Secretary of Defense James Mattis gave an honest answer to a question posed to him about his thoughts on women serving in combat arms. A male cadet asked Mattis the following question while he spoke at the Virginia Military Institute on Tuesday: “Sir…first off I’d just like to say, pardon my language, but there are a lot of bad-ass women here, some [more] physically fit than I am, some smarter than I am, but I remember I was doing some research on the Marine Corps’ experiment to see if female in combat arms makes us more combat effective, and I would just like to hear your thoughts on that.”
Here is Mattis’ full response: “It’s a very, very tough issue. 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 9-1-1. In other words, it goes to the almost primitive needs of a society to look out for its most vulnerable.
“This is an issue right now that we have Army, Navy, Marines ― all looking at as we speak. And that is the close-quarters fight being what it is, you know, is it a strength or a weakness to have women in that circumstance?
“Right now, what my job is, is to make certain that the chief of staff of the Army, or commandant of the Marine Corps, chief of naval operations bring problems to me, chief of staff of the Air Force, then I help them solve them. To date, because so few women have signed up along these lines, we don’t even have data at this time that I can answer your question. OK? You make a very valid question, I might add, because 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 pullups as the strongest of them. It was the unfairness of the infantry.
“How did the infantry get its name? Infant soldier. Young soldier. Very young soldier. They’re cocky, they’re rambunctious. They’re necessarily macho. And it’s the most primitive, I would say even evil, environment — you can’t even explain it.
“Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr., a Civil War veteran as you know, who became one of our most noted, articulate Supreme Court associate justices, talking to veterans themselves decades after the war. He looked at them, and here’s the most articulate justice you could come up with, and he said: ‘We have shared the incommunicable experience of war.’ And he meant close combat.
“This is an area we are going to have to resolve as a nation. And the military has got to have officers who look at this with a great deal of objectivity, and at the same time remember our natural inclination to have this open to all. But we cannot do something that militarily doesn’t make sense, and I’ve got this being looked at right now by the chief of staff of the Army, commandant of the Marine Corps…this is a policy that I inherited, and so far the cadre is so small we have no data on it.
“We’re hoping to get data soon. There are a few stalwart young ladies who are charging into this, but they are too few. I mean…right now it’s not even dozens. It’s that few. So when we get a little more data, I’ll give you a much more objective answer. Clearly the jury is out on it. But what we are trying to do is give it every opportunity to succeed, if it can. The other nations that have had this for 20 years still have too few women in the infantry ranks to even draw a conclusion. So I can’t give you a good answer right now. 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.”
On Wednesday, Mattis defended his remarks after being told that his statements have been construed as lacking support for the women who have integrated into combat units in the military.
“Right now, I prefer just to say that I handle problems when they’re brought to me,” Mattis said. “I have not had problems brought to me. If you look at other nations that have opened infantry positions to women, you see a very small, very small number. We can’t even draw statistical performance indicators from other nations right now. So I don’t talk about things that I don’t have data on.”
Mattis has remained consistent in commenting about women serving combat roles like infantry, armor, and artillery. He has never indicated a lack of support but has presented a fair and honest assessment when asked. It’s important to remember that the integration of women into combat roles is still in an early stage and there is not enough data to decide how it’s going.
In December 2015, then-Defense Secretary Ash Carter ordered all combat posts be opened to women.
The Army has seen an increase in the number of women in combat units, with almost 800 women serving in infantry, cavalry and fire support, across five divisions. The number of women in Marine combat units that were previously open only to men has grown steadily too, from 254 last year to 382 this year.