Historically, huge bureaucracies have habitually tried solving complex problems with well-intentioned but ultimately ineffective solutions. Because of the nature of politics, legislators are often under pressure to be seen doing something even if there are predictable negative outcomes. The solutions often help only the vote-seeking legislators but ultimately hurt those used to sell the legislation – the dynamic of the famous American “positive injury.”
Many equality-themed solutions have been levied on the Department of Defense (DoD) which ignore well-understood human processes which are the backbone of an excellence-minded meritocracy. Specifically, mandates which artificially “equalize” unequal individuals actually hurt the cause of the people needing help. This is precisely the case for women in the military. By way of gender (lower) physical standards, manipulated graduation orders of merit, differential training washout procedures, female-only commitment relief policies…military women exist in a separate but unequal universe from the male military members. Some results are predictable – unqualified personnel allowed in harm’s way who are a danger to themselves and others. Think “layman playing NFL offensive line.” Other unintended negative impacts are more subtle, such as undermining and devaluing the accomplishments of women who are able to meet the training standards. Figuratively and literally our well-intentioned policies shoot qualified, exceptionally talented female military members in the foot.
Military operations are complex & dangerous at the best of times (hat tip Clauswitz). Senior military leaders’ jobs are complicated by civilian leaders who are often not deeply familiar with military operations and are nearly always from the professional political class. That means many of the civilian directives are driven by factors contrary to effective & safe military operations.
Many well-intentioned “experts” view the military as a huge, compliant social experiment. With the wave of a pen, civilian leaders are able to mandate their favorite social policies into reality despite the fact that DoD (even more than the NFL or Olympics) should be a meritocracy. Americans are very comfortable with talent-driven sports and we should become equally comfortable with a talent-based military who risk life & limb to execute national policy.
Much discussion surrounding the recent female Ranger school graduates indicates most Americans do not understand the status quo in the DoD. Despite Hillary Clinton’s suggestion that she was barred from USMC due to gender, women have long played an important role in US Armed Forces. When additional human capital was needed, American women have always stepped up and applied their skills to various war efforts as needed and able. The relatively new political twist on gender policy is the use of differential standards to manage a gender quota by rank and career field. This “relative fitness” approach makes sense at a crossfit gym or as a justification for separate men’s and women’s basketball teams but in combat each soldier operates side-by-side as one unit. In a scenario where speed, endurance or sheer strength are needed…it is irrelevant if a soldier is “strong for a girl” – what matters is his/her raw ability.
Further, selective career fields must take the best qualified regardless of gender and without artificially manipulating the order of merit in an inadvertently hurtful attempt to “level the playing field.” If held to male standards women are more than capable to rise to the occasion, though perhaps at lower numbers and slower rate than desired by the political leadership.
Previous accommodations successfully put women in “non-combat” roles such as Supply, Ground/Air Mobility and Space/Missile crew members. However, decades of boots on the ground in the Middle East have shown that nearly all career fields are ultimately combat roles. No one was helped by this artificial division. For a woman to be effective and respected (by any gender) in any combat/combat-support role, she must meet the same standards as the men. Diversity cannot be an end unto itself without risking lives and undermining achievements of women who meet standards. The unequal standards meant to help women causes credible women to be eternally suspect and scrutinized by their peers as well as putting them at risk to themselves and others.
Quotas are enforced in many ways but mainly through headquarters’ pressure on subordinate leaders across the Military Service. This pressure results in many unhelpful actions – recruiting less qualified candidates; commissioning sources adjusting their graduation order of merit; gender-only, non-merit assignments (USAF’s “pink jets”); lowered or eliminated physical standards; gender-specific training washout procedures; female-only awards; and policies which allow for expectant mothers (not fathers) to request early exit from a military service commitment. Most Americans are unaware that as early as 2012, services were pushed to lower or eliminate physical standards for dangerous and physically demanding career fields. The directives were unashamedly based on meeting gender quotas – not an effort to “improve the performance level of female trainees” or “recruit additional physically capable candidates.” Some Services complied readily while other Services maintained focus on standards and competence.
The most basic example is physical fitness: a soldier takes the Army PFT and achieves 50 pushups, 50 situps & a 18:00 2-mile run. The male soldier would fail with a score 175/300. The female soldier would pass with a scores of 236/300. A more fit soldier performs 50 pushups, 80 situps & 15:30 2-mile run. If that soldier is male, that is a passing score of 243/300. At the same level of body weight fitness, if the soldier is female, that is a perfect 300/300. Apart from the obvious fairness issue, most miss that this a gift which keeps on giving – she (not he) is awarded an Army Physical Fitness Badge and the score/badge appears favorably on performance reports and award packages…for the same level of fitness.
Perhaps the most cruel effect of the current differential policy is on women who are able to meet standards without special deals. When a female joins a combat or combat-support unit, there is no way of knowing whether they earned their badge/beret/slot or if it was handed to her. This pressure to improve numbers by lowering the quality of graduates occurs in many demanding career fields across the DoD. Years ago, the Army’s Special Forces Qualification Course (SFQC) graduated international military student regardless of whether they met US standards or not. This policy changed because when working with partner nations’ Special Operations Forces, US personnel gave undue respect and credibility to the SFQC “graduates.” Standards were eventually raised to equalize the quality of graduates, though it necessarily meant a lower graduation rate.
The existing gender policies put women in the same situation – co-workers do not know if they are reliable or risky. The DoD has (with the best of intentions) created a very bad environment for women and men as well as putting the mission at risk. Capable women are not treated with requisite respect and incapable women are artificially supported. The differential policies often amplify resentment and exclusion due to inequality.
Are there solutions? Absolutely. The Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff could direct Armed Services to eliminate all discriminatory policies and quotas across the board. Services could scrub gender (name, gender, gender identifying info, etc) from any personnel records which might go before a promotion, award or assignment board. Gender-based awards could be eliminated overnight. If a Service sees value in differential standards, they could identify non-combat career fields where a “appearance/health/non-deployable” standard is more appropriate than a “combat readiness/deployable” standard which would apply to men and women alike. This would allow DoD to harness the talents of those whose skills (cyber warfare, Space & Missile, training, finance, personnel) do not match physically demanding and unique skill-based career fields.
For combat/deployable forces however, a gender-blind physical standard must apply if women in those roles are to be mission-effective and credible. As determined by each Service, pregnancy-based early exit policies could be eliminated, changed to a loan payback methodology, or extended to fathers in order to have a single gender-blind standard. Personnel metrics indicating gender imbalance (a particular rank or career field) should lead to a root cause analysis and applicable solution (improved outreach, additional pre-enlistment training, etc) without sacrificing quality of trainees or the graduation standards. If, as a nation, America desires women in combat on an equal footing, they should be added to the Selective Service program. The goal should always be a single standard, equal access, but not managed quotas.
Only by eliminating double standards and keeping those standards high can America stop putting the mission and members at risk. The current policies benefit primarily politicians but for unqualified and qualified personnel alike, they shoot military women in the foot.
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