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Ground Close Combat is Gender Agnostic

When I read the article “Ground Close Combat is Masculine,” I was saddened by the fact that some people are still trotting out the idea of gender as a discriminator for service in combat arms, raising familiar tropes about physical fitness and masculinity. The major issue that has yet to be discussed is not about whether women are able to raise their fitness levels to meet the challenges of modern combat, but what this level of fitness really is. Child soldiers have proven quite capable of being highly lethal in modern ground combat in the recent past, and robotic soldiers and augmented biologicals will bring unprecedented levels of strength, endurance and flexibility to the future battlefield. Looking across the world’s militaries, (or even the U.S. Department of Defense, which itself has differing fitness tests for soldiers and Marines) there are no uniform standards for strength and endurance as it applies to ground combat troops.

In this work, I will describe the issues with Franklin C. Annis’ article, examine the issue of hyper-masculinity in the U.S. Marines, and propose solutions that go beyond old and tired arguments attempting to link physical to combat effectiveness. Annis bills himself as “The Evolving Warfighter” on Twitter, but a truly evolving warfighter should be taking advantage of all the tools, capabilities, and human resources at their disposal, and should be advocating for improving our military equipment, training and culture for all troops instead of proposing that women in combat arms adapt themselves to equipment, training, and culture that already puts a needlessly excessive physical and psychological burden on their male colleagues.

Defining Hyper-Masculinity

The first error in Annis’ article is that while he criticizes Kate Germano for failing to empirically define hyper-masculinity, he does not provide a definition of his own. This is important—we need to be honest about what it means to be masculine, how masculine traits can add value in a military context, and why too much masculinity might not be a good thing. To start, the Oxford dictionary defines “hyper” as “over; beyond; above; excessively; above normal.” Next, to examine how some masculine norms can be negative, turn to a meta-data analysis of nearly 80 studies on masculine norms spanning 20,000 men over a period of 11 years. The identified “masculine norms” listed by this comprehensive overview published by the American Psychological Association (APA) are:

  • Winning
  • Emotional control
  • Risk-taking
  • Violence
  • Dominance
  • Playboy
  • Self-reliance
  • Primacy of work
  • Power over women
  • Disdain for homosexuals
  • Pursuit of status

Two of these attributes—power over women and a disdain for “homosexuals”—run absolutely counter to the tenets of good order and discipline in the modern military. Whether someone wishes to act like a playboy in their spare time has little bearing on their military performance, so we can exclude that from further consideration. The remaining eight “masculine norms” can translate to success in the military, but only in a context of control and proportion. This is where we can apply the “Character Map” framework laid out by retired U.S. Navy Captain Rick Rubel, who heads the ethics program at the U.S. Naval Academy. According to Rubel, all attributes of human nature exist on a scale. Courage is considered a virtue, but too much courage is foolhardiness; too little is cowardice. Only an “appropriate” amount of courage that is virtuous. Considering these eight potentially useful “masculine norms” along a spectrum highlights how they can be toxic or productive. For example, an appropriate level of the will to win, emotional control, willingness to accept risk and to both deliver violence and face it are all necessary for success in the military in general and combat in particular. However, take a willingness to “win at all cost,” too little emotional control, too high a predilection for risk and violence, and it’s easy to see how war crimes happen. In fact, one can easily argue that the rampant misconduct in the U.S. Special Forces community demonstrates just how dangerous “hyper-masculine” behaviours really are.

Thus, using these frameworks, hyper-masculinity can be defined as “excesses in the potentially virtuous masculine norms with or without the presence of the wholly negative aspects of masculine norms.” This makes the term analogous to “toxic masculinity,” which a noted feminist voice on Twitter defined as being “… comprised of masculine traits that, in extremes, become harmful and/or dangerous to the actor and those around them.”

Is Hyper-Masculinity Bad?

Germano suggests in her article that hyper-masculinity is problematic, while Annis disagrees, claiming that her use of the term suggests that “U.S. Marines are displaying characteristics above and beyond “healthy” masculinity.” As a Marine officer with over 20 years of service, I will be the first to say that the numbers speak for themselves. The simple fact is that U.S. Marines are displaying the most toxic attributes of masculinity at levels far, far beyond healthy, with 25,000 kicked out for misconduct since 2009, 517 taking their own lives in the same period, and many dying in motorcycle and car accidents which are predominantly the result of “risk-taking” behaviours: excessive speed, alcohol, and fatigue. Sexual harassment, sexual assault, hazing—the statistics bear out that the purported most “masculine” of the U.S. armed forces is the also the most self-destructive.

Additionally, Annis seems to be confused about the original meaning of the term “macho,” which does not mean “having pride in your masculine traits.” Macho is also defined as “masculine in an overly assertive or aggressive way”—meaning that Germano was absolutely correct in correlating former Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis’ use of the word “macho” with her use of the term “hyper-masculine.” Annis is also mistaken when he denotes “courage, self-sacrifice, and loyalty” as masculine—these are not, in fact, gendered traits, and there are already numerous women who exhibit them, and many who already follow a Stoic philosophy.

The biggest issue with Annis’ article is that he does not acknowledge the extent to which negative aspects of classic masculinity are a part of the so-called traditional warrior cultures. It is precisely these aspects that Steven Pressfield celebrated in a book that remains mandatory reading for young Marines. For Pressfield, the warrior culture is a tribal culture, and tribes, in his own words,

…are hostile to all outsiders… Tribes are governed not by the rule of law but by a code of honor… Any insult to honor must be avenged… Tribes resist change. Tribes suppress women…

While I agree with Pressfield in his description of tribalism, he finds these qualities admirable, and suggests that U.S. military training should have the result of turning young men and women into a tribe. I disagree; as I wrote in my 2014 critique of Pressfield’s monograph, there is very little to admire in these qualities, especially for the modern, professional military.

We don’t want Marines behaving in a hostile manner towards “outsiders”… We don’t want a Marine Corps governed, as in days of old, by concepts of honor that historically resulted in everything from fist-fights to duels to the death. We don’t want Marines seeking to revenge themselves or their friends, which we’ve seen leads directly to atrocities such as Haditha. We want the rule of law, not of eyes for eyes and teeth for teeth. We don’t want to resist change, we want to lead it, and we don’t want to suppress women, we want more of them serving alongside their brothers and sisters in arms.

Warrior culture in the U.S. is something of a cult, and if Pressfield is its high priest, Mattis is its patron saint. It is troubling that his tenure as U.S. Secretary of Defense was marred by remarks suggesting that “the jury was still out” on women in combat arms. Annis references ”Combat Operational Stress Control,” but this 2015 RAND study “did not find OSCAR [Operational Stress Control and Readiness] affected the key mental health outcomes it was designed to address.” As certified Marine Corps Operational Stress Control and Readiness Instructor I can tell you from personal experience that it was yet another “check-the-block” wellness initiative.

I do not intend to engage Annis on his proposition that “females are more likely to be prone to training and psychological injuries compared to than males,” as I have personally written extensively on this very issue myself, with exhaustive references. I will point out that comparing averages for men and women misses the point that there is nothing average about high performers in any gender. For example, consider the recent ultramarathon in which the overall winner was a woman. She walked away with both the “First Place” trophy and the “Women’s First Place” trophy while the first-place male finisher received no trophy, as the race organizers had wrongly assumed that overall winner would be a man.

To fully explore the role of humans in close combat, let us not overlook the experience of the child soldier. Children, in comparison to adults, are stereotyped as being weaker, much as Annis stereotypes women in comparison to men, but children have been used extensively in many conflicts since the end of World War Two, and as this study on their contributions to combat effectiveness explains, “child soldiers may actually increase rebel groups’ fighting capacities.” The use of children in warfare is completely unacceptable and it is prohibited for good reason by international norms, but their operational efficacy in Liberia and elsewhere demonstrates that physical strength is not a proxy for battlefield utility in modern combat.

Annis suggests we should select humans to serve in infantry in the same dispassionate manner we might select a rifle for them to carry, arguing we are “tied up with so much emotion and politics” when it comes to our combat troops. But that presupposes that there are no emotions or politics involved in choosing our weapons systems; pick literally any major defence acquisition program to watch that proposition fall apart. However, technology is and will be a key aspect of infantry capabilities.

Future War, Current Risks

While modern weapons have made close combat accessible to men, women, and children, it is not a job that any human should be doing. I am reminded of the quote from Peter Drucker, where he observed: “There is nothing quite so useless as doing with great efficiency something that should not be done at all.” Sometime in the near future, militaries will cede the close-range fight to robots and augmented humans. These fighters will be able to do the dirty work of killing our opponents faster, cheaper, and at much less immediate risk to our personnel, while at the same time raising serious moral issues that are beyond the scope of this paper to address. Just as UAVs have rapidly taken over reconnaissance and strike airpower missions and are poised to replace humans in transport, aerial combat, refuelling and strategic bombing, so will robotic, unmanned, autonomous and augmented ground combat and reconnaissance systems replace humans at the bloody edge of the battlespace.

That day is fast approaching, but it is not yet here, and until then, we do need to bridge the gap by fielding the best possible force to fight in all domains. Here, on a few points, I am in at least partial agreement with Annis, who asks if we should “set up some of our best citizens for the possibility of permanent disability without informing them of the risk?”

Indeed, we should not, but we should also not allow gender bias to suggest that we inform only our female combat arms candidates of the dangers they face. In the interest of “informed consent,” we should tell recruits of all genders what lies in store if they choose to serve in ground combat units. First, we should let them know that while they have always been told that you cannot put a value on a human life, to the U.S. military they are worth $400,000 in life insurance, and that we put much less value on the lives of anyone that they may kill in combat, be that person an enemy combatant or a civilian (families of civilians killed or wounded by U.S. forces in Afghanistan received an average of $3,234 for their loss). We should also inform them of the statistical probabilities that they will experience physical or mental trauma short of death; explain their heightened risks of suicide and other destructive behaviours, and finally let them know that even the hardiest of them will likely suffer chronic knee, hip, and lower back damage because their government, which does not blink to fund a 5th-Generation aircraft at the cost of billions of dollars, is perfectly happy to let them carry heavy weapons, ammunition, and sustainment loads. For those who are still game for the challenge and can meet the baseline physical, mental, and moral standards, the question of gender should certainly not hold anyone back.

Additionally, Annis voices an idea that I myself have considered in the past, but unsurprisingly, his own gender bias prevents him from carrying the thought to its logical conclusion:

Perhaps the military should design career paths that would allow women to serve in the combat arms branches for the first few years of their service before transitioning to less physically demanding branches. In this way, women would have the ability to gain the honour of serving in the Infantry but transition to other roles before their bodies are fatigued to the point of disability.

Again, why not expand that concept to all combat arms troops? Let every man and woman in the ground forces do their first tour in a combat arms unit before going on to later tours in a less physically demanding job in the support forces.

What Must be Done

Finally, Annis correctly observes that “the Marine Corps has some maladaptive behaviours that must be addressed.” Indeed, it does, and the way to address them begins by changing the culture. That starts by integrating Recruit Training as has already been done with officer training. The Marine Corps needs to eliminate the “Boot” mentality where it allows slightly more senior Marines to mock their youngest colleagues. Instead of allowing a very limited number of accelerated “Meritorious” promotions, they should set an extremely high bar for them, but say “anyone who can achieve these standards will be promoted ahead of their peers,” and this should apply for officers as well as enlisted Marines. They should invest more in their Marines and less in costly weapons systems whose utility is questionable. Housing reform for junior enlisted must be a priority, along with balancing the quality of life and financial benefits for single versus married Marines. Current promotions and retention decisions are all based on how well a Marine pleases their boss, with no input from peers or subordinates, creating an environment where leaders who are toxic but effective are promoted. That should be reformed with 360-Degree evaluations for all Marines.

The Marine Corps needs to provide Marines at all ranks with better training on consent, on the dangers of alcohol and tobacco, and on mitigating the risk-seeking tendencies which many Marines exhibit. Like the rest of the U.S. military, the Marines need to improve their systems for dealing with issues of mental health, suicide, hazing, sexual harassment, and sexual assault. The current models make it extremely challenging for Marines to seek help without incurring negative stigma, and the statistics show that these methods simply are not working.

Finally, action is needed to eliminate the extreme levels of gender bias that still permeate the Corps. This starts with locking/moderating the comments on all official Marine Corps social media to address the phenomenon of male Marines and veterans “trolling” media related to female Marines and new Marines. It also requires setting gender-neutral standards for physical fitness and eliminating names and photos on promotion boards to remove gender and racial bias. If this is done, the Marines will be able to hold their heads high as being not only one of the world’s most feared fighting forces, but also its most respected. If not, they will continue to lead the American military in all the wrong ways, with the highest suicide and accident rate, the most assaults, and the highest level of hazing.

LtCol Edward Carpenter

LtCol Edward H. Carpenter is a U.S. Marine who has served in command and worked with foreign military partners around the world. He is currently stationed in South Sudan with the UN peacekeeping force. LtCol Carpenter’s opinions are his own and do not represent the official views of the UN, the USMC, or the US DOD.

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