Rank And File Sororicide: How Female Marine Officers Hurt The Corps By Thinking Like Men

As a former Marine infantry officer, I found it illustrating to pick up this month’s issue of the Marine Corps Gazette and discover that our infantry is a “cult-like brotherhood … the one place where young men are able to focus solely on being a warrior without the distraction of women or political correctness.” I will admit that I found this to be a rather sweeping assessment, but it’s how at least one Marine officer who has never served in the infantry imagines it to be. In truth, Capt. Lauren Serrano is not entirely wrong. Marines do “fart, burp, tell raunchy jokes, walk around naked, swap sex stories, wrestle,” etc. Although to be fair, the Marine Corps infantry — or male Marines alone for that matter — does not have a monopoly on juvenile humor (see here or here for NSFW examples). And while Serrano failed to mention Marines lighting fires (my experience shows that grunts will usually build a fire before they get naked), I doubt many officers would disagree with her general observations about infantry behavior.

Serrano’s essay has been exceedingly well-received and even recognized for challenging conventional wisdom and proposing change — it won first prize in the 2013 MajGen Harold W. Chase Prize Essay Contest — although strangely, it does neither. In fact, her conclusions regarding the importance of preserving the infantry culture and the presumed impact of integrating women into the infantry are seriously flawed, and though her failure to recognize the pitfalls of her own assimilation are understandable, her failure to offer a compelling argument is not.

Serrano’s writing is actually at its best when she is offering counterpoints to her own thesis. As an intelligence officer, she expertly explains how, by “nature of their gender,” integrating women made the special operations forces and counterintelligence/human intelligence communities more effective in combat. Serrano also acknowledges that she stands on the shoulders of those women who preceded her, having been afforded the opportunity to become an intelligence officer and serve in an intelligence battalion, which until relatively recently, would not have been possible. Yet when it comes to the infantry, Serrano sounds more like a Dunningite arguing the necessity of segregation. The foundation of her argument — that women “do not belong” — rests rather tenuously upon a series of assertions drawn from both sides of the same coin. That is, the infantry doesn’t need women, and women don’t need the infantry. She’s wrong on both points.

The Marine Corps has long embraced innovation as a key to preparing Marines to operate in increasingly complex environments, and to ensure those Marines are trained and equipped to meet the challenges of present and future battlefields. Today’s infantry training, therefore, seeks to produce a more ethically minded, tactically cunning and lethal Marine, capable of assessing his environment in the interest of gaining tactical advantage. The Combat Hunter program describes this as a new mindset for infantrymen, calling them “persistent collectors” who “systematically observe and profile the environment, collecting more relevant information from the human, social, and physical terrains…” This, of course, is the very mission set Serrano cited for the successful integration of women into battlefield special operations and intelligence units. “Women,” she wrote, “were able to gain placement and access to information and locations that were previously untapped by men.”

The problem here is that Serrano confuses the mission of the Marine Corps rifle squad with the service’s entire infantry capability. It is accurate to state that the mission of the rifle squad is to “locate, close with, and destroy the enemy by fire and maneuver and/or repel the enemy assault by fire and close combat.” But it is an error to conflate that single mission statement with the entire range of missions Marine Corps infantry may be called upon to conduct. So for Serrano to dismiss the notion that the Marine rifle squad simply does not need the added layer of diversity that allowed special operations units to better accomplish their missions in combat, demonstrates lack of vision and small appreciation for what the nation will ask of our Marines in the coming decades.

A case of need, of course, is a variable standard to apply in any argument. Certainly, possessing the requisite capability necessary to accomplish a given task is what Marines would term “mission essential.” And by that standard, the presence of women in any unit would certainly not be a precondition of success. But, then, neither would the presence of blacks, Native Americans, Jews, homosexuals, or any other specific minority. Yet we offer all but women the opportunity to compete against a common standard for the chance to serve in the infantry. In fact, we seek diversity as a matter of policy because, as the commandant has stated, diversity “leverages America’s varied pool of skills and abilities, and maximizes individual differences as a force multiplier.” The case for diversity is in itself a case of need. As Serrano wrote in her opening, “adversaries still must give themselves the greatest advantage possible in order to ensure success.” So why seek to build an additional, artificial barrier (beyond existing standards) for women desiring to serve in the infantry? According to Serrano, it’s because boys want to have sex with girls.

This particular aspect of Serrano’s argument is by far the weakest, and perhaps the most profoundly disappointing. Citing the disruptive effect of sexual harassment and sexual assault, she appears to engage in victim blaming, writing that “without women amongst their ranks, there are simply fewer opportunities for infantry Marines to be involved in sexual assault/harassment cases.” Regrettably, what she has done here is to undermine sexual assault prevention efforts by perpetuating the myth that the crime is caused by the perpetrator’s uncontrollable sexual urge. Such flawed thinking shifts the responsibility and blame from the assailant to the victim, and should never be used as a justification for denying women opportunity in any environment. Of course, Serrano does note that sexual assault and harassment exists at every level, damages unit readiness, and results in high opportunity cost for those Marines involved.

This is one reason why senior leaders have worked to establish an environment of respect, dignity, and professionalism in which victims feel confident in coming forward. However, with that said, Serrano still feels confident defending the existence of an environment where women are not welcome, writing that, to meet the physical and emotional demands of their duties, infantry Marines should retain a separate culture where they can “focus solely on being a warrior without the distraction of women or political correctness.” She has concluded here that keeping women out of the infantry will also serve to keep the issue of sexual assault/harassment “as far away from the infantry as possible.” That, however, is a rather uninformed position for an officer to take, given that among DoD’s reported cases of sexual assault in FY12, more than 1 in 10 victims were male.

In setting up her argument, Serrano exhibits little tolerance for her female colleagues who would “stir the pot” by advocating for the opportunity to join the infantry. She describes these women as “more interested in their careers than the needs of the Corps,” branding them as “selfish.” Women do not need the infantry to succeed, Serrano contends, writing that “a female Marine officer, regardless of occupational specialty, can be just as successful as a male infantry officer if she is truly a leader and puts the needs of her Marines above her own.” It’s a charming notion, but entirely untrue. The Marine Corps’ executive ranks are dominated by infantry officers, and virtually every four-star general in the history of the Corps has been an infantryman or a pilot. This is no coincidence.

While women officers promote at rates equal to or just ahead of their male colleagues at the ranks of major through colonel, promotions of women into the general officer ranks fall off significantly. The Military Leadership Diversity Commission cited two main reasons for this: the exclusion of women from combat arms, and a higher turnover rate than their male counterparts. So while Serrano would have her colleagues believe that “success is about performance, not MOS,” the fact is, not all leadership opportunities are created equal.

Overall, the argument Serrano makes presents nothing approaching a unique perspective or a challenge to the status quo. Her essay is packed with the very same prima facie observations white men have been making for decades, and leaders such as Serrano owe it to their service and to one another to do better. They should strive to tear down barriers, not build them up. But articles such as hers will continue to attract attention because it is a woman making these assertions, and for that very reason her essay is helpful only to those who seek to justify gender discrimination and shut the door on opportunity. Just as the opponents of progress have continued to cling to Capt. Katie Petronio’s auto-critical manifesto of inferiority, they will file away Serrano’s testimony as proof that there are in fact still places women simply do not belong.

This is not bold. It is poor leadership. And it should never be rewarded.

Change: Friday, Sept. 26, 2014.

The article originally stated that “a Department of Defense survey released earlier this year revealed more than 26,000 service members were victims of sexual assault in 2012, more than half of which were men.” While these figures have been contested by some, the takeaway should be that truly accurate figures for male-on-male sexual assault in the military are exceeding difficult to come by, largely due to a persistent culture of victim blaming that discourages victims from reporting the assaults — an issue most recently highlighted in an article by GQ magazine called “Son, Men Don’t Get Raped.”