Best Defense

I thought women didn’t belong in infantry. After leaving, realized I was quite wrong.

“Two female Marines will be joining our platoon. They’ll serve as female searchers. Treat them with the utmost respect.”



By Sebastian J. Bae
Best Defense Council of the Former Enlisted

“Two female Marines will be joining our platoon. They’ll serve as female searchers. Treat them with the utmost respect.” With that, the Lieutenant turned to our Platoon Sergeant, giving an almost unnoticeable nod — a signal we all knew well. The conversation wasn’t over yet; we just needed the politically correct ears of our Lieutenant to leave.

As soon as the Lieutenant disappeared, our Platoon Sergeant uncrossed his arms and barked, “Don’t talk to them. Don’t socialize with them. Don’t even look at them. If it isn’t work related, stay the hell away from them!” Knife hand jabbing the air, he warned, “And make sure you’re always with another Marine when dealing with them. Never be behind closed doors. You got that?”

The platoon knew how to read between the lines. Fraternization would not be tolerated, while even the whisper of sexual misdeed would end our careers. The female Marines would be one of us, but perpetual outsiders. They were invaluable assets to our mission, but liabilities to our careers.

Yet with whispers of female suicide bombers, the platoon grudgingly accepted the female Marines as a necessary evil. Iraqi tradition forbade men searching women, so the female Marines, affectionately called ‘Lionesses,’ instantly became regular staples in our checkpoints. Tasked with searching the endless stream of women, the Lionesses ran back and forth between checkpoints. But between daily patrols, several checkpoints, and around-the-clock security for the provincial government building, the Lionesses were stretched dangerously thin. Unsurprisingly, there were unavoidable gaps where we let women pass through our checkpoints unsearched — a reckless game of Russian roulette. This was military planning and efficiency at its best.

But no amount of usefulness erased the palpable social partition between the Lionesses and the platoon. The Lionesses slept in an adjacent building, dined alone, and rarely visited the main compound. The Lionesses were unwelcomed, even shunned, as conversations ended and rooms hastily emptied with their presence. Nevertheless, rumors persisted that one of the Sergeants was sleeping with one of the Lionesses. Whether true or an empty boast, the truth remained the Lionesses were utter distractions — whether in our juvenile attempts to impress them or how we avoided them like the plague.

So as the debate of female combat integration rages on, I am both sympathetic to those resisting its imposition, but also unapologetically supportive of integration.

As a Sergeant squad leader, I saw women in our coveted ranks as a liability, risking the lives of my Marines for abstract notions of fairness and feminism. But most of all, the intrusion of the opposite sex into the infantry was a personal attack on my precious band of brothers — an unfamiliar and dangerous change to what was comforting and sacred. High principles were faceless, while my Marines were priceless to me.

But now, as a civilian separated from the narrow tactical mindset of the Corps, I realize I was wrong. The principles driving female integration weren’t faceless, but embodied in women in uniform like Tessa Poppe and Katey van Dam. Maybe if I were smarter and braver in Iraq, I would have strived to incorporate the Lionesses instead of setting them up to fail. Maybe if we didn’t see women as liabilities, they could have helped us succeed where we failed alone. And those naysayers preaching ‘unit cohesion’ and ‘mission effectiveness’ conveniently forget we lost one war and still in the process of losing another.

The hard truth is the military is dangerously antiquated, both operationally and intellectually. And maybe female integration is the transformation the military needs to be more responsive and flexible. And maybe it isn’t.

All I know is I would be lucky to have Tessa, with all her wit and grit, in my squad or serve under a commander as committed as Katey.

Sebastian J. Bae served six years in the Marine Corps infantry, leaving as a Sergeant. He deployed to Iraq in 2009. He received his Masters at Georgetown University’s Security Studies Program, specializing in counterinsurgency and humanitarian interventions. He holds the Marine co-chair on Best Defense’s Council of Former Enlisted.

Photo credit: Wikimedia Commons

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 Twitter: @tomricks1
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