More Bad Arguments Against Women in the Infantry

I want to follow up on my earlier post about bad arguments against integration of women into the infantry.

Last Thursday, William Saletan published some commentary on the female graduates of the Marine Corps Infantry Training Battalion (ITB). The jist: Now that the oh-so-skeptical among us have definitive proof that women can meet the infantry standard, they are changing their argument. “Women don’t want it” is a common ploy (proffered by none less than Representative Duncan Hunter (R-CA), a former Marine who is using his military credibility to enforce sex discrimination while serving the US in one of its highest capacities).

In the comments section of Saletan’s post, I saw a few recurring themes among the remaining protestations against integration.

Logistics, Cost-Effectiveness, and the Nature of Public Institutions

One theme is that opening a second gender to the infantry would be logistically intensive and therefore cost-inefficient.

I have a couple points in response to this argument. I’d like to start with a set of propositions:

  1. Opening the infantry to women will require real but modest structural changes to a highly developed war machine that already accommodates women in most combat roles. After footing the rest of the DOD’s oh, say, $527 billion FY2014 budget request, US taxpayers will absorb this modest onetime cost without even realizing it.
  2. This leaves us with an additional operational cost that will be marginal, probably on the order of a rounding error in DOD’s $79 billion FY2014 budget request for overseas contingency operations. To the extent that “women don’t want to be in the infantry,” this recurring cost will be all the more marginal.

I have no hard cost analysis to back these up but they are falsifiable propositions. It seems likely that the DOD has conducted such analysis even if it deigns to publish the numbers.

I’m fairly confident that opponents will respond in two ways:

  1. They will contest my interpretation of the subjective terms “modest” and “marginal.”
  2. They will argue that any increase in cost is unjustifiable because gender equality is peripheral to combat effectiveness.

My counter-responses are as follows:

  1. Most reasonable people with a sense of the likely orders of magnitude will disagree with their interpretation. Unfortunately, this line of argument will remain unfalsifiable and therefore open to endless comment-section squabbling.
  2. As a public institution, the military is responsible for more than combat effectiveness. As a tool of a democratic state, the US military should be as broadly representative of the public as possible. Because the military is an instrument of government, and because the US government is charged with protecting equal rights, a military that arbitrarily discriminates against women is a military that is cost-effective at doing the wrong thing.

Shadow Standards

The second theme I’m seeing is related to point number two above. This is the claim that, even though women can meet the entry-level standard, women will be unable to meet the admittedly more challenging physical regimen of the Fleet Marine Force. Opponents conclude from this proposition that the Marine Corps would incur an unacceptable cost in “combat effectiveness” and/or lives.

I see two flaws in this claim. The first is that, if anything, combat effectiveness (which is usually ambiguously defined) will be affected at the margins. The US military will remain overwhelmingly effective within its areas of strength. It will continue to enjoy such a preponderance of combat power that no aspect of the national threat profile will be credibly affected.

The more important flaw in this claim is that it relies on a convenient misinterpretation of the Marine Corps’ responsibility to maintain combat effectiveness.

Before I elaborate, let me concede that many of the more fit infantrymen already believe the physical standards are too low. While most Marines who complete ITB can perform adequately within a wide range of variation, some infantrymen struggle greatly with one or more physical aspects of infantry service. Depending on the aspects with which they struggle, their comrades may or may not be able to pick up their slack (you can carry somebody’s gear but you can’t lend a hand to his cardiovascular system).

That said, it is not becoming of a professional institution to maintain a shadow standard for how one really needs to perform while maintaining before its democratic leadership that the official standard establishes professional competency. If the Marine Corps is to maintain its integrity, then the official standard must establish true minimum competency.

So we have a choice: Either the Marine Corps currently has a true minimum or the Marine Corps needs to raise its ITB standard with all that implies for middling recruits (the overwhelming majority of which are likely to be male) and all that implies for recruiting goals.

When I was in the infantry, I agreed that the physical standards should be raised. Now that I have a better sense of the relative ability of the US military to meet the demands of the median combat environment, I can see that the existing standards are at least reasonable for a large military drawn from a society of increasing waistlines. (Or rather, they would be if they were strictly enforced. Many Marines I knew had a habit of discreetly ignoring the standard or awarding failed Marines with a minimum passing score in the name of “looking out for our own.” But that goes back to integrity and professionalism, both of which are gender-blind concepts.)

But even if raising the standard was really necessary, nothing about the need to raise the standard is proof that half the population should be prevented from trying to meet that standard in the first place.

Injury Rates

Finally, there’s the theme that women have higher injury rates than men. In my view, this is the only logically coherent theme of the three I’ve mentioned.

However, it requires serious qualification. Women do indeed have higher injury rates than men, but numerous studies show that this is partly because women tend to start out with less physical fitness–and in particular, aerobic capacity–than men. As women reach higher levels of fitness during basic training, injury rates greatly decrease as a function of sex. In one study, sex ceased to predict injury rates at all:

In multivariate analyses, where demographics, body composition, and initial physical fitness were controlled, female gender was no longer a significant predictor of injuries (RR = 1.14, 0.48-2.72). Physical fitness, particularly aerobic fitness, remained significant.

Womens’ lower relative fitness levels are related to the fact that children are socialized to view strenuous exercise as a predominantly male-appropriate activity. Relentlessly attacking womens’ worth for military service, then, is contributing to the very problem with which one is purportedly concerned.

Similar studies on injury rates here, here, and here. Brits here. Mixed case in Finland here. Mixed case indicating that Army women have higher injury rates but lower hospitalization rates and slightly longer hospital stays here.

The existence of higher female injury rates tells us little about their overall cost to the military. Since very few women are expected to qualify for infantry service, their higher injury rates may cost the military very little. It is possible to subject this phenomenon to cost-benefit analysis, so it is premature to protest integration on this basis unless such analysis shows that integration is cost-prohibitive in the context of the $527 billion budget mentioned above.

Otherwise, it’s silly to hold torn ligament rates up as damning evidence for an institution that expects a certain proportion of its membership to be ripped apart by various forms of ordinance in the performance of their duty. The summer season is also a predictor of injury rates–perhaps it is our duty only to train Marines during the other three seasons? Cigarette smoking is another predictor. Should smokers be banned?

Merit is Merit

In the end, Saletan is right. A merit-based system commensurate with our national values implies equal access to the infantry. Some people will claw for any opposition to integration they can think of. Looking at the grand sweep of history, it’s pretty clear to me that they are eventually going to be disappointed. At some point we have done our due diligence and it is on opponents to seek whambulance treatment until they can handle reality.

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