Best Defense

A few brass tacks: Why gender arguments blind the military to bigger problems

Best Defense columnist Jim Gourley weighs in on gender and combat.

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By Jim Gourley
Best Defense bureau chief for military physical fitness

In two recent essays on the subject of women in combat, Marine Captain Katey Van Dam directly addressed the issue of women’s physical aptitude for infantry combat. She is justified in taking up the case because so many opponents have used the matter of physicality as an argument against their presence in infantry units. However, no matter how well either side presents its view, both sexes have much more in common physically than they realize. What they share is a lack of physical ability that constitutes a dangerous threat to ground troops’ battlefield success.

On the same day that Van Dam’s piece appeared on “War on the Rocks,” NPR aired a story about women Marines undergoing infantry training to assess their aptitude for front line duty. The story noted that while only one woman dropped out of live-fire training at Twenty-nine Palms, nearly half the women who started the course failed during the first week of training at Camp Lejeune due to hip and leg fractures as a result of load bearing activities. Noting he “wasn’t surprised” by the injury rate, Marine Captain Ray Kaster further commented that “The load obviously is something the majority of them are not used to. We’re all different. And that’s one of the things we’re here to do, to show what are those differences, and do they affect the readiness, what toll on the readiness of the infantry small unit does that have.”

Kaster can’t be more wrong. While decades of studies show that there are differences in the skeletal injury rates of male and female recruits in military training (.pdf), the data point that should capture the military’s attention is the disturbingly high aggregate rate. If Kaster was not surprised at the number of women who sustained fractures in the first week of training, perhaps he would be by Army Captain Daniel Kearney’s remark in the Sebastian Junger documentary Korengal that fifteen of his men sustained broken ankles during a combat deployment to Afghanistan. In the current debate the inevitable question becomes whether a platoon of physically qualified women have fared better in that terrain. The question doesn’t merit a response because of its inherent flaw — what exactly do we mean by “physically qualified?”

It is no mean issue. Consider how meeting current physical fitness requirements safeguards any infantry troops from sustaining those kinds of injuries. The only absolute performance metrics to qualify for infantry duty are the USMC and U.S. Army physical fitness tests, marksmanship certification, and some basic water survival and foot marching events. Front line infantry personnel and military medicine experts alike know that none of these tests approximate the demands of combat. The common refrain is that “we train to the test.” Consequently, whether our platoons are staffed with infantrymen or infantrywomen, the only true physical qualifications they meet are to conduct a battery of pull ups, pushups, sit-ups, and a short endurance run. Our political and military leadership have determined to close the gender gap. What they fail to comprehend is that our military faces a combat gap. Training is not emulating battle, and sending untrained troops onto the battlefield costs us dearly in blood and treasure.

The evidence provides a much stronger indication that women’s difficulty in passing the physical criteria for infantry duty is a consequence of societal norms and a lack of adequate preparation during the critical years of adolescence rather than their chromosomal arrangement. A 2012 study by the Centers for Disease Control found that women are less than half as likely as men to exercise for 30 minutes a day. Regular exercise is a strong correlate to bone strength, and the greatest amount of bone development occurs during the first five years of life. While no scientific study was undertaken to determine the cause of women’s lack of exercise, researchers observed that sociological factors such as different parental attitudes toward allowing boys and girls playing outside had an impact. These trends continue in the public education system, where physical education time has been cut to abysmal levels with up to 20% of students in some states getting no time at all for physical activity. Of concern to women’s physical fitness, biases toward boys seem to persist even when physical education standards are increased. However, these same trends toward a sedentary lifestyle are similarly diminishing the physical aptitude of male infantry candidates.

The military cannot manufacture qualified personnel from scratch. The raw material comes from American society, and the quality of recruits has sharply declined in the last twenty years. A remarkable corollary to this is the U.S. Navy’s dilemma in recruiting more African Americans into the SEALs. Their efforts to target college athletes may not be digging far enough into the youth of an ethnic group with a historically tragic problem of children drowning. The reason goes back to the 1960s when segregation kept blacks out of public pools. Though such laws were repealed, not enough pools were ever built in traditionally black communities. We currently have as many black SEAL officers as we do black Olympic swimmers for the same reason, and it has nothing to do with genetics. African Americans simply aren’t introduced to swimming in sufficient numbers to foster an interested talent pool. Pick a metric for physical qualification and you can draw lines between multiple groups based on race, geographic location, and socioeconomic background. Yet each case is just another tree in a greater forest of physically unfit recruits.

The American military has been nominally aware of this problem for years, thanks in large part to the advocacy group Mission: Readiness. Its 2012 report “Too Fat to Fight” offered a sobering outlook of American youths’ physical aptitude for military service, estimating that less than 30% met weight standards. But as leaders at the military’s physical fitness training institutions have discovered, the problem is much worse than obesity. Recruits today lack the fundamental motor skills to safely negotiate an obstacle course. An appallingly small fraction of them can pass the same fitness test that their grandfathers did before going off to fight WWII. The military’s challenge to overcome these discrepancies is compounded by American society’s lack of emphasis on physical fitness.

But the military hamstrings itself by persisting in its outmoded approach to fitness. So long as it accepts the current standards of physical fitness as qualifications for infantry combat, service members of every demographic are placed at risk due to inadequate training. The armed forces are only now putting forth a dedicated effort to assess and quantify metrics for the physical demands of various military specialties. There is no telling how long it will take to produce sufficient documentation to articulate specific job demands, let alone the amount of time the military will take to adapt its physical training doctrine to better prepare troops for their tasks. But delays in these efforts only further reflect subconscious bias within the armed forces regarding physical ability. The Global War on Terror spurred the Defense Department to initiate innumerable “crash programs” in weapons and vehicle procurement to better provide for service members’ safety and success. Meanwhile, the very best rehabilitative physical therapy programs are reserved for special operations forces. As bad as the F-35 program may have been run, it has generated a more successful product than military physical training programs. The core of our military’s strength is people, yet the Defense Department places inordinately greater attention on weapon systems than human systems.

Our dialogue is horribly skewed from the very beginning when we discuss women meeting the physical requirements for infantry combat duty, because we focus on “women” rather than “physical requirements.” As Colonel Martha McSally told Bill O’Reilly in the interview Van Dam referenced, the best and most fair approach to assessing women’s potential for infantry assignments is to test them to the same standard as their male counterparts. However, it cannot be stressed enough that we cannot accurately say whether any man or woman — let alone either sex as a collective — meets the physical standards for combat duty because our standards have nothing to do with combat. A truly gender-neutral fitness testing standard would be substantially more comprehensive and rigorous and would not scale its requirements based on gender or age differences.

The battlefield is ultimately the most unrelenting test of fitness, and it does not discriminate in its assessments between the quick and the dead. Neither should the armed forces. From aircraft carriers to armored vehicles, the Defense Department outlines performance requirements to ensure we have the very best systems in the world. Yet it faces a precipitous decline in quality and number of personnel ready to meet the demands of the battlefield. It is time for an equally uncompromising review of its standards for human performance requirements. By its very nature, the process would be blind to gender.

Jim Gourley is a former military intelligence officer. He now works as an author and journalist covering military affairs and sports science. His newest book, about ultra-endurance triathlon, is in stores now. Follow him on Twitter: @jim_gourley.

Photo Credit: MicroAssist/Flickr

Thomas E. Ricks covered the U.S. military from 1991 to 2008 for the Wall Street Journal and then the Washington Post. He can be reached at ricksblogcomment@gmail.com. Twitter: @tomricks1

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