Women make progress in combat, must keep pushing

At the end of September, a lot of military women’s advocacy groups were mad about comments made by Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis, including the Service Women’s Action Network (SWAN).
While their anger is understandable and justified, I’d like to play devil’s advocate for  a moment and talk about where Mattis is coming from and where we need to go to help the “jury” make a decision.

A cadet at the Virginia Military Institute asked Mattis about whether or not he thinks females in combat arms makes us more combat effective.

Only a few parts of his comments were pulled in the mass media, which made him come across as very sexist.

mattis vmi

At the beginning of his answer, Mattis said “Because it goes from some people’s perspective of what kind of society do we want. You know, in the event of trouble … you’re sleeping at night, in your family home, you’re the dad, mom, whatever, and you hear glass break downstairs. Who grabs the baseball bat and gets between the kids’ door and whoever broke in? And who reached for the phone to call 911. In other words, it goes to the almost primitive needs of a society to look out for its most vulnerable.”

Before even getting into the rest of his comments, we have to break this down. In a lot of society, I’d even dare say in most of society, in a nuclear family, the husband is going to grab the bat and the wife is going to call 911. But, as society changes, so does that family dynamic. One dynamic alone is single mothers. They do what they have to do to protect their loved ones, the most vulnerable, their children.

We should also remember that the women joining the military are already making the choice to be the person grabbing the “bat” to defend the nation. Women who want to go into combat roles are making the choice to do even more.

So, that part of his comments speaks more toward American society than actual numbers. If we look at his actual answer, there is a lot more to it than that.

He went on to point out that his job is to solve problems brought to him by the service chiefs. He said that he currently didn’t have enough data to answer that question. What that says to me is that he does not have enough reported problems with women in combat to make it an issue. He also doesn’t have enough successes to say that it has improved anything.


I was never personally interested in doing anything related to a combat role, but some of Mattis’ words rang very true for what many women face in the military, although he was speaking of his own experience and what it is like to be part of the infantry. He was an officer and had to prove himself.

Mattis said, “I was never under any illusions of what level of respect my Marines would have for me if I couldn’t run with the fastest of them and look like it didn’t bother me; if I couldn’t do as many pull-ups as the strongest of them. It was the unfairness of the infantry.”

This is something many women in the military face regardless of whether or not they are trying to be elite. If you want to be successful, you have to not just meet, but exceed, the standard. Many men have said straight to my face that women who receive accolades for scoring high on the physical fitness test don’t deserve it because they are being held to a different standard, so their high scores shouldn’t count. Now this is coming from those willing to say it to my face. I can only imagine what was being said behind my back, or behind the backs of those who are high performers physically.

He also goes on to explain the mentality of the infantry. His words point out that the change has to happen there. The way I see it, the only way to do that is by having women there, who have to prove themselves. Eventually, it will become normal, and that mentality will change, even among the younger, less mature troops.

Primarily, his answer spoke to the lack of data we have at this point.

We are still short of even having 800 women in Army combat jobs and much less than that in the Marine Corps infantry, which was what the cadet asked about. According to the 2016 Army posture statement, the Army had approximately 190,000 Soldiers deployed to 140 countries. That means that women in combat make up about .4 percent of that. Clearly, we still need to gather data.


Another part of his answer for which he was criticized is when he said he inherited the policy and that the cadre is so small, they have no data on it. Many took his wording to mean that he doesn’t support it.

I think it means that he was not part of the research into making the decision happen, and there is still not enough data to answer the cadet’s question properly.

He also said “There are a few stalwart young ladies who are charging into this, but they are too few.”

Stalwart sounds like a word of respect to me.

Mattis said, “Clearly the jury is out on it. But what we are trying to do is give it every opportunity to succeed, if it can.”

It sounds like he wants it to succeed.

His last bit of support was “I’m open to it, and I’ll be working with the chief of staff of the Army and the others to sort it out.”

The most important thing to remember is that while leadership is “sorting it out,” it is up to those “stalwart young ladies” to keep proving that women are capable of doing this job.

I also commend all of those who are out there proving themselves right now. Keep it up. You are awesome.

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