The Marines have always been an elite club. Their marketing slogan — “the few, the proud” — flaunts a philosophy of exclusion and domination. Their mandate — “every Marine is a rifleman” — is a reminder to civilian leaders that their primary purpose is to fight. They are not nation-builders.
The Corps is smaller and leaner than the other service branches, and is often the most resistant to change. It was a vocal holdout on ending the “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy last year. With fewer than 10 percent women, they are also the most male of all the services. So the historic announcement that the Marine Corps will open up its infantry officer school at Quantico, Va., as well as some ground battalions, to female Marines was nothing short of a revolution 236 years in the making. Marines and progressive are not two words that are often used together.
Last Monday night, in a surprise message sent to troops, General James F. Amos, the Marine commandant, described the changes. Women will now enter its infantry officer course, the grueling classes at Quantico which test an officer’s capabilities under stress and physical exhaustion. Graduation from Quantico is a big prize. Women will now formally qualify to be assigned to combat roles, the next big hurdle. In addition, about 40 women already in the Marines will be assigned to artillery, tank, assault amphibian, combat engineer, combat assault, and low-altitude air defense battalions. None of these are direct combat troops, but they are exceptionally close to the action.
From the perspective of changing the combat exclusion rules for women, the announcement is like the slow peeling off of a Band-Aid. The course of history, and the reality of war, are headed towards full inclusion of women into combat roles. The Pentagon’s liberalization of some of the combat rules earlier this year — and the promise of further reviews as evidenced in the changes this week — were an acknowledgment that antiquated and inconsistent combat regulations are becoming more difficult to defend in modern warfare. There is no battle front anymore. Every soldier is a riflewoman.
These new procedures are admittedly coming a little late given that 225,000 women have already served in Iraq and Afghanistan. But last week’s announcement is, at its core, a move to change military culture. While Defense Secretary Leon Panetta has put a necessary focus on fighting the prevalence of sexual assault in its ranks, it is simply not enough to ban bad behavior in order to achieve full integration.
But the Marines? And, to be honest, Commandant Amos? Last we heard from him, he was testifying before Congress against ending the prohibition on gays serving in the military, suggesting that the military was no place for social engineering. Amos was reflecting his troops; in polling of the military, the Marines were the most resistant to the “don’t ask, don’t tell” repeal.
Marines have never been aggressive about change. When President Harry Truman desegregated the military in 1948, all-black Marines units persisted. It took the Marines until 1952 for full integration of combat troops.
This slow-roll towards the inevitable is not without its skeptics who worry that the Marines will rely on the performance of a few women, who may fail, to judge female inclusion rules for everyone. That’s possible, but once doors are opened, it’s awfully hard to close them again. Women who join the Marines are the few and the proud as well. And it is worth remembering that Shannon Faulkner, the young woman who forced gender integration at South Carolina’s The Citadel, only lasted one week at the grueling military school that fought admitting female students until the Supreme Court forced its doors open. Now, the Citadel is about 7 percent female.
This announcement may not be giving women full equal status, but its significance is clear: the Marines are taking the Pentagon’s calls for continuing reassessments of gender roles seriously. They may also just recognize that the rules have outlived reality. Even Amos admitted, “I’m very bullish on women.” Not exactly the most sensitive turn of phrase but, come to think of it, pretty on point.Juliette Kayyem can be reached at email@example.com and Twitter @juliettekayyem