This big question facing the U.S. military now is whether to lower standards for the first-ever crop of female combat recruits.
Arguments in favor of this approach come in two forms: either that women deserve affirmative action or that the military needs more combat troops.
We think that both arguments are fundamentally flawed.
The idea of lowering standards in order to make opportunity more equal doesn't make sense.
Let's call this the Harrison Bergeron argument. Kurt Vonnegut once wrote a dystopian short story about a fellow named Harrison Bergeron. Bergeron was too genetically superior for his own good. So superior in fact, that he had to wear a special prosthesis designed to make him dumber, uglier, and weaker.
Vonnegut's story shows the absurdity of quashing real and often valuable differences in the pursuit of equality. If the military lowers standards to let women into combat, then we're sticking a Bergeron prosthesis on what would otherwise be a superior fighting force.
The idea that America always needs more combat recruits is flat-out wrong.
Among Marine Corps officer candidates, around 30 percent of males submit for the infantry. Roughly a third of them must be (oftentimes arbitrarily) cut, simply because the Marine Corps only needs a certain number of infantry officers.
Between 400 and 500 of these potential officers get their wish every year. Because of the degree of difficulty, anywhere from 20 to 25 percent of those students wash out — nonetheless, the Marine Corps pays for all of them.
That's right: Every school seat is prepaid. Schedule 500, pass 325, pay for 500.
The same happens on the enlisted side, for both ground services, Army and Marines: School seats for infantry tend to go pretty fast, and a recruit's opportunity to be infantry tends to close partway through the year.
If the likelihood is higher that women will fail the course, and there's plenty of males who fit the bill, then why take the gamble? To silence social critics?
And face it, women are more likely to fail:
Let's go over a few statistics, taken from a report by Marine Corps Capt. Katie Petronio:
We need only to review the statistics from our entry-level schools to realize that there is a significant difference in the physical longevity between male and female Marines.
At [Officer Candidate School] the attrition rate for female candidates in 2011 was historically low at 40 percent, while the male candidates attrite at a much lower rate of 16 percent. Of candidates who were dropped from training because they were injured or not physically qualified, females were breaking at a much higher rate than males, 14 percent versus 4 percent. The same trends were seen at [The Basic School] in 2011; the attrition rate for females was 13 percent versus 5 percent for males, and 5 percent of females were found not physically qualified compared with 1 percent of males. Further, both of these training venues have physical fitness standards that are easier for females; at IOC there is one standard regardless of gender. The attrition rate for males attending IOC in 2011 was 17 percent. Should female Marines ultimately attend IOC, we can expect significantly higher attrition rates and long-term injuries for women.
These are the cold, hard facts.
However, n o matter what we do with standards, some women will make the cut. And those are the women we want.
Case in point, I sat in front of then-Capt. (now Major) Lauren S. Edwards in Iraq in 2008 not knowing really who she was, but feeling intimidated nonetheless. Edwards, also a combat engineer, had helped spearhead the invasion of Iraq in 2003; also referred to as "The Engineers Invasion," due to all the obstacles that had to be breached.
Along the way, at some point, some bad guys threatened her Marines, and she took care of the situation — she now wears an award with a valor distinguishing device, earned on that day. She also wears a combat action ribbon.
Recently, the Marine Corps announced that it would be establishing new standards for the female Physical Fitness Test, one involving pull-ups. Lauren S. Edwards prophesied the change back in 2008, to me in that dusty room in western Iraq.
"The commandant was calling around looking for women of top physical condition," she told me, off the cuff, "to see if they could meet the minimum standard men are held to on the PFT [physical fitness test]. I replied to him, 'well, sir, I'll let you know when I run a perfect PFT.'"
So Edwards ran 3 miles in 18 minutes, did 20 pull-ups, and then 100 sit-ups in 2 minutes. She had run a perfect male physical fitness test.
However, now that I think of it, at the time, I hadn't even run one myself.
What we do from here:
The only smart way to go about putting women in combat is to use a gender-blind physical and intelligence test.
This will have some good outcomes — equal opportunity and a larger applicant pool — and some bad outcomes — a less efficient recruitment process — but it will avoid the one indefensible outcome: weakening America's military.
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