One of the immediate challenges to face Marine Gen. Joseph Dunford this fall as the new Joint Chiefs of Staff chairman will be the social change sweeping the armed forces.
The military branches are scheduled in September to submit reports to the Pentagon on putting American women for the first time into direct land combat units, such as infantry and special operations.
The timing means it’s likely that by the time Gen. Dunford, now the Marine Corps commandant, is sworn in around Oct. 1, awaiting him will be recommendations from commanders and then sessions with Defense Secretary Ashton Carter, who will make the final decisions by Jan. 1.
The Joint Chiefs nomination, for which Senate confirmation is virtually assured, marks the third major appointment for Gen. Dunford by President Obama. It’s a track record that shows the two men are basically in sync, presumedly including on the commander in chief’s wish to have female members of the Green Berets, Rangers, SEALs and infantry.
While some Republicans view Army Gen. Martin E. Dempsey, the current Joint Chiefs chairman, as a “political general,” they see Gen. Dunford as being candid and parsimonious with words, delivering clipped answers to reporters and lawmakers that go straight to the point and then end.
Gen. Dunford is an Irish-American from South Boston whose Marine dad fought in Korea and then became a cop. As a young student he attended Catholic schools. As a Marine, the officer went through career-building stops — including Anbar province in Iraq, the long battle that resides in Corps history alongside World War II’s Iwo Jima and the Korean War’s Chosin Reservoir.
“General Dunford has all the right qualities to lead our military,” said Rep. Duncan Hunter, California Republican and a former Marine officer who was in Anbar in 2004. “He’s a Marine’s Marine. He’s got experience, intellect and vision, and he surely won’t flinch from giving candid, honest advice.”
Gen. Dunford’s firsthand knowledge of conventional combat and counterinsurgency will serve him well as he faces perhaps the armed forces’ biggest social movement: female commandos.
The decision schedule — commander reports to the Pentagon in September and a final resolution by Jan. 1 — straddles the final weeks of Gen. Dempsey as chairman and the first months of Gen. Dunford as his successor. It’s likely that both generals will have Mr. Carter’s ear on which units to open to women.
Gen. Dempsey has been an enthusiastic supporter of integrating women into all units. He has made it clear that if a physical standard is too tough for women, the military will have to make a good case for not lowering it.
On opening the ranks
In a quirk of Washington and military succession, because the Marines’ position on women in combat is being formulated now, it will be Commandant Dunford advising Joint Chiefs Chairman Dunford. In the Marine Corps, the commandant historically has taken a major role in deciding individual combat standards.
The Marine Corps generally is seen as the most traditional service. Past commandants opposed Mr. Obama’s order to open the ranks to gays, though they complied.
As for female commandos?
If that’s what the president wants, “then he’ll do it,” said Richard H. Shultz Jr., a professor at the Fletcher School at Tufts University who taught international relations to then-Maj. Dunford in the early 1990s.
“Anybody who has dealt with him finds that he is someone who you can work with,” Mr. Shultz said. “He will be someone the other chiefs will be very comfortable with.”
There is hope among conservatives that Gen. Dunford will diverge from the “Dempsey rule” on physical standards.
“I don’t know what Gen. Dunford will do, but I suspect he will take seriously the option to request exceptions to policies that would treat women like men in the infantry,” said Elaine Donnelly, who runs the Center for Military Readiness. “Nothing in the research done so far indicates that gender integration would improve mission capabilities in combat arms units that attack the enemy. Nor would such policies benefit military women who don’t want or need to be exposed to soaring rates of debilitating injuries.”
There is also pressure from outside groups for Mr. Obama to end the military’s ban on transsexuals and cross-dressers.
Gen. Dunford previously was the top commander in Afghanistan, then was Mr. Obama’s pick for commandant and for the seat on the six-member Joint Chiefs of Staff, a post he will hold for about one year.
The general’s recent public statements do not reveal opposition to women in direct ground combat. The toughest decision may arise if any service, or U.S. Special Operations Command, seeks an exception to the 2013 policy of opening all ground combat occupations to women.
In the field, the picture so far has been mixed.
The Marines conducted research by opening its grueling Infantry Officer Course — a must in order to become an infantry officer — to women. All 29 failed. But women have made it through the less-challenging enlisted infantry training.
All women volunteers who tried the Army Ranger course failed to make it through last week.
The Washington Times reported that Naval Special Warfare Command has found no barriers to integrating women into SEAL qualification training and letting them try to meet standards that remain the same for males and females. But the command did not conduct a pilot program with female sailors.
The recommendation to the defense secretary on such commando jobs will come this fall from Army Gen. Joseph Votel, SOCOM chief, a spokeswoman said.
The idea of asking for an exception to keep military occupational specialties (MOS) all-male was on Gen. Dunford’s mind when he underwent Senate confirmation hearings in July for Marine commandant.
Sen. Tim Kaine, Virginia Democrat, asked the general what progress the Corps had made to fulfill then-Defense Secretary Leon E. Panetta’s January 2013 revocation of the gender ban.
“It’s clear to me that the Marine Corps understands the direction set by Secretary Panetta,” Gen. Dunford said. “And by January 2016, we’ll be prepared to make recommendations as to exceptions to policy. I think the approach the Marine Corps has taken now — a deliberate, measured and responsible approach — is exactly the one that I would take were I to be confirmed.
“And certainly, at the end of the day, you can be sure that the recommendations that I would make would be based on the impact to the combat effectiveness of the Marine Corps in order to meet the standards that you expect the Corps to meet.”
The fighting elite
When Gen. Dunford, 59, fought in Iraq and gained the nickname “Fighting Joe,” he didn’t know he was joining one of the Corps’ most illustrious alumni institutions — Anbar, class of 2004.
The 1st Marine Expeditionary Force arriving that year to fight for the city of Fallujah in Anbar province was led by Lt. Gen. James T. Conway, who would go on to become commandant.
A division commander was Maj. Gen. James N. Mattis, who would advance to lead U.S. Central Command, a major combatant command.
An assistant division commander was Brig. Gen. John F. Kelly, who now commands U.S. Southern Command and could succeed Gen. Dunford as commandant.
And at the battle was Brig. Gen. Dunford, who went on to earn four stars.
“What a lineup! Holy cow,” said the Fletcher School’s Mr. Shultz, who not only taught Gen. Dunford but interviewed him for the professor’s book, “The Marines Take Anbar.”
Gen. Conway was so impressed with Gen. Dunford’s intellectual power that he propelled him from one- to three-star rank in a matter of weeks to take an important staff job.
“The first thing you need to know is this guy is very smart,” said Mr. Shultz. “Here’s the data point: He was the top graduate of his class at the Fletcher School. He never got anything but a straight A. I couldn’t get straight A’s here.”
Mr. Shultz added: “He has had a long-standing interest and understanding of what in those days we called ‘low-intensity conflict’ and what we now call ‘irregular war.’ Unconventional conflict. Armed groups. He knows that subject quite well.”