Although many Marines’ eyes glaze over when they hear the word “gender,” Carol Cohn’s recent stark assessment of what the masculinization of national security can cost us should be required reading for Marine Corps leaders. The Corps’ institutional struggles have not quite risen to the level of the genitalia-referencing Twitter-squabbling that Cohn rightly finds abhorrent, but our internal difficulties have regularly and publicly surfaced over the past few years — and they have been highly gendered in nature. The Corps may assume these difficulties are only tangentially related to each other and disconnected from broader struggles in Iraq or Afghanistan, but as Cohn makes clear, they are anything but.
Let’s take a look at recent events that have plagued the Corps and caused dissension in the ranks. Since 2013, attempts at effective integration have been fitful; opponents comfortable with sexist and misogynist overtones were encouraged by then-Commandant Gen. Joseph Dunford’s failed request for an exception to policy. In 2015, the former commander of the 4th Recruit Training Battalion began publicly speaking about what she identified as systemic bias against and subordination of women. For three years now, the Corps has played whack-a-mole with misogynistic social media sites like Just the Tip, Of the Spear and Marines United. The latter exploded into the national consciousness this past spring, and fallout is still occurring.
In response, the female Marines of Facebook group Actionable Change wrote a letter to the Corps decrying an underlying culture of subordination and discrimination that has spawned decades of harassment and abuse. In 2016 and 2017, stories of hazing and abuse of recruits, particularly Muslim recruits, emerged from Parris Island, raising questions about what we value as an institution. Months later, women everywhere — 45% of Facebook users to include female Marines and service members — posted #metoo on social media. My unofficial count suggests that 90% or more of my female Naval Academy classmates posted #metoo.
Perhaps these problems stem from a deeply sexist institution and a structural disrespect for women and the feminine gender. Bad enough. But with Cohn’s insight in mind, there is an even bigger problem to consider.
At a meeting with senior Marine Corps leaders on the topic of gender integration this fall, a visitor spoke of how effective integration reflects the nature of conflict as spelled out in United Nations Security Council Resolution (UNSCR) 1325. Eyes glazed over. Then one high-ranking attendee held up a hand. “What is this resolution you keep referring to?” he asked. Others shrugged, uncertain themselves. The Corps, a warfighting organization, is unfamiliar with UNSCR 1325 or its implications.
This matters. Our institutional failure to grasp that conflict is fundamentally gendered is an underlying structural weakness and may prove to be a fatal flaw.
Gender shapes conflict, shapes society, and frames the cultures in which we operate. Gender does not solely mean women, although women are disproportionately impacted by war. A gender perspective does not mean only that by talking to female civilians in conflict zones, we can develop a stronger assessment of human terrain, although this too can be true. Instead, gender — through the masculine and feminine norms and structures that exist in society — shapes the actions of Marines, of leaders, of enemy combatants, and of the broader civilian populace. If we do not question our gendered — primarily masculine — assumptions and bring a gender perspective to every assessment, plan, and decision, those products will remain incomplete. Our sheer military superiority can force success, but that will not always be the case, and our ignorance of gender means that the potential for failure is ubiquitous at every level — tactical, operational, and strategic.
To make it clear:
First, Marines United, the misogyny exposed via social media, and a preference for the masculine hint of the sexist culture that lies beneath. (Want to insult a male Marine? Call him a slang word for female genitalia.)
Next, resulting integration failures, poor leadership support, and the way we ignore, suppress, or reject the opinions and even presence of female Marines means that the very people who might move us institutionally past our relatively homogenous bubble are silenced, ignored, or removed from the equation through both sexist preferences and structural discrimination.
Finally, leaders’ ignorance of international frameworks like UNSCR 1325, the Corps’ historical disinterest in prioritizing integration, and the way that Marines’ eyes glaze over at the word “gender” demonstrate the institution’s lack of awareness of the importance of a gender perspective in conflict.
As a warfighting institution, we should want to seize every advantage, exploit every opening, and wring every bit of knowledge from the fabric of the cultures in which we operate. If we had applied a gender perspective to Iraq and Afghanistan — structured our forces differently, sought different end states, and created different relationships between security and governance — would the results be different? Would the conflicts be over, democratic governments installed, and peace be flooding the land? Perhaps not. However, those tactical and operational missteps and failures add up and have strategic implications. We might not get off so relatively easy, so to speak, next time.
For Marine Corps leaders, the time is now. Learn about UNSCR 1325 and its implications for the nature of conflict across the spectrum. Consider how we can begin to apply a gender perspective to warfighting. And finally, study how gender shapes war and warfighters. Until you — and we — do, all of these other problems — #metoo, Marines United, integration — will not be resolved. Instead, they will continue to limit us and may one day bring about a more strategically tragic end.
Lt. Col. Jeannette Gaudry Haynie, USMCR, PhD, is a Naval Academy graduate and an attack helicopter pilot by trade. Her academic research focuses on the gendered nature of conflict. She currently serves as an analyst in the Headquarters Marine Corps Strategic Initiatives Group and is an adjunct professor at The George Washington University. This article reflects her opinion and does not necessarily reflect the views of any institution with which she is now or has been previously affiliated.