight, its members carry heavier loads than any infantry soldiers since the dawn of time and its primary weapons systems are decades old.

But beyond that, its continued exclusionary policy stands in stark contrast to the sentiments enshrined in our constitution and its amendments—that all Americans are created equal and should be treated accordingly.

We don’t deny the other broken aspects of our infantry battalions or shy away from working to fix them—let’s not deny that our sex bias needs fixing, too.

Maj. Edward Carpenter is a Marine aviation logistician, a Foreign Area Officer and the author of Steven Pressfield’s THE WARRIOR ETHOS: One Marine Officer’s Critique and Counterpoint. This article originally appeared on the Marine Corps Gazette’s blog.

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