A Wider Talent Pool Means a Stronger Marine Corps: A Response to Rep. Hunter

In a January 8 interview with Politico, Rep. Duncan Hunter (R-Calif.) asserted that Secretary of the Navy Ray Mabus’s support for opening all combat roles in the Marine Corps to women makes him “a greater threat to the Marine Corps than ISIS.” We will let the reader decide who poses a greater threat to the United States Marine Corps: a civilian leader working hard to strengthen national security by ensuring the American people are protected by the best our country has to offer or a brutal terrorist organization with a troubling global radicalization and recruitment track record and a preference for brutal public executions and other deplorable practices.

The same day in an op-ed for Fox News, Hunter attempted to justify his comments by outlining his concerns about allowing qualified women to serve in difficult combat arms military occupational specialties (MOSs). He summed up his angst in one sentence: “It’s imperative that each job maintains the highest standards and continue[s] developing the highest quality personnel, regardless of gender, quotas or any other benchmark.”

Representative Hunter, we couldn’t agree more. The best way to achieve such an outcome is with the policy recently announced by Defense Secretary Ash Carter, a policy that ensures that combat roles are filled by the most qualified individual, regardless of gender, no quotas, no exceptions. The standards will remain at the highest level. If Hunter truly wants our most capable citizens to be recruited and assessed based on their mental agility, physical prowess, and leadership abilities, it is difficult to see the distinction between his opinion and the recent policy change. 

In the same op-ed, Hunter expressed further concern that the new policy is emblematic of a push to use the US military as a “staging ground for social change” and opening all combat roles to women would “undercut the cohesion and operability of warfighters at the tip of the spear.” Many intellectuals have written contrary to this prediction, but recent history also proves his statement incorrect. On the occasion of Capt. Kristen Griest’s and 1LT Shaye Haver’s graduation from Ranger School, their brothers-in-arms spoke out against similar accusations:

Two women have endured over 120 days of abject misery to pass the most elite leadership course in the military. … I’m blown away, because I know how hard that school is. … And I also know that these two ladies are not men. They don’t have my frame. They don’t have my muscle mass. They don’t have my testosterone levels. Which means they hurt more than I did. Which means they had to dig deeper than I did. And they made it anyway. And they suffered for four months to do it. And that means they’re tougher than I am. And that’s exactly who I want leading our soldiers.

Despite Hunter’s contention to the contrary, putting proven warfighters into the field hardly undercuts cohesion and operability. Rather, judging from these testimonials, it appears to enhance it.

He also correctly states that the findings of an independent study commissioned by the Marine Corps to determine the impact of opening all combat roles to women were “shot down as illegitimate.” Many observers have rightly noted several issues with the study.

First, the USMC’s study consistently compares the “average woman” to the “average man” in the pool of participants. But these jobs are not about the average woman’s abilities; they would only be open to those women who are physically and mentally capable of serving in difficult combat arms MOSs. Given that very few people, never mind women, meet that standard, comparing “averages” isn’t a useful benchmark.

Moreover, when physical fitness is factored into injury rates, gender ceases to be a predictive factor. It is a fact that physical standards are better predictors of performance in a particular MOS than heuristics like these. As history reminds us, size is not necessarily a determining factor in lethality. There are Audie Murphys who serve heroically in “tip-of-the-spear” units, but there are also large men who fail to pass the multitude of combat arms screeners and schools. Size, similar to sex, is not a reliable predictor of success or failure alone. The bottom line is there are screeners that test a person’s capabilities based on the job requirements. If a linebacker-sized woman or a shorter man passes these tests, no one should advocate for the waste of their talent by categorically excluding them.

And finally, while much has been made of some of the study’s findings on the comparative speed of all-male versus integrated units, it’s worth noting that the study concluded that mixed-gender units performed “as well or better than” all-male units on “more cognitively challenging problems.” What is war if not a cognitively challenging problem? The study might have been conducted with the best of intentions, but the conclusions Hunter points toward are anything but conclusive.

Hunter also questioned whether surveys of servicemembers on whether they supported integrated units were accorded the same “attention and respect” as those conducted before the repeal of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell. Perhaps the Congressman misunderstands the purpose of these surveys. They are not tools for asking permission; they are tools for gathering data. In both cases, surveys were conducted to help decisionmakers understand the roadblocks and cultural issues that could arise as a result of a particular policy change so that they could be appropriately considered and addressed. Both surveys were treated equally in the manner of their purpose — to aid transition efforts, not to determine if change should happen.

Finally, Hunter argued that the fact that the Marine Corps has not yet graduated a female officer from its officer infantry school, while the Army has graduated three from Ranger school, is evidence of faulty policy. However, he refutes his own point with this comparison. Just six short months ago, the Army had not graduated a single woman from Ranger School. Imagine where this country would be (would it exist at all?) if its leaders and citizens failed to see possibilities just because they had yet to be accomplished.

To quote Hunter, “The infantry … is different than training to fight on foot as part of small cohesive units that experience combat with knives and bayonets, or bare hands.” If a Marine is able to employ her bayonet, knife, and ground-fighting skills to infantry training standards, why should a less capable man take her place?

Eventually all of the arguments against integration collapse into defensive statements that are obtuse and nonsensical. However, those of us in support of the policy change must employ a certain amount of patience; it is human to fear change. Those hesitant to embrace this policy should take comfort in the fact that it is borne from the not-so-revolutionary concept of meritocracy — a principle upon which our country was built.

Artificially limiting a talent pool is not just bad business; it is bad national security. The worst possible policy is one that would prevent the best and most capable of our citizens (and those who wish to be) from protecting our great nation. So, we encourage Representative Hunter to stand by his words to ensure the services “maintain their high standards and develop the highest quality personnel,” no exceptions.

The views expressed are those of the authors in their personal capacities and do not necessarily represent those of their respective employers. 

About the Author(s)

Allie Van Dine

East Coast Operations Manager at No Exceptions

Shelby Limburg

West Coast Operations Manager at No Exceptions

Katey Van Dam

Former United States Marine Attack Helicopter Pilot and Combat Veteran, Director of Strategy for No Exceptions