Marines' women in combat study 'flawed,' researchers say
A Marine Corps study examining the impact of integrating women into combat occupations is “inherently flawed” for failing to establish basic standards for such positions, say researchers who obtained the report, which has not been publicly released.
About 400 male and 100 female Marines participated in the Ground Combat Element Integrated Task Force study, which was conducted from October 2014 to July 2015 at Camp Lejeune, N.C., and Twentynine Palms, Calif.
In September, the Marines released an executive summary that said women in the study sustained significantly higher injury rates than men, were less accurate with infantry weapons and had more difficulty moving “wounded” troops off the battlefield.
The release of the synopsis immediately led to questions about its methodology and calls for publication of the full report, particularly after reports that the top Marine Corps command recommended keeping some combat positions closed to women.
There has been bipartisan pressure to release the full report from two Marine Corps veterans in Congress, Rep. John Kline, R-Minn., and Rep. Seth Moulton, D-Mass. Klein has called for its immediate release for “review by members of Congress and the American people.”
Maj. Chris Devine, a Marine Corps spokesman at the Pentagon, told Stars and Stripes: “We plan to release our studies as soon as practical.”
Navy Secretary Ray Mabus, who has seen the full study, wrote in an opinion piece published in the Washington Post in late September that the analysis relied on “1992 language,” even as “the way we fight and the landscape of our battles has significantly evolved from a quarter-century ago.”
The study, he wrote, did not evaluate the performance of individual female Marines and instead used only averages that “have no relevance to the abilities and performance of individual Marines.”
Defense Secretary Ash Carter has received recommendations from the service branches on which positions should remain off-limits to women; he is expected to make a final decision early next year.
Two researchers — Ellen Haring, a retired Army colonel and senior fellow at Women in International Security in Washington, and Megan MacKenzie, a senior lecturer at the University of Sydney in Australia — are vocal advocates for the full integration of women into combat roles. They say the executive summary failed to convey shortcomings and caveats in the full study they obtained.
“From a research perspective, there’s almost nothing you could reliably draw from this research,” said MacKenzie, who has published two books about women in combat, most recently “Beyond the Band of Brothers: The U.S. Military and the Myth that Women Can’t Fight.”
“The volunteer selection was poor. The physical screening was poor. The consistency and number of people they put in each of the groups was very varied,” she said.
Asked about issues raised by MacKenzie and Haring, the Pentagon’s Devine said in a statement: “Successful integration of women into currently closed positions will take time to get right and requires all the services to be thoughtful and deliberate as the process unfolds. Speculation on the release of information or the nature of Military Department Secretary recommendations and inputs is not appropriate at this time. Our research effort was built upon scientific method and experience, to ensure we continue to maintain our high standards and preserve the quality of our All Volunteer Force.”
The study’s central flaw, MacKenzie and Haring say, is that it failed to establish occupation-relevant standards for Marine combat positions.
“The fact that the Marines chose to do a $36 million study that didn’t establish any standards is, I think, interesting in itself,” MacKenzie said. “We still don’t have combat-specific standards in the Marines. Once you’re in the Marines, the only qualification you need to be in an infantry [military occupational specialty] is to be a man.”
The study pitted all-male groups against integrated groups in physically challenging tasks — some combat-related, some not. That design created a “race with no finish line,” MacKenzie said.
“We know that some teams performed faster than others, but we don’t know if any of them performed adequately or all of them performed adequately,” she said. “We just know some were faster, and so the Marines concluded that the teams that were faster were better. But it doesn’t tell us if they were adequate at performing combat-related activities.”
MacKenzie and Haring criticize the executive summary for not mentioning the report’s conclusion that “gender integration, in and of itself, will not have a significant impact on unit morale.”
“It counters one of the biggest arguments in keeping women out of combat: that they spoil the alchemy of the ‘band of brothers,’” MacKenzie said.
The study also ignored the accomplishments of certain women “who were just amazing physically,” MacKenzie said.
“In fact, there was one woman who outperformed men consistently, just an outlier throughout the whole study,” she said. “There were quite a few women above the 50th percentile. There were all these indicators that there were physically superior women who performed well; it’s just that the Marines focused on how the women performed as a group.”
The full study also noted that had the female participants been properly screened for physical fitness before entering the study, the male/female injury rates would likely have been similar, she said.
“There are members of Congress who want this study,” MacKenzie said. “There’s a very heated debate between the Marines and the Secretary of the Navy about whether women should be in combat and whether this study is legitimate. I think in many ways the release of this study should help settle that debate.”