Americans today—in sharp contrast with their behavior during the years of the Vietnam war—show great respect, bordering on reverence, for members of the armed forces. President Trump has good reason for proposing a grand military parade; he knows that we love to applaud our soldiers.
But is this surge of patriotic sentiment really sincere? We loved to applaud, yes; but do we honestly love our soldiers as well? If so, why are we so willing to ignore their needs and endanger their lives?
The US Marine Corps recently announced that prospective infantry officers would no longer be required to pass the Combat Endurance Test. A brutally taxing ordeal, the Combat Endurance Test was designed to ensure that Marine lieutenants, who are taught to “lead from the front,” would be physically capable of performing under duress, withstanding the rigors of combat. About one-fourth of the men who take the test fail to meet the Corps’ high standard.
But virtually all the women who take the test fail. In fact, since President Obama opened the door for women to serve in combat infantry, only one female Marine has survived the Combat Endurance Test. And that—make no mistake about it; accept no bureaucratic circumlocutions—is why the requirement has been eliminated.
For official purposes the Marine Corps says that the Combat Endurance Test is not unnecessary—that many other tests ensure that Marine infantry officers will be fully qualified. But ask a Marine infantry officer you know to name the most physically challenging requirement of his officer training, and the same answer will come back every time: the Combat Endurance Test. Does it not follow that eliminating the test means lower the standards for physical fitness?
So now there will be more female Marine infantry officers for us to applaud. (I’ll join the applause, by the way. First because I respect the commitment made by all members of our military forces. Second because passing through officer training in the Marine Corps, even without the Combat Endurance Test, really is a considerable achievement.) But the change comes at a considerable price.
When a woman now is assigned as a Marine infantry officer, both her peers and her subordinates are bound to wonder: Would she have qualified under the old rules? That question does not inspire the sort of confidence and esprit de corps that has helped to make the Marine Corps such a formidable fighting force. As 2nd Lieutenant Emma Stokien wrote in a 2014 column opposing the elimination of the Combat Endurance Test:
Female Marines often have to work much harder than their peers to earn the same respect, and entering the infantry under the dark cloud of even perceived lowered standards will make this a practically impossible challenge and potentially cause real harm to unit cohesion and the faith between leader and led.
But there is a much stronger argument against the elimination of the test: the safety of our Marines. If the test was an efficient way of weeding out potential officers who lacked the strength and stamina that is required for leadership under the toughest combat conditions, sooner or later the lowered standards will result in battlefield casualties. Sooner or later a Marine will die because his officer—it could be a male officer, passed through candidacy under the eased rules—was too exhausted to issue the appropriate orders, or too weak to drag a wounded warrior to safety.
The members of our armed forces put their lives on the line to safeguard our country and our freedom. We honor them for that commitment. But we do not honor their sacrifice when we ask them to take on greater risks for lesser, ideological goals—to risk their lives in defense of the popular fiction that there is no difference between men and women.