Increase, Don’t Decrease, Marine Lethality

March 23, 2016

For special access to experts and other members of the national security community, check out the new War on the Rocks membership.

On February 2, the Senate Armed Services Committee heard conflicting testimony from the Army and Marine Corps about integrating women into the infantry. The Marine Corps had opposed the change, drawing the ire of Navy Secretary Ray Mabus. So he took gender integration a giant step farther, ordering the Marines to abolish their separate male and female boot camps and to replace them with co-ed facilities. Mabus gave the astonished Marine leadership 14 days to present him a plan that included “removing ‘man’ from job titles.”

Mabus had previously antagonized Congress with his ideological agenda. His plan to shift half the fleet to alternative energy sourcing was so costly that Congress moved to prevent it. The 18 weeks of maternity leave he installed, much more generous than corporations, was rolled back by the secretary of defense. But targeting boot camp is more than ideological overreach. It will do grave harm to America’s battlefield ferocity.

The military remains one of the most trusted institutions in America — and the public ranks the Marine Corps as its most prestigious branch. The American people admire the tough discipline that makes a marine. In male boot camp, encountering and surviving the DI, or drill instructor, marks the rite of passage into manhood. Every minute of 56 grueling days has been choreographed over the decades. No gesture, no glare, no scream is left to chance. Boot camp is the crucible that shapes every Marine.

Similarly, female DIs have been making women into marines since 1949. Different techniques and standards are applied, based on decades of performance science. Women recruits gain self-confidence seeing what other women, who serve as role models, have achieved.

At the February 2 Senate hearing, Gen. Robert Neller, the commandant of the Marine Corps, said he wanted to increase women from 8 percent to 10 percent of the Marine Corps. Marine male boot camp is physically harder. But the female boot camp attrition rate already is twice as high. So in a co-ed camp, the minimum standards will have to drop and procedures will soften. Grueling exercise penalties for minor infractions and the rough tongue-lashings intended to strip away old, smug notions will be softened.

In 1997, a bipartisan congressional panel concluded that mixing genders resulted in “less discipline, less unit cohesion, and more distraction from the training programs.” The Army, Navy and Air Force had already switched to co-ed training, but the overwhelming consensus in Congress was not to force the Marine Corps down the same path. Mabus dismissed the congressional panel’s findings as “completely irrelevant.”

Mabus is also insistent upon inserting women into the Marine infantry. He rejected the recommendations of Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Joseph Dunford, who previously served as commandant of the Marine Corps. Dunford was in both battles of Fallujah, the city that gave birth to Al Qaeda in Iraq. He opposed women in the infantry based on many factors, including combat experience.

Two years ago, the Marine Corps spent $36 million conducting hundreds of tests to quantify performance differences between all-male and co-ed units. This included evaluations of hiking, shooting, and dozens of other grunt tasks. After 18 months, the civilian evaluators submitted their peer-reviewed findings. The all-male unit was superior in 93 tasks; the co-ed unit was superior in two. The female injury rate was double that of the males. Mabus rejected the study, questioning the Marines’ integrity by claiming the evaluators harbored negative attitudes toward women. At the hearing, several senators took turns upbraiding him for his dismissive attitude.

After the test, Commandant Neller recommended that infantry ranks remain all-male. Additionally, he raised the physical standards for infantry and other combat specialties. Female marines, he argued, should be attached to infantry units depending on the specific mission, as was the case in Afghanistan. Regardless, with the enthusiastic recommendation of the secretary of the Navy, Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter ordered the Marines to admit women into the infantry.

Some women do possess astonishing physical prowess. One of us (Owen) has competed in the 400-mile Eco Challenge and climbed mountains alongside the hardiest women in the world, who could run circles around the average Marine grunt. But they are a tiny fraction of the female population. Theoretically, the Marine Corps could pay large annual bonuses to recruit 100 extraordinary female athletes, assigning one to each of 100 rifle companies. That would still swiftly reduce combat effectiveness. Dynamics change fundamentally when men and women interact in extremis. In 1991, a former commandant of the Marine Corps, Gen. Robert Barrow, testified before the Senate that co-ed infantry platoons would destroy the unit’s moral foundation, the belief that “a band of brothers” can win by killing and dying amidst savage conditions. Changing that to “a band of co-eds” forever softens the ferocity. The notion that we are asexual creatures is risible; intimate scandals have upset the team balance in most co-ed units and across all ranks. Once you introduce sex, affection, favoritism, protectiveness, jealousy, anxiety and all the other co-ed dynamics to an infantry platoon, you degrade the focus of infantry combat: killing.

Canada and several European countries permit women to enter the ranks of the infantry. The actual number of female volunteers is low, hovering around 1 percent. Practically speaking, most U.S. Marine platoons will continue to be all-male. Political tokenism will suffice — for the moment.

But eventually a price will be paid. Like hurricanes and tornadoes, major wars recur. When the next one hits, some American youths will be drafted. Asked by the Senate if women should register for the draft, Gen. Neller said yes. Mabus ducked the question. He advocated “equality of opportunity,” not equality of obligation.

Within the Marine Corps, however, Mabus intends to insert divisiveness and softness. His co-ed boot camp will graduate a smaller number of women, if simultaneously the commandant toughens the standards. That is an insane outcome.

Congress should stipulate that both now and in the future, no funding be used to disrupt the current boot camp system. To paraphrase retired Marine Gen. John Kelly, any change in Marine Corps training should increase, not decrease battlefield lethality.


Since WWII, three generations of the West family have served as Marine infantry. Bing West served in Vietnam; Owen West served in Iraq. Between them, they have written a dozen books about combat.

We have retired our comments section, but if you want to talk to other members of the natsec community about War on the Rocks articles, the War Hall is the place for you. Check out our membership at!

10 thoughts on “Increase, Don’t Decrease, Marine Lethality

    1. I would argue that the “lethality” requirement for individual and small units of Marines, Soldier, Sailors, and Airmen is greater now than ever before. Recent conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan have placed more responsibility on the shoulders of individual service members and small units (Squad size and below) than ever before. Small unit leaders, Non-Commissioned Officers, are expected to control maneuver, fires, and communications from locations far removed from their higher headquarters. In Afghanistan and Iraq these small units managed their own battlespace and were responsible not only for the security and safety of the unit, but of a civilian populace as well. Our civilian and military leadership and the American people continue to become more averse to civilian casualties often resulting in a tightening of the rules of engagement and restrictions on the use of supporting arms. This requires that our individual service members and small units be ever more proficient in foot mobile maneuver and the use of organic weapon systems. While our military resets and prepares for future conflicts, which may or may not be very different than what we have been exposed to in Iraq and Afghanistan, our enemies are learning from the success of TTPs such as the IED and utilization of the civilian populace to restrict military supporting arms. It is likely that we will encounter these tactics again and should prepare our force accordingly.

      1. R,
        Good to see you are on WOTR. I think Doc’s question is still valid though. While our military institutions have become more dependent on the smaller units and unit leaders and the ability to operate independently, the question of “lethality” still lingers. I think when the Wests mention lethality, what they are truly getting at is quality. I think if we were to ask Bing about the need for greater lethality during his tours in Vietnam, he would probably argue the need for quality Marines and soldiers, vice greater lethality. Look at “The Village,” would greater lethality have helped the Marines in that situation (Bing included)? Maybe, but the better question should be, how would a lesser quality of Marine have hindered their success in their mission? I think that is the greater threat, lower quality Marines will be the greater threat to the Corps over the long haul.

    2. It’s a great question, Doc but one that also emphasizes a point Misters West made that you may have missed–there will inevitably be another large power conventional war (and lets just hope it stays “conventional”). This could be Korea or Iran–or even China or Russia. Or it could be 100 years away with Brazil under some unforeseen change in geopolitical relations. The point is in this type of war, the requirement on killing power is maximum. The most “recent” example would be Korea (DESERT STORM ended too quickly, as our enemy proved pretty incompetent). But if you want a visual, think the opening scene of “Saving Private Ryan.”

      With contemporary lethal power, that scene becomes even worse.

      In such a conflict, our forces need to be able to inflict maximum lethality on the enemy–but we must also expect our forces to suffer carnage on scales unseen. Americans celebrate the concept of “equal opportunity.” But they may shudder at the scene of their daughters severed limbs and dismembered organs strewn around the battlefield.

      Even the supposedly mundane and banal aspects of conventional war are contradictory to our concepts of how women should be treated. In our current conflicts, our troops live on comfortable, well-maintained, well-stocked bases with separate housing, bathing and latrine facilities for men and women. There is nothing dirty or nasty in such an existence. Life gets grittier on smaller outposts, but there are generally no women there.

      But in a war of movement, as an infantry platoon moving in an APC or a tank crew moving along advances, where do you think they go to the bathroom? If the order is to advance without stopping–do you think there are bathroom breaks?

      I don’t mean to belittle by any means. I’m just pointing out that a “big war” is going to be terribly unpleasant and our current “small wars” are not, actually, a good indicator of how women can be utilized in combat.

  1. Sorry, Bing. I don’t agree.

    Were we to 1) recruit women to a higher standard and 2) train them better, we would increase the lethality of the force writ large. I’ve served with enough tough, competent women over the last two decades to know this. The policy decision has changed…and now it is up to the services to optimize the implementation for the lethality of the force. The Army is doing this. The Marine Corps is lagging. Recruiting Command told the press today that they have ZERO plans to do anything differently to attract higher quality females to join. Consequently, talent will go where it is appreciated and the Army will reap the benefit.

    There is four decades worth of boot camp data that shows women have underperformed men in every graduation category to include non-physical events. This is because we have systemically recruited them to a lowered standard and trained them to lowered expectations. Recently, when more has been demanded, women have risen to the expectation.

    My wife was able to increase female rifle range pass rates from 68% to 92% in just four months. It can be done and the door should be left open for women who qualify.

    Hope you are well.

  2. If the infantry maintain their standards, the number of willing and able women will be infinitesimal; there might be dozens of female infantry throughout the Marine Corps, and maybe a hundred in the Army.

    If boot camp goes coed and maintains standards, the number of women in the Marines period will drop dramatically.

    The unfortunate reality is that recruiting, selecting, and training a female Marine to an infantry standard will be harder, longer, and costlier than finding a male Marine equally qualified for the job. That’s just a function of a vastly larger pool of physically-fit male Marines, which is primarily a function of biology, and only slightly a function of society, so it won’t change.

  3. Can our military last until Obama and his “yes” men and women are ejected from positions of power? Next January, hopefully, we will have common sense leaders in the military and civilian leadership positions.. The idiots installed there now, namely Carter and Mabus, are just puppets for Obama and his great social experiment. Just what do they hope to accomplish by sticking females into combat units? It will not increase efficiency or combat lethality. There are many women out there that can be just as tough and lethal as a Marine but it is doubtful any of them could hack Marine boot camp, the discipline and regimentation required to get through it. Stop with the experimentation. We now have gays and lesbians serving openly and transgenders are next. I can see lawsuits arising because some of these people may feel offended over a perceived slight, hurt feelings or thinking they have not been treated fairly in assignments and promotions. What a big ball of worms and it is all of the Obama administration’s doings. Put Hillary in the White House in January and it will only get worse if that is possible.

    1. This has nothing to do with Obama, partisan politics, or any conspiracy theories you might hold about Obama and his “radical” visions. The initial order to rescind the ban on women in combat unless the Services could come up w/official contrary policies came from SECDEF Panetta as he was out the door. It was a surprise, as he is not someone you could accurately describe as a “peacenik” or a “lefty.”

      Two SECDEFs later, Ash Carter is implementing the policy, yes, but its not like he came up with it. You might call Mabus an idiot (“dishonest” is more appropriate), but if you believe that label fits Carter, you have no idea what you’re talking about. He’s one of the most respected voices in the entire defense & security world.

      But even more important reality is that all the Republican candidates voiced their support for the policy change. And why wouldn’t they? It plays into their worldview that you don’t need affirmative action, you just need “equality of opportunity” and then anyone–male, female, black, white, gay, straight–can do “anything.” Women were allowed on subs under GW Bush. Women were authorized to serve serve on combat surface ships under GHW Bush. Women entered the service academies and ROTC under Nixon and Ford . . . one could go on and on.

      As much as I despise him, SECDEF Rumsfeld actually proposed barring women being permanently assigned to battalion and below levels in any combat arms formation. That is, any combat arms brigade or division would have no women from BTN down (except in aviation). Guess where that proposal–under a GOP President and Congress–went? Correct, nowhere.

  4. As always, the argument doesn’t hold up well if one simply keeps standards as they are. If that leads to fewer female Marines in the Corps, or a very small number in these combat jobs, so be it….at least they had the chance to place like males do.

    1. It still changes the millennial-old culture of combat arms, but putting that minor point aside .. . yes, such a scenario–given the proper implementation–would not erode combat lethality nor appear as “affirmative action.”

      But do we really think such a scenario is realistic?