Best Defense

Thomas E. Ricks' daily take on national security.

The Marines United scandal should be seen as a national security issue

The degradation of women in the military reflected by the Marines United scandal is not just a women’s rights issue but a national security concern.



By Jeannette Haynie and Kyleanne Hunter


By Jeannette Haynie and Kyleanne Hunter
Best Defense guest columnists

The degradation of women in the military reflected by the Marines United scandal is not just a women’s rights issue but a national security concern, since such actions undermine the Corps’ credibility and capability as the premier fighting force of the world’s leading democracy. The military is not a fraternity for libido-laden boys or an institution that only exists to kill people and break things. It is an extension of politics and diplomacy, representing the heart and body of the state it fights for.

Today’s wars clearly echo military theorist Carl von Clausewitz’s maxim of “the continuation of politics by other means.” The United States is not defending its borders from foreign invasion or waging war against a threatening state; instead the United States is intervening in conflicted regions in the name of freedom and democracy, facing non-state actors who operate outside of the conventional state system. This kind of war is complex, multi-dimensional, and difficult to fight. Success depends upon the development of a comprehensive grand strategy that links every aspect of government. Ensuring the conditions for success in meeting strategic objectives often takes precedence over killing every potential enemy combatant. Execution of such a broad national strategy requires a military that reflects the values of our nation, values that demand that all people — women and men alike — have the right to participate in our democracy and acknowledge that America’s strength lies in our diversity. In light of the growing roles of unconventional non-state actors, international and transnational organizations, and the changing norms of conflict and equality, the U.S. military must act in ways that both directly complement national strategy and accurately reflect the values of our nation.

The success of the U.S. military in this global security arena thus requires the full integration of women, not just for the manpower they bring as individuals — which Commandant General Robert Neller noted in the Senate Armed Services Committee (SASC) hearing, stating that we can no longer successfully fight wars without female Marines — but for the unique characteristics and diverse perspectives that women bring to security and stability. Successful integration of women into the military is more than just removing regulatory barriers and adding women to rosters. As we see from the scandal’s fallout, it also includes challenging gender norms and deeply-held identities. This task will be difficult and complicated, but military success depends on it.

Complete and successful integration of women into the U.S. military is critical to national security for three primary reasons.

First, as Neller mentioned in the SASC hearing, our military needs women to tactically fight and win wars —particularly modern counterinsurgency campaigns — today.

Our military can no longer fight wars without female service members, but our need for integration goes well beyond simple manpower calculations: In modern war, women are proven, unique force multipliers. Throughout the 21st century, women have brought a full range of capabilities along with uniquely gendered perspectives and experiences to the fight. While biology does not clearly predetermine female and male perspectives, social norms and informal institutions result in women and men often having vastly different experiences throughout their lives. These experiences can be exploited for success.

The current global security arena — which heavily preferences counterinsurgency and peacekeeping — relies on a great diversity of talent and experience. Populations often respond more positively and attribute greater credibility to more gender-diverse teams. As United Nations Security Council Resolution 1325 (UNSCR 1325) and follow-on resolutions make clear, durable peace is more likely when women are full participants in all areas of security. Indeed, diversity makes small units stronger, which can directly translate to tactical success. As a combat skill, mixed-gender teams can be more effective at problem solving and complex cognitive skills than male-only units. While the military can effectively train for the known, the unknown demands intelligent, inquisitive leaders, characteristics owned by no gender, and will benefit from the diversity of experience that full integration brings.

Second, due to the U.S. military’s role worldwide in diffusing liberal democratic norms, if we fail to internalize those norms ourselves, we lose all credibility.

One of the stated goals of U.S. national security is the international promotion of democratic norms. Among these norms is the concept that men and women should have equal opportunities and should be equally respected. The adherence to liberal values in our military is important both domestically and internationally. The U.S. has been a primary backer of implementing UNSCR 1325 internationally, promoting policies of gender inclusion in emerging post-conflict states, but it must be implemented domestically as well. Our military must reflect the society we believe that we are in the most visible ways possible. Without practicing what we preach, we risk failure and a loss of credibility both at home and abroad, and risk creating a military class that the citizenry does not feel represents their beliefs or interests.

Third, cultivating female military leaders is important at a time when we are seeing increasing numbers of female political leaders; many are watching how the Corps handles this problem.

In addition, growing female military leaders can itself lead to more female political and community leaders. Despite the fact that military service as whole is on the decline, Americans still see military veterans as embodying the values and skills needed for political leadership.

Having female leaders in every capacity is critical for the long-term survival and success of the United States and of liberal Democracy. The vast literature on women, peace, and security demonstrates that greater gender equality is linked to greater state stability and wealth, lower rates of conflict and violent crime, lower levels of corruption and domestic terrorism, and fewer human rights abuses.

The Marines United scandal was devastating for the individuals involved and the Marine Corps as a whole, and it laid bare the culture of bias and misogyny that has long existed in the U.S. military. However, if we continue to focus on the culture that spawned Marines United as something that only hurts women — treating it as an unfortunate byproduct of societal norms, as we have for so long — the greater benefits of full gender integration will not be realized. The implications of this failure go well beyond the Marine Corps, the U.S. military, or women alone, potentially impacting our security and stability as a nation.

Jeannette Haynie is a LtCol in the United States Marine Corps Reserve and an AH-1W Cobra pilot by trade; she has completed multiple combat and overseas deployments. She is currently a PhD Candidate in Political Science at George Washington University, a Senior Fellow at Women in International Security, and the creator of the Outdoor Leadership Lab.  

Kyleanne Hunter served more than a decade as an officer in the United States Marine Corps. She served as an AH-1W Super Cobra Pilot, completing multiple combat deployments, and the Marine Corps Legislative Liaison Officer to the House of Representatives. She is currently a PhD Candidate at the Korbel School of International Studies at University of Denver.  

This article represents their own views, which are not necessarily those of any of the institutions with which they are now or were previously affiliated.

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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