Disputes between the political appointees who run the Pentagon and the military officers who serve there are not unheard of, but the nastiness and public nature of the fight over women in combat being waged between Secretary of the Navy Ray Mabus and the Marines who answer to him is unprecedented in recent memory.
It became apparent that something was up on September 1, when Mabus gave an interview to the press in which he said he saw no reason for an “exception” for the Marine Corps on women’s integration into ground combat units. This was unusual for a number of reasons, not least the fact that the Marine Corps had not yet requested any such exception. On the schedule dictated by Gen. Martin Dempsey, the outgoing chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, all of the services owe requests to keep certain jobs closed to women to the chairman’s office by this fall.
One might expect Marine Corps leaders to make their recommendations first, and the secretary of the Navy to weigh in second. But here was Mabus—who served as a junior naval officer for two years in the ’70s before going on to be the Democratic governor of Mississippi—very publicly short-circuiting the process.
Things only got uglier from there. Following the Marine Corps’s release last week of the executive summary of a multimillion-dollar trial they had wrapped up earlier in 2015—the results of which showed that mixed-gender units perform a large majority of critical battlefield tasks worse than male units—Mabus gave an extraordinary interview to NPR in which he implied that the Marines responsible for the study were dishonest sexists:
It started out with a fairly large component of the men thinking this is not a good idea, and women will not be able to do this. When you start out with that mindset, you’re almost presupposing the outcome.
Rather than merely disagree with the results of the study, Mabus was going one better: impugning the good faith of the men and women who had conducted it, the very men and women President Obama had appointed him to lead.
Mabus further implied that the Marine Corps had manipulated the results by stacking the trial with unqualified women: “I mean, in terms of the women that volunteered, probably should’ve been a higher bar to cross to get into the experiment.” Mabus dismissed out of hand the fact that female Marines were injured at more than twice the rate of the males during the study, something that would threaten the long-term effectiveness of mixed units:
And part of the study said we’re afraid because women get injured more frequently, that over time, women will break down more, that you’ll begin to lose your combat effectiveness over time. That was not shown in this study. That was an extrapolation based on injury rates.
Having accused the Marines of forcing their conclusions to match their prejudices, Mabus seemed to want to reject any evidence that did not conform to his own preferred outcomes.
Marines are famous for their discipline and obedience to orders, but having their integrity questioned was enough to push several involved in the study to respond publicly. Sergeant Major Justin LeHew, a Navy Cross recipient who had helped lead the experiment, wrote an angry Facebook post (since taken down): “The Secretary of the Navy is way off base on this and to say the things he is saying is . . . flat out counter to the interests of national security and is unfair to the women who participated in this study. . . . No one went into this with the mentality that we did not want this to succeed. No Marine, regardless of gender would do that.”
Danielle Beck, a sergeant who had volunteered for the experiment, agreed, telling the Washington Post, “Our secretary of the Navy completely rolled the Marine Corps and the entire staff that was involved in putting this in place under the bus. . . . Everyone that was involved did the job and completed the mission to the best of their abilities.” As for Mabus’s comments about the quality of the women participating in the experiment, Beck understandably described that as a “slap in the face.”
In the same article, the Post reported that it had obtained documents, presumably from the Marine Corps, indicating that the average physical fitness score for women in the study was higher than the men’s average—283 out of a perfect score of 300, as opposed to 244 for the men. Scoring on Marine physical fitness tests is “gender normed,” so this doesn’t mean the women were faster or stronger than the men—but it does mean the female subjects were well above average among female Marines.