Opinion piece on women in the infantry: If the enemy doesn’t care, why do we?

Here is the complete text of an opinion piece I wrote concerning the integration of women into the infantry.  An abridged version is published on the Task and Purpose website.  I usually keep this blog restricted to veteran and military transition issues, but every once in a while I decide to post other articles I have written.

Anyhow, here it is:

If the enemy doesn’t care, why do we?

By Mike Grice


                The Marine Corps is at the center of the latest military related social experiment that seeks to answer the question:  Can women serve in the infantry?  As a combat veteran of two wars I would like to add my two cents to the argument because I believe that we, the Marine Corps, are actually asking the wrong question: instead of asking what gender is required to serve in the infantry we should be looking at the ability of an individual to lead Marines and accomplish whatever mission that an infantry Marine may be assigned.  The question should focus on whether or not a Marine can serve in the infantry based on that Marine’s ability to meet or exceed the standards required to do the job – period.

During my 27 year career as a Marine I served as an enlisted nonrate, NCO, and Staff NCO in an artillery battery before earning my commission and serving as an artillery officer on active duty for another twenty-odd years.  During that time I had the unusual opportunity to serve with women in garrison and in combat units in peacetime and in active combat during two wars.  My experience was not limited to the Marine Corps, but as a member of 1st Air Naval Gunfire Liaison Company I had the good fortune to serve with the United States Army, the British Army, and over a dozen other Joint, Allied, and Coalition partners – many of which had women in roles that are restricted to men in the US Armed Forces.

And they performed those roles in combat.

I’ll get to the combat part in a minute, but first let’s go back to peacetime and the United States Marine Corps Reserve in the 1980’s.

I enlisted into the Marine Corps Reserve in 1984, and a reservist, I served in Battery P, 5th Battalion, 14th Marines.  I reported in to the unit as a newly minted PFC, and the first person I met was an active duty female sergeant who was serving as the I&I admin chief.  Being young and inexperienced (and petrified of NCOs), I didn’t think anything about it.  What I didn’t realize at the time, however, was that the only reason she was permitted to serve in an artillery battery was because she was on the I&I staff; she could not serve in the actual battery.  That privilege was reserved only for men.

Or was it?

As we went to the field for my first drill weekend I saw several female Marines in the battery area.  Again, I didn’t think anything about it because I was just a boot nonrate whose sole goal in life was to compute firing data in the Fire Direction Center (FDC) and not to annoy anyone above the rank of PFC.  As we fired throughout the day I observed a woman driving an ammunition truck as it trundled behind the gunline dropping off projectiles, fuzes, propellant canisters, and primers to the gun sections.  After a full day of shooting, moving, and communicating, we lightproofed our section areas and transitioned to night operations.  The FDC, gunline, and XO pit maintained a minimal crew throughout the night in order to maintain a firing capability, and as the boot Fire Controlman I scored the midwatch.  Lucky me.

My duties consisted of staying awake, monitoring the radios (PRC-77’s and AN/GRA 39’s), and wearing a voice powered H-200 headset (the “hooks”) that linked the FDC, XO Pit, and Gunline over WD-1 communications wire.  In order to stay alert those of us lucky enough to be awake while the rest of the battery slept would BS with each other over the hooks.  Interestingly, one of the voices on the voice loop was female – and not the same female who was driving the ammo truck earlier in the day.  She was just another Marine taking her turn on the hooks just like the rest of us on the voice loop.

The female was a sergeant whose MOS was administration.  Like the woman that I saw driving the ammunition truck earlier, she was in an artillery battery but was not technically part of the unit; instead they were both actually assigned to the battalion headquarters, which was located in California while my unit was in Colorado.  They were “site-line distributed” to our unit – in order to fill line numbers on the headquarters T/O members of the battalion staff sections were often located with the firing batteries, where they drilled every month and then reported for duty at the battalion level during our annual training in the summer.  They weren’t the only ones, either.  We had a smattering of male Marines across the battery that were also technically part of the battalion but drilled with the battery.

In retrospect, the fact that women were actively training and serving in an artillery battery – a combat unit – was remarkable.  What was more remarkable was that nobody cared that they were women.  We only cared that they were Marines capable of doing what they were supposed to do.  In the reserve establishment, the lines between MOSs becomes blurred; truck drivers man howitzers, communicators drive trucks, and radar operators man firing charts.  The metric of respect was not only based on rank and position, but also on a Marine’s ability to get things done.  These two women, both NCOs, demonstrated daily that there was nothing they were unwilling to do, and they were equally respected with male Marines for it.  In fact, their gender was irrelevant.  Nobody cared that they were women; all we cared about was shooting, moving, and communicating.  The sex of the drivers and the Marines on the hooks was inconsequential in terms of mission accomplishment.

Even more telling was that there was never an instance of the perceived impropriety that paralyzes the Department of Defense today.  These women dished it out and took it like every other Marine.   They took the initiative to pitch in wherever and whenever they could, and in doing so met and exceeded the standards expected of any Marine in the battery.  In nearly eight years with the unit, I never once saw a female Marine treated differently than the men, and in fact saw that these women were part of the team.  Our team.  There was no divisive line between the sexes.  We were all Marines.

Fast forward a decade to Fort Sill, Oklahoma.  I was a captain serving as a Gunnery Instructor in the Army Field Artillery School, and for the first time in over a decade a female lieutenant had been assigned the 13A (Field Artillery Officer) MOS in the army.  Second Lieutenant Shannon had received her commission through the Reserve Officer Training Corps, and upon graduation from the Field Artillery Officer Basic Course and although she would be assigned to the Field Artillery School’s artillery training brigade instead of going to the operating forces she was expected to master the craft of artillery like every other officer – and she was one of my students.

On the first day of the course I pulled her aside and we had a conversation.  I told her that she was in a unique position and that the only thing that mattered to me (and the school) was whether or not she could pass the course.  She would receive no special treatment because of her gender.  I also told her that as an officer in the United States Army she could expect to be treated the same as every other lieutenant, and as her instructor I was very keen to know if she was treated differently or disrespectfully by other lieutenants, instructors, or enlisted personnel.  I offered her a truly open door to come to me should she ever encounter bias or prejudice during the five month course.

I greatly respected her dedication to the army and to learning how to become a competent artillery officer.  Although I checked in with her periodically throughout the course, she never once indicated that she had any problems.  I also monitored the other students, instructors, and staff to see if there were any issues. Other than curiosity, there were none.  Five months later, she met every standard expected of an artillery officer and graduated.  On graduation day she headed off to the training brigade and reported for duty.  Interestingly, the army didn’t fall apart.  It was a non-issue.[1]

Fast forward another decade to a completely different setting: Ar Ramadi, Iraq.  I commanded a Brigade Platoon of ANGLICO Marines and Sailors that was assigned to the Army National Guard brigade responsible for Area of Operations Topeka: a chunk of hotly contested battlespace the height of the insurgency.  The brigade, with representative subordinate units from thirty different states, was similar in many regards to the reserve artillery battery in which I had served some twenty years prior; ability and talent were as important as rank and position when it came to earning respect.  Gender didn’t much matter.

That tour (and the one that immediately followed as the platoon and I redeployed back to Ramadi) was extremely kinetic.  The brigade was in active combat every single day of the deployment, and as we collectively learned how to perform counterinsurgent operations the official barriers that kept women from combat roles were often cast aside.  Women manned machine gun turrets in tactical vehicles and somehow managed to sling a lot of lead accurately at insurgents who were intent on plugging their HMMWVs and 5-tons with an RPG.  They drove HETTs down route Michigan and rode the lightning when their vehicles struck IEDs.  They dismounted like every other soldier and engaged the enemy to secure their disabled vehicles, some being grievously wounded in the process.

Women also shouldered a pack and carried a rifle during combat operations.  Although their roles were not technically “combat” roles (being Military Working Dog handlers, Female Engagement Team members, Civil Affairs Group Marines and Soldiers, and a variety of other roles) they joined their male brethren as they left the relative safety of the FOB for combat missions.  They earned Combat Action Ribbons and Combat Action Badges for fighting beside their male counterparts, and indeed some were decorated for valor for their performance in the fight.

The gear they carried was no different from anyone else.  Flak jacket, SAPI plates, helmet, rifle, magazines, grenades, radios, water, food, and the myriad other bits and pieces of a combat ensemble that were not inflated with helium nor made of a special lighter material for women.  They either carried a combat load or they didn’t leave the wire.  I saw males and females go down with heat injuries while other men and women sucked it up and continued the mission.  In active combat the ability to fight is what matters – not gender, race, sexual orientation, or any other societal segregator.  Either you bring it or you don’t.  And I served with women who brought it.

Fast forward yet again, this time another five years to Afghanistan.  As the CO of 1st ANGLICO I served with joint, allied, and coalition forces – including no small number of women.  During Operation MOSHTAREK American Lionesses, CAG Marines and other enablers who crossed the line of departure and stepped into the fight along with female British Army Forward Observation Officers (FOOs) who called for fire and integrated aviation fires cheek by jowl with their male counterparts.  I the will never forget a young US Marine Corporal who was geared up and headed for the fight – even though she was barely over 5 feet in height and the muzzle of her rifle was an inch off the ground when slung, she shouldered her pack and went to the sound of the guns.

The point of this article is best articulated by Brigadier General George Smith, who so eloquently stated during a recent 60 Minutes interview that “We could make the bars lower….but that’s really not the issue. The issue is the realities of combat aren’t going to change based on gender. The enemy doesn’t care whether you’re a male or female.”

If the enemy doesn’t care, we shouldn’t either.  A Marine can either make it over the bar or not; passing the rigors and meeting the standards of IOC (or any other part of the military profession) should be based solely on the individual’s capabilities.  In a firefight the gender of a person carrying a rifle, firing a machine gun, or issuing orders over the radio is utterly irrelevant if that person can physically, mentally, and emotionally accomplish the mission.  Having been in my fair share of gunfights I can say without reservation that I could care less who was behind the weapon that engaged the enemy alongside me; anybody who says that they would look disdainfully or mistrustfully at a qualified and competent warrior on their left or right simply because of their gender (or race, or sexual orientation) when the bullets start flying is either ignorant, lying, or has never had to face the muzzle end of an angry AK.

The question is not whether or not women should be in the infantry; the question is whether a Marine can fight and lead other Marines in the infantry.  Race no longer matters thanks to the integration of races by President Truman in 1948, but before he signed the order to integrate the military there were those who adamantly believed that racial equality would destroy it.  Sex no longer matters to attend service academies, fly attack aircraft, or serve in active combat despite those who actively and vociferously opposed such changes.  The question of whether or not a Black Marine can fight and lead in combat was answered over a half century ago, and the unprecedented levels of participation of women in active combat operations during the counterinsurgent wars of the 21st Century has offered real and tangible evidence that females can do the same.

The question is not whether or not whether they can physically, mentally, and emotionally handle the job.  The real question is whether the nation and the Department of Defense has the moral courage to allow the daughters of America to join their sons in the complete spectrum of combat roles.  Societally, equality of races and the sexes is an unquestioned pillar of our democracy.  Young men and women are leading integrated lives based on equality before they join the service and after they get out, yet when they enlist or receive a commission in the United States Armed Forces they join a profession that is inherently separate and unequal based on gender.  The Supreme Court struck down the concept of “separate but equal” when they ruled against it in the landmark Brown v. the Board of Education in Topeka in 1954, and over the following six decades the civil and women’s rights movements have toppled the vestiges of prejudice and created a truly egalitarian nation.  Except for in the Department of Defense, where separate but (kind of) equal doesn’t just exist, it has become a hotly contested issue with proponents arguing for perpetuation of the concept irrespective of the evidence borne of over a decade at war.

The military is not the only organization that has wrestled with gender integration.  A quarter of a century ago the first responder community of firefighters and law enforcement faced the identical challenge: could women meet the physical requirements and standards necessary to fight fires and live in close quarters with men in the fire station?  Could they enforce the law with the same veracity as men?  Many of the same arguments against gender integration were raised in the 1980s and 1990s as are heard today: men and women cannot coexist in the close quarters of the firehouse or police barracks, women cannot meet the physical requirements, gender integration would destroy the culture, etc.  In 2015 those questions have been answered, and women are actively serving as firefighters and police professionals.

But are they as effective as men?  Eric R. Watters writes a compelling perspective on the issue in the American Society for Public Administration’s PA Times:

Perhaps the question most central to the integration of female service members into previously barred military occupations is whether women possess both the physical stamina and emotional fortitude required to endure highly stressful combat engagements. The law enforcement community has struggled with this question; yet, female police officers have time and again proven they are capable of dealing with the stressors associated with situations similar to those found in combat. An apropos example is the actions of police sergeant Kimberly Munley who responded to the mass shooting at the Fort Hood Army base in 2009. In what can only be considered to be amongst the most extreme of law enforcement situations, an active shooter event, she unhesitatingly responded to the scene of the shooting and engaged the shooter, despite being twice wounded by him, in an attempt to stop his murderous rampage. This is but one of countless examples in which female police officers have demonstrated their ability to perform both heroically and effectively in combat situations.”

For the Department of Defense, those who will actually answer that question are the ones furthest removed from the actual issue.  Young men and women have proven that they can coexist and fight side by side in garrison, training, and in combat.  Senior (meaning old) political and military leaders decide and enact policy, and they are the ones who wring their hands at the perceived disaster that women in the infantry present.  They fear that the cultural bastion of manhood that is the infantry is at stake, that little boy grunts and little girl grunts will go do what men and women have done since the dawn of humanity, and that somehow the institution of the military is at stake.

There are and will be women in the Marine Corps who are certainly capable in all aspects to meet the standards necessary to lead infantry Marines into combat.  Although one has not yet passed IOC, someday one will.  And then two.  And then more.  Enlisted women will invariably pass infantry training at the School of Infantry.  To categorically deny the opportunity to be a combat leader based on the perception that females are not capable flies in the face of both experience and reality.  The bar has been set, and women will get over it. Either a Marine can meet the standards to be in the infantry, or artillery, or other combat arm or they can’t.  Every Marine should be able to take a shot at getting over the bar because every Marine that they will lead deserves the best possible leader, and denying the opportunity to quality officers based on gender artificially shrinks the leadership pool.

Senior leaders in government and in uniform are nearly paralyzed by the fear that sexual assault will explode should the sexes mix across the board and that sexual misconduct will destroy the good order and discipline necessary for a successful military organization.  In my personal experience women and men who actively serve together in the same unit, who share the same arduous training and face the same enemy in combat have moved past the sophomoric panty raids conducted by college fraternities.  The young men and women I served with became a cohesive team that was protective of each member regardless of gender, race, or any other segregator.  Men and women have served together in the most austere and dangerous of circumstances in both Iraq and Afghanistan for weeks and months at a time.  It can, and has, been done.

Will men and women become romantically and sexually engaged?  Guess what – they already are.  We have a robust set of rules and regulations that clearly articulate the expectations and ramifications of improper relationships; the institution just needs to ruthlessly enforce the UCMJ in order to cull bad actors from the ranks.  Men and women are men and women with all that biology entails, and it is certainly not limited to first termers and company grade officers.  Senior commanders and flag officers from across the Department of Defense have been relieved for improper relationships while deployed to combat theaters and at home stations.  To think that biology can somehow be mitigated by MOS is utterly naïve.

Likewise, the fear of sexuality in the same combat unit has been rendered moot with the fall of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell”.  Gay men can and do serve in the infantry, and the lifting of the ban on sexual orientation as a defining attribute far from the existential threat that many had predicted; it was in fact a non-event across the American military.  Why is it that the possibility of creating an environment where heterosexual relationships is anathema when homosexual relationships are allowed?  It is time to remove sexuality from the equation and to focus on the ability of every individual who makes up the organization to excel.

The institution that is the military has survived and thrived because Americans off all races and sexual orientations have the same opportunity to succeed as anybody else.  That rising tide has lifted all boats, and we have the best military on the planet to show for it.  To think that somehow women in the infantry will destroy the institution or shake the culture of the Marine Corps or other services is narrow minded and shallow.  Ask yourself this question: “Do I care if a grunt is Black, Asian, Hispanic, or white?”  If your answer is no, then why would your answer change if a Marine can meet every requirement, hurdle every bar, and be a professional warrior just because that grunt is a woman?

Again, Brigadier General Smith said it best: “The enemy doesn’t care whether you’re a male or female.”  If a female can pass the test required to be in the infantry, then why shouldn’t she then be required to take charge of a platoon, or a company, or a battalion, and get them ready to fight?  It is time to grow up and accept that self imposed barriers based on sex are parochial and antiquated.  It is time to stop collectively wringing our hands and conducting social experiments and instead it is time to act.  It is time to establish and reinforce the standards expected of all Marines in all MOSs and relentlessly enforce them: the Marine Corps should steal the march and just do it.  We stopped calling the distaff side of the Marine Corps Women Marines (WMs) decades ago, and it is time to start treating every Marine as a Marine, to revel in their successes and to hold them accountable for their actions.  It’s time to move on because the enemy truly does not care, and we have more important places to dedicate resources and Marines than conducting social experiments.  It’s time for every Marine to shoulder a pack, pick up a rifle, and take the fight to the enemy.  After all, that’s what Marines do.


[1] Women had served in the army field artillery branch previously as members of tactical missile units, and in fact one of the battalion commanders in the training brigade was one of the very few females still on active duty from when those units still existed.  The lieutenant was the first female to be commissioned as an artillery officer in over a decade.


2 responses to “Opinion piece on women in the infantry: If the enemy doesn’t care, why do we?

  1. Well written, Mike. No doubt in my mind that female Marines can do any job that a male Marine can do. Some women, any jobs. All women, some jobs. You mention the word “standard” 8 times in your article. What should always preface any mention of the word “standard” in reference to this issue is the word “minimum”. The truth of the matter is that women are slower and weaker than men- no one wants to say it because it sounds like we are denigrating women with the statement, but tough- it is the truth. On average they are slower and weaker, by a lot, especially the weaker part. Men’s world record bench press 1102 lbs. Women? 601. Men’s fastest 100m is 9.58 seconds. Women? 10.49 seconds. We ignore this fundamental truth regularly in this debate. Where do we place our physical performance standards? Do we place standards at some sort of desired average mark for a particular task or MOS? No, we place those standards at the minimum acceptable level of performance before we remediate and ultimately disqualify a Marine from continuing to serve in that role- or serve period. As General Smith said- the bar height doesn’t change. So to say that a female officer some day will pass the MINIMUM standards necessary to make it through IOC is ignoring the glaring truth. The AVERAGE female Marine will be slower and weaker than the AVERAGE male Marine. In some MOS’s and situations this doesn’t matter, or doesn’t matter enough that we should be concerned about it. In the infantry- closing with, engaging and destroying the enemy is a brutal and still PHYSICAL task. I would argue that 0811s slinging projos and howitzers around with brute muscle still makes the issue of physical strength matter as well. Let me ask this. Those Marines who you served with and commanded that were hovering just above the standard physically in your units; those who clocked in on the PFT at 27:45 on the run, 47 crunches and 3 pullups. Were they good to go physically? Sure they had passed the PFT. I submit that those Marines had some work to do. I would quote you the physical difference between male and female Marines based on PFT averages, but I can’t. Because female Marines don’t take the same PFT, and have lesser performance standards on the events that are common. To me the questions that don’t seem to get asked is whether it is OK to lower our physical capability in a particular unit/MOS by integrating women (because that WILL happen), how much will it go down, and what is acceptable? You offer an impressive resume of anecdotal experience with women performing admirably in combat situations. No doubt, they did. How many hand to hand meeting engagements did that include? The history of conventional combat has those occurring regularly in infantry engagements. Take your average male Marine infantry squad and your hypothetical 50/50 male/female infantry squad and have them meet in a hand to hand engagement. What are the odds that the 50/50 squad prevails? We both know the answer. The 50/50 squad would lose the vast majority of those engagements. How many? By how much? Does it matter? They would be more likely to lose in that scenario. So explain why degrading our infantry should be necessary so that ALL jobs should be open to women? Why? Equating the issue to racial integration is mixing apples and crowbars. The issue is physical, and female and male physical capabilities aren’t changing anytime soon. So you served with women who did many jobs and tasks admirably, including in combat. So what? If your life depended on it and you were about to enter into hand to hand combat with the enemy, and you had to pick 10 people from anyone in the world to go into that engagement with you, how many of them would be women? If the answer is zero, which I submit it would be, then why would we ever, in good conscience, send our men (or women) into that engagement under those circumstances?

  2. Rich,
    Good points, but from my perspective they are largely irrelevant. I don’t believe that holding the same standards as are in place now and allowing all Marines a shot at them will make a difference in the least. How much does it matter if the fastest man and the fastest women are both both faster than the required standard? Either a person make it over the bar or they don’t. Equal opportunity is not equal outcome- few women will likely pass the requirements, but to deny them the chance because they are “girls” is shallow and superficial. WIth opportunity, however, also comes equality across the board. Combined billeting and head facilities in garrison, on ship, in training, and at war.

    I have been in active combat in two wars on two different continents. I have served with women in combat in both, and as for the ten people that I would want to go to war with tomorrow I can say without reservation that two of them would be women.

    Good discussion!

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