- - Monday, January 21, 2013

Almost a year ago, Pentagon officials announced their incremental intent to order (not allow) military women into infantry and Special Operations Forces battalions. In April, Marine Gen. James Amos announced a multiphased research effort to test the consequences of such a policy. What will President Obama do with the commandant’s recommendations?

Conditions in the Middle East have changed, but missions of “tip of the spear” units, which attack the enemy with deliberate offensive action under fire, remain the same. If results of the Marines’ research do not support unrealistic theories of feminists who consider land combat to be just another career opportunity, administration officials might press their egalitarian agenda anyway.

The Pentagon-endorsed Military Leadership Diversity Commission (MLDC) has called for an end to women’s land combat exemptions, based on a new definition of “diversity.” As stated in the 2011 MLDC report, unlike the “EO [equal opportunity] mandate to be both color and gender blind,” the new concept would replace non-discrimination with gender-conscious “diversity metrics,” another name for quotas that violate individual rights.

Professional football entertains fans with non-lethal combat on the gridiron, but the National Football League does not “diversify” its teams with female players. Military teams that engage in lethal combat, however, are supposed to deploy significant numbers of women, willing or not, to achieve gender-based “diversity metrics” on the battlefield.

The “trickle-up” goal is to increase numbers of high-ranking female officers, one of whom might become chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. None of this is necessary or fair for the majority of women, who are enlisted. Combat experience is not necessary for advancement. Pentagon data consistently show that military women are promoted at rates equal to or faster than men.

Women in the military have been serving overseas with distinction, often in non-traditional roles. Female engagement teams, for example, deserve full recognition for security and intelligence work that men cannot do in Muslim countries. All deployed troops are “in harm’s way,” but direct ground combat goes beyond that experience.

Thirty years of studies and reports in the United States and allied countries have shown that in a direct ground combat environment, women do not have an equal opportunity to survive or to help fellow soldiers survive. The Marines, nevertheless, began new research to evaluate the consequences of “gender diversity” in the infantry.

Pledging compliance with Defense Department regulations governing human experimentation, meaning tests involving “greater than minimal risk,” the Marines have been measuring strength and endurance among hundreds of male and female volunteers performing “common skills.” Plans briefed to the Defense Advisory Committee on Women in the Services in September 2011 called for six physical challenges, but in 2012 they were scaled back to three.

The program eliminated tougher simulations of essential ground combat skills, such as constructing a machine gun position, crawling, sprinting and negotiating obstacles with an 83-pound assault load, and the remaining three challenges were made less strenuous. Results are unavailable, but indications are that female volunteers could not match the physical capabilities of men.

Last September, female officers were invited to participate in the grueling 13-week Marine Infantry Officer Course (IOC), at Quantico, Va. Of the two women who volunteered, one left on the first day, and the second dropped out (along with 27 of 109 men) several days later. Both women deserve respect for trying, but the continuing lack of more volunteers (more than 90 are needed) will make it difficult to get sufficient data.

In 1997-98, the British military conducted an 18-month experiment with “gender-free” training. Under standards identical to men’s, women’s injury rates soared. In 2002 and 2010, the British Ministry of Defense decided to keep infantry battalions all-male.

American Marines conducted an online survey asking troops for their opinions on women-in-combat issues. The polling instrument, unfortunately, failed to ask the most important questions: “Would the assignment of women to Marine infantry improve combat readiness?” and “Do you favor or oppose the assignment of women to Marine infantry battalions?”

Instead, the survey incorporated 12 inquiries about “voluntary” service for women in the infantry — a non-existent option that the 1992 Presidential Commission on the Assignment of Women in the Armed Forces already determined to be unworkable. Absent these questions, the administration likely will spin other survey findings toward the desired conclusion. In 2010, highly misleading information about a Defense Department troop survey helped to stampede Congress into voting for the repeal of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.”

Little has been said about the consequences of imposing on infantry battalions higher non-deployability rates, often due to pregnancy, and steadily worsening complications of sexual misconduct, ranging from assault to fraternization. These burdens will not improve readiness in all-male fighting battalions that deliberately attack the enemy.

Eliminating land combat exemptions ultimately will involve civilian women in Selective Service registration. Congress, which represents the American people, should not be shut out of this decision-making process.

A female Marine gunnery sergeant who spoke to the 1992 Presidential Commission was asked whether women should be in land combat. “Not if it’s not good for the Corps, Ma’am.” The same sound principle should apply today. Congress, which represents the American people, should insist on high standards and sound policies not just for Marines, but for all men and women who volunteer to serve.

Elaine Donnelly is president of the Center for Military Readiness and a former member of the Presidential Commission on the Assignment of Women in the Armed Forces.

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