Between the age of 17 and 21, I spent some quality time in holes. In the Marine Corps we call them “fighting holes,” not “fox holes.” Those holes serve as battle positions, sleeping quarters, midnight-watch stations, and the frozen pockets of hardship and misery that characterize the life of a grunt. For four years in the infantry, I dug these holes wherever the Marine Corps took me: Camp Pendleton, Yuma, Twentynine Palms, the banks of the Euphrates in Iraq, and the jungles of southern India. There are few ways in life you can grow closer to a person than to stand post together on a cold night in a dark, muddy hole — especially if you take fire.
The Marine Corps infantry is the finest, most professional, and deadliest fighting force on the planet. Proudly known as grunts, these men have fought and prevailed in some of the worst hellholes of modern combat: Belleau Wood, Guadalcanal, Iwo Jima, Okinawa, the Chosin Reservoir, Hue City, Fallujah, the deserts of Al Anbar, and the mountains of Helmand Province. The Marine Corps infantry exists to fight and win wars. When there is a fortress to be assaulted, a force to defeat, a hill to take, a beach to land on, or a battle to be fought, it is the infantry we send in. Every Marine grunt is conditioned, trained, and reinforced to embrace this heritage, ferocity, and esprit de corps. Each Marine infantryman is able to proclaim verbatim that, “The mission of the Marine Rifle Company is to locate, close with, and destroy the enemy by fire and maneuver or to repel his assault by fire and close combat.”
For 240 years, infantry Marines have been men. But last week, the Department of Defense announced — against the advice of the highest Marine Generals, with many decades of military experience — that the infantry, along with all combat occupations across the armed forces, will be opened to women. This is a momentous decision, and some questions should be asked and answered. Does this decision enhance the overall effectiveness of the Marine Corps? Does it enhance the ability of the infantry to accomplish its mission: To locate, close with, and kill the enemy? Does this decision in any way hinder or deteriorate the deadliness of the infantry?
Prior to Secretary of Defense Ash Carter’s pronouncement, the Marine Corps conducted a year-long study of the possible effects of opening the combat occupations to women. The study established an integrated training battalion and made female Marines perform all of the same tasks that male grunts perform as part of their regular units. The study found that all-male units consistently outperformed integrated units. The results indicated that a Marine rifle company of all men would more effectively fight the enemy than a Marine rifle company composed of men and women. In other words, an all-male unit holds a better chance of winning battles. This being the case, it is absolutely wrong to degrade the fighting ability of our frontline combat units by integrating women into their formations.
While I have no experience or advice on whether women can perform as well as men aboard submarines, shooting artillery, or within the hull of a tank, I do have some specific considerations about women in the infantry.
I spent four years in the infantry as a machine gunner. In Hit, Iraq in the winter of 2006–07, I humped countless miles and fought my share of fights with an initial combat load consisting of my 25.6 pound M-240G machine gun, 28 pounds worth of 7.62×51 belts of linked ammunition, a five-pound PAS-13 thermal sight, a Kevlar helmet, a flak jacket with four heavy ballistic ceramic plates, a first-aid kit, a 9mm pistol, pistol magazines, grenades, smoke, a few liters of water, and a couple of field-stripped MREs — a load nearing 100 pounds. I was part of a three-man team, equally loaded down with rifles, magazines, tripods, spare barrels, mounts, and about 1,500 rounds, or 105 pounds, of machine-gun ammunition. We hiked, ran, crawled, jumped, dug, climbed, and fought in that gear.
The physical demands are monumental. At 5’6 and 160 pounds, I was one of the smallest men in my company, but while I was small, I was tough and strong. Until you have had to carry a 200-pound grunt — in his full combat gear — on your shoulders or on a stretcher all while wearing your own combat gear in continuous combat operations, you simply cannot imagine how hard life can be in the infantry.
#share#There is a reason that there are no women in the NFL, the NBA, or Major League Baseball. Women are created different from men. On average, men are bigger, stronger, and faster than women. So it’s no surprise that the Marine Corps study found that female Marines are more likely than male Marines to sustain injuries — such as stress fractures — that can degrade the combat readiness of a unit. In a Marine Corps in which it can be very difficult to enforce and maintain extraordinarily high physical standards even among male Marines, it is not wise to allow female Marines into the infantry where most will not qualify physically over the long haul and when integration has been studied and found to have a negative impact on the performance of the unit.
I acknowledge that there is a minority of women who are physically capable of performing these tasks. But that in itself is not a valid reason to integrate women into the combat infantry if it decreases the overall lethality of the unit. Remember, the purpose of the Marines is not to be an idealistic utopia: The purpose of the Marines is to kill the enemy.
The Marine Corps in general and the infantry in particular is a very hard life. It is crude, dangerous, tough, and physically and mentally demanding.
Aside from the physical demands that make the all-male infantry unit more effective than an integrated unit, there are many other factors that make mixed-sex infantry units questionable at best. The Marine Corps in general and the infantry in particular is a very hard life. It is crude, dangerous, tough, and physically and mentally demanding. This is why, in today’s all-volunteer military the Marine infantry recruits the toughest, bravest, grittiest, most athletic and confident young men to fill its ranks. The infantry attracts a different kind of young man — a man who willingly leaves behind boyhood and joins a force of hardened warriors designed for fighting and killing. It is undoubtedly a body of honor and professionalism and yet — and I can say this from experience — that, even in garrison, the infantry is not a place I would want any daughter of mine anywhere near.
Many of the same issues that crop up in organizations of mixed-sex young people anywhere, like sexual harassment, relationships, breakups, jealousy, and pregnancy, could potentially have a tangible effect on the performance of an integrated unit. I personally witnessed some of these problems in Iraq when several female Marines were brought in to assist a rifle squad to search local women at a vehicle-checkpoint position for several weeks outside of Haditha in 2008. The morale of the rifle squad plummeted when the close-knit group of Marines began having conflicts with each other over female Marines. These young men were on the far side of the world from home, and had been gone for many months, and while the female Marines were performing an important mission in this case, their presence also proved to be a distraction. I can attest that women in the infantry inevitably generate issues and scenarios that could hinder or distract from unit performance — issues that would not need to be addressed in an all-male company.
In combat and in training there is no time or acceptable reason to have to separate front-line sanitary, hygiene, or sleeping conditions. This may seem frivolous, but there are bound to be an enormous amount of — at the very least — uncomfortable situations as 18-year-old men and 18-year-old women are forced to urinate, defecate, shower, and sleep next to each other. These situations are everyday experiences in the infantry. With respect to continuous combat operations, issues such as menstruation — and any time or effort that a woman would have to expend to handle the situation, which a male infantryman would not — must be appraised, considered, and discussed honestly.
I have the utmost respect for female Marines. They perform many important tasks and essential roles in the Marine Corps. It is in part thanks to the efforts of the exceptional Marine logistical and support teams, composed of both male and female Marines, that Marine grunt units are the most dangerous and effective fighting force in the world. And when the circumstances of war have dictated, many female Marines have fought bravely and effectively in combat. But we should not, in the name of “equality,” erode the fighting ability and the effectiveness of our combat troops to fight and win wars and protect our nation.
I believe that this politically driven decision is a mistake, but I do not hesitate to proclaim my unwavering support for the Marines of the infantry, whatever their gender might be. I hope that the Department of Defense — and the presidential administration above it — will exercise wisdom and judgement in evaluating the effectiveness and consequences of this decision.
The infantry is no place for political correctness. The vilest stories, cruelest jokes, and dirtiest thoughts I’ve ever heard were told to me by shivering, nasty, utterly ferocious grunts — with their sights on the enemy position and cuddling with me in a fighting hole.
— Zack “Cookie” Wright was a sergeant in Lima Company, Third Battalion, Fourth Marine Regiment and is a veteran of the Iraq War.