It is what it is. Over the years we laughed at the use of this phrase, a catch-all Marine Corps-ism that regularly worms its way into briefs, emails, and conversations around the Corps. Even as young Marines, “It is what it is” stood out to us for its inanity. During endless staff briefs, annual training sessions, and mandatory safety standdowns, we would play bingo with common Marine Corps catchphrases, and “it is what it is” was an easy one to get. Alongside other ubiquitous sayings like “where the rubber meets the road” and “needs of the Marine Corps,” “it is what it is” is often used to represent practicality, realism, or the acknowledgement that funding, imagination, and time are all scarce resources, a la Rumsfeld’s “you go to war with the Army you have.”[i]
But that’s not what “it is what it is” really means in today’s Marine Corps. Instead, its default, knee-jerk use has come to symbolize bureaucratic laziness and ignorance, the epitome of the Corps’ default response to any request that demands a difficult choice, any observation that strays from the norm, or any attempt to work smarter versus harder. “It is what it is” represents an institutional shrug and a yearning for the path of least resistance. Each use, nearly incontestable by individual Marines, reflects and strengthens the Corps’ aversion to change.
But what happens when the needs of the Marine Corps – those very needs cited to justify outdated personnel policies, training requirements, or performance evaluations – aren’t actually being best served by an institutional shrug? For exhibit A, we’d like you to direct your attention to the importance and relevance accorded a Marine’s family, particularly his or her spouse.
The Marine Corps loves its families. It tells us this over and over again, in big banners hung on bases, in the Commandant’s FRAGO, and on www.marines.mil. We even have Family Readiness Officers, those nice individuals who assess the needs of Marine Corps families in order to ensure that each unit is ready to deploy if the balloon goes up. We’ve come a long way from those sepia-toned days when a young Marine was advised that if the Corps had wanted him to have a wife, he would have been issued one.
Or have we? Actions speak louder than words, and many personnel and family policies still reflect that narrow, obsolete mentality today, despite evidence that military families have decidedly changed from the 1950s. And when actual, real-life Marines and their families push back against those policies, they often get told, “it is what it is; the needs of the Marine Corps take precedence.” This is where “it is what it is” gets stupid.
In the world according to the Marine Corps, the (generally male) breadwinner earns the living wage for the family, and the family obediently follows in support. Spouses (generally women) function to support their Marine, and any outside work or career that they have should be flexible, uncontroversial, and secondary to the primary career of the Marine. Spouses’ careers and educations are viewed as subordinate, as a “personal choice” that the Marine Corps does not need to consider in its personnel policies and moves. Despite recent lip service to the contrary, that Corps-wide ideal is still the gold standard: attendees at the most recent commander’s conference this past spring were reminded of this fact by the Commandant and his wife.
The life of a Marine simply has to be this way, we are assured. The Marine Corps demands constant readiness, so the message to spouses is to show up, shut up, and support your Marine. The Corps pays enough to support you, and if you stick around and pay your dues long enough to retire, you’ll be taken care of. So stop complaining, that’s just the life of a Marine. It is what it is.
Except…that is not the way it is. Families today don’t look like they did back in the 1950s, economic realities are radically different than they were even thirty years ago when our senior leaders entered service, and a military career does not have to be the inflexible, cookie-cutter, unimaginative template that it is today. But the Marine Corps doesn’t want to hear this. Acknowledging such heresy would invite drastic changes, making things messy and unpredictable. The Corps’ bureaucracy would prefer things to remain stagnant, enabling personnel assignment, command selection, and everything in between to remain as it is today…forever. It is what it is. Existing policies best serve the needs of the Marine Corps.
Well, let’s talk for a minute about what “it” truly is. “It” is the fact that the cost of raising and putting a child through college has grown by as much as 500% since 1980,[ii] so families today must earn more and work harder for longer than they did three decades ago, so spouse employment and education is a necessity for many families today. “It” is the fact that 90% of military spouses who do work are underemployed or overqualified for positions they hold, which not only hurts families today but will continue to hurt them for decades post-service.[iii] “It” is the fact that on top of that, given similar careers and qualifications, military spouses earn 38% less than their civilian counterparts and are 30% more likely to be unemployed.[iv] And “it” is the fact that in 2016, economic necessities aside, the odds are high and growing that a spouse will have their own career anyway. As time passes and those crazy Millennials fill all of the ranks, Marines and their families will be increasingly unwilling to conform to the mold that presently exists. As if they aren’t already.
Basically, “it” is a world that’s a far cry from the one that codified the male breadwinner ideal, that world of unicorns and rainbows where a Marine Corps wife works only because she wants to in a career that is traditional and flexible. In Darwinian fashion, the reality that families face today, the reality that “it” is, directly affects the retention of members with professional spouses, creating a near-homogeneous collection of senior leaders with little empathy or understanding for those they lead. The gap between the male breadwinner ideal and the reality that families face today will continue to grow unless the Marine Corps acknowledges this fact and acts now.
Our own personal “it is what it is” moment recently surfaced, and we are struggling through it right now. To be accurate, it’s far from the first such moment in our 17+ years of marriage and combined 36 years of Marine Corps service, but it’s the one that will hurt us the most. Time and again over the past year, we were told “it is what it is,” that we were outliers. But that’s just it. That isn’t what it is, we are not outliers, and more of us are rising up through the ranks. The Marine Corps fails to see reality and the impacts of demographic changes on its families and its future recruiting pool, which dangerously limits its appeal to an ever-shrinking, homogenous group. Take a look at any gathering of senior leaders – you’ll hear and see it firsthand. While “it is what it is” hurts our family and families like ours today, in the name of serving the needs of the Marine Corps, it really hurts the Corps more.
The irony is that while telling families like ours “it is what it is,” the Marine Corps doesn’t recognize what it is. The Corps’ stance ignores the reality families face today, where holding down a job or earning a degree is overwhelmingly not a personal choice for a spouse but a necessity, and personnel policies that risk spouse employment and education will increasingly limit the appeal of the Marine Corps to the very demographic it should most target. The Corps’ incessant tendency to fight personnel reform efforts like the Military Family Stability Act (S.2403), the expansion of the Career Intermission Pilot Program, and every individual Marine family’s effort to survive and flourish in competitive world merely serves to cripple its future.
The bottom line? If the Marine Corps wants a diverse force that can chart our future and navigate our complex world, it must change to capitalize on the broad base of human capital that it spends so much energy to recruit. Holding the line on decades-old retention, promotion, education, and assignment policies does not best serve the needs of the Marine Corps, and that is what it is.
A few years back, a group of psychologists ran some tests on groups of first-grade students in the U.S. and in Japan. The researchers gave each group of students an impossible math problem, then sat back to watch how long the kids worked on the problem before giving up in frustration. On average, the groups of American kids worked at it for less than 30 seconds before quitting. The Japanese kids, however, worked and worked on the problem; each time, the researchers cut them off after an hour and told them that the problem was impossible to solve. The take away: the American kids quit at the first signs of frustration because they were not used to hard work, while the Japanese kids were determined to gut it out. One set of kids showed grit, the other set did not.
Do we have grit as a nation? Have we lost it? If so, can we regain it somehow?
When I think of Americans with grit, I think of Louis Zamperini, Anne Hutchinson, James Stockdale, and Sojourner Truth. I think of people like my great-grandmother, who successfully raised seven kids (two of them severely disabled) during the Depression. Grit reminds me of families surviving the Great Depression, the Johnstown Flood, or Hurricane Camille, through extreme suffering and severe hardship, even when all hope has been taken from them. Grit tells of men and women facing seemingly insurmountable obstacles yet digging in and persevering, pushing hard in the face of incredible odds and demonstrating courage even in the face of death.
Images like these tend to belong to events in our collective past. To anyone who is a parent or has served with Millennials, the idea that American kids today suffer from a lack of grit may be very familiar. We are constantly bombarded with the idea that American youth today consists primarily of entitled, coddled, self-absorbed individuals who don’t understand what hardship or hard work is. By this narrative, Americans—especially Millennials—are spoiled, lazy creatures consumed with ridiculous first-world problems who are growing into ineffective adults because they have been raised without taking risks and with the ease of the internet at their fingertips, all while being coddled by helicopter parents. They are used to getting info and materials instantly, can’t talk or relate to others on a personal level because all they know how to do is text, need trigger warnings before hearing harsh words, and don’t understand suffering or deprivation. And they are self-absorbed, expecting others to be interested in the inane details of their lives while constantly putting on a show of how enlightened and amazing they are (a la White Savior Barbie). Generation X is certainly not immune to these same criticisms, but the focus has been particularly harsh for Millennials.
Similar observations also come from long-term educators. School administrators complain about the worrisome changes they have seen in incoming students, whose parents are overly involved in the minutiae of their children’s lives. Camp counselors tell stories about kids who have to call home every day, or who wouldn’t make decisions for fears of choosing the wrong answer. Senior military leaders grumble about the self-absorption of their young Marines and Sailors and question whether or not younger generations can work hard enough to keep our nation safe.
A 2007 study on grit, in fact, emphasized the critical role that individual grit played in determining whether or not West Point cadets would successfully complete their first summer, Beast Barracks.
I’ve got my own fears and questions about the future, and worry that my kids will be weaker adults since they are growing up in a more comfortable (entitled?) world than the one my husband and I came from. What happens to our military in the next two decades if the people who populate it are a bunch of unimaginative, coddled nincompoops who don’t know how to gut through a challenging problem? What happens to our country by 2050 if the women and men who will one day lead it can’t relate to each other as people and can’t lead their way out of a paper bag? What happens to my kids if they can’t function as adults?
But a few recent observations have made me reconsider these fears.
Last summer, I wrote on this forum about a trial run camp that my husband and I held in our town. While talking one afternoon with friends about everything we wanted to teach our kids, we realized that we learned many of those skills at OCS, TBS, USNA, and while turning from an immature 21-year-old into a junior officer. So we held a 5th-grade version of TBS, with a bit of other stuff thrown in. It was a resounding success—the kids loved it, we had a blast planning and running it, and the feedback was overwhelming. This spring, we’ve adapted our camp into an after-school program, and are partway into the first session right now. We are attempting to teach, test, and emphasize hard work, leadership, and teamwork, how to tackle complex problems, and to enable them to lead peers in an unfamiliar and at times demanding physical environment. In a way, we are trying to teach grit.
So far? The kids eat it up. They are hungry for more responsibilities, more challenges, and tougher stuff. They relish the struggle. One of the less-athletic kids gets anxious at the thought of anything physical and competitive, and grows worried before each event, but she keeps coming back and is hugely proud of her accomplishments. Another is deathly afraid of heights but is really excited each time he climbs up an obstacle, visibly proud of conquering that fear. It’s like this whole world is out there that they can’t wait to get their hands into, and once there they shine.
What we are doing, in many ways subconsciously, is weaving a bit of struggle into all that we do with the kids. Look back at that early classroom experiment on Japanese and American kids. One researcher noticed a key difference between Japanese and American classrooms: the Japanese teachers that he observed uniformly taught and emphasized struggle. They picked tasks that pushed their students beyond their current capabilities, then discussed how the hard work and struggle was part of the successes the students had when they had them. And that grit study that looked at West Point cadets? It also found that grit increases with age. Life will certainly hand us all some trials, and if we succeed and pass these trials, we tend to develop and use grit. So it does come along at some point to some of us. But why wait until poor habit patterns are set to learn hard work? Why don’t we teach hard work and struggle earlier, to set our kids up for success, so that when the real struggles come, they are more prepared?
As for fears that the ease, comfort, and “politically correct” nature of our kids’ world is uniformly bad for them, my recent experience at the Naval Academy Foreign Affairs Conference (NAFAC) has made me view those fears differently. During the conference, I worked with a group of about 15 college students, about half of them midshipmen. I didn’t know what to expect. But during the roundtables, I grew impressed with both the demeanor (incredibly civil and professional) and the level of foreign policy knowledge and awareness demonstrated by the college student participants. I don’t remember seeing anything remotely like that level of sophistication when I was the same age. And the ideas and solutions they proposed to problems facing the United States today were insightful and creative precisely because of the knowledge that each brought to that roundtable. Maybe all of that internet stuff played a role, and maybe the greater emphasis on manners—or political correctness, to some—did as well.
What if that education, ease, and internet accessibility helps future leaders cast a wider net in the hunt for workable solutions? Compare it across generations: when given a task in elementary school, I had the local library and my parents’ old Encyclopedia Britannica to search through. But my kids, they will have the world. More knowledge and more information = more alternatives and more solutions. How is this not good?
So I believe that we can teach grit, and we can do it by building struggle into school, work, and daily tasks in imaginative ways. We can ensure that young people are allowed the gift of failure, a gift that for most of us will keep on giving. And we can expand our ideas of learning, fully embracing the wealth of information available to people today. The sooner we give that gift, and enable those struggles, and rethink what it means to teach and to learn, the more mature and grittier America can be.
As a parent, I worry about the world my kids are growing up in. While this is common to every generation, something about the nonstop, 24-hours-a-day, multi-dimensional, fast-paced, saved-forever-on-the-internet environment today is unnerving. I’m not talking about Elvis shaking his hips, Madonna singing about virgins (or not), or bra burning. I am talking about the nonstop barrage of the online world, the increased dependence on electronics and social media, identity theft, privacy, and the fact that any mistakes my kids make along the way will be saved…forever.
Well, to combat these fears (no pun intended), over the winter, my husband and I started talking about all of the things we want our kids to learn that can’t be taught at school. How to navigate off of a map and terrain, for example. How public transportation works and how to use it wisely. How to be found if you’re lost or concealed if you don’t want to be found. How to survive the Zombie apocalypse. How to function without—heaven forbid—American Girl dolls or a water source. How to push yourself physically and how to push through your fears. How to lead and work well with others. How to have the confidence to stare down a problem and tackle it. While some of these items can be taught in the ins and outs of a daily suburban life, others are not easily woven into the schedule of school, soccer, work, dog walking, piano lessons, and Scouts. And given the challenges facing our country today, these lessons are certainly needed. So how to teach them?
We realized that we learned much of this at USNA, as junior Marines, and throughout our USMC careers. So after some thought, we decided to give our oldest child a Marine Corps Leadership 101 week. TBS-for-kids, perhaps, minus the warfighting aspect and heavy on the critical thinking
To make it memorable, we surveyed neighbors and friends and found a pool of kids and their parents happy to participate. Camp Haynie was born. Armed with eight girls and boys, some local contacts, maps, a rough plan, flexibility, and a strong sense of humor, we tried to teach the kids as much as we could in one week.
Day One was Urban Survival Day: among many events, we did Basic First Aid, map reading (something lost on kids who depend entirely on digital maps and GPS), held a ridiculously intense team competition, and oversaw a city-wide hunt using public transportation and their brains alone. No electronics. With an elaborate point system, brain power, and some fitness thrown in, Day One was a hit.
Days Two and Four were Woodland Survival I and II. We taught Orienteering, fed them MREs (huge hit), learned about water, fire, and shelter needs, threw in some leadership challenges, and they learned to camouflage. We finished with a scenario requiring them to apply First Aid principles, cobble together a recovery plan, and trek some distance through the woods as a group. Again, no electronics. The kids ate the scenario up—they loved it.
Day Three was a Ropes/Challenge Course. Think of a version of the Fire Team Reaction Course for 10-year-olds, complete with detailed scenarios, physical challenges, and the need for personalities to come out and work together. This was phenomenal, and I want to go back. This was also the day that the group fully gelled together, which Course administrators pointed out.
Day Five was a bonus day (keeping it secret for future camps).
So what did we learn? We learned that getting kids outside and letting them get dirty was—no surprise—a huge hit. We learned that they love MREs, no shock there either. But after watching families pour dollars and dollars into crazy camps that teach Minecraft, gymnastics, horseback riding, underwater basket-weaving, and so many odd subjects that I’ve lost count, we were unprepared for the kids’ reactions to our camp: they were crazy about it. They loved it. Each one of them told us that it was the best part of his or her summer, many sent thank-you notes after the fact, and we still get hugs and comments today from them all. The feedback was and still is overwhelming.
It took us time to figure out exactly what the kids liked most, besides the getting-dirty, MRE-eating nature of it all, but it turned out that the biggest hits were the challenges that we gave the group, instructing them to “just work together and figure it out.” The scenarios, the brainpower requirements, the physical obstacles, these were all favorites: they relished the chance to face a complex, multi-dimensional problem, wrap their brains around it, and work together to find an answer. While Boy Scouts (and to a lesser extent, Girl Scouts) do this in varied ways, this was 1) in a co-ed environment, and 2) incorporated aspects of survival not readily employed by the Scouts, in a very hands-on way. They had free rein to use their brains and make mistakes in challenging and foreign environments, something less available to many kids today. It was simple, basic, and involved high amounts of trust and confidence-building. They learned to trust themselves, trust each other, and—above all—to think critically in unfamiliar situations.
Best of all: we started the week with four boys and four girls, all at an age where boys and girls are very aware of social differences and the pressures from friends and society to act in certain ways. These eight were no different; they quickly tried to separate themselves into two separate groups. But by Tuesday afternoon, we had one large group of eight kids who worked together, laughed together, and were learning new things about each other. They each saw that similarities, intelligence, and strength are found in surprising places, a lesson that will pay off as they mature. Whether conscious of this lesson or not, it is a hopeful development.
Given the complexity of the challenges our country and our military will face in the future and the questions that exist about the next generation’s ability to handle it all, we need kids who learn to think critically and who are able to work together on a deeper level. This was just one week, but it was a step nonetheless, and the response gave us both hope for the future. Now, we have to decide where to take it next.
With the recent spate of media attention on the firing of LtCol Kate Germano and the separate physical standards that female Marines have been held to for years, I feel the need to clear up some misconceptions, particularly those that hold that female Marines prefer lower standards and that such standards in any way benefit the Marine Corps.
I have been a Marine for over 17 years. Prior to my commissioning, I was a midshipman for four years. During those 21+ years, I have never heard a single female Marine express satisfaction with any physical standard that was less than that required by the men she served with, nor have I heard a female Marine express a desire for separate and different training. On the contrary, the prevailing attitude among women has repeatedly held that lower, easier standards for women were stupid, made women seem weaker and less capable, and were in the end downright dangerous, and that integrated training is the only way to go.
Over the past month, stories about LtCol Kate Germano’s “agenda” have been circulated in the news (her agenda seems to be all about holding women to the same standards as the men, seeking gender-integrated training, and similar supposedly tough demands). While I cannot speak with authority about the specifics of an “abrasive” leadership style, I can certainly talk about her complaints regarding the separate—lower—standards applied to female Marines. In fact, I am beginning to feel like a broken record. And in conversations I have had over the past two weeks, it seems many women, both those currently serving and those who have left the military, feel the same way. See my past posts about the PFT and pullups for some past discussion.
So to make this perfectly clear, women by and large do not appreciate, deserve, or desire different physical standards to be a Marine, nor do they benefit from them. Female Marines do not clamor for lower standards, don’t seek simply to achieve the minimum of said lower standards, and rarely speak approvingly of such standards. Those of us serving today did not create the existing standards, and do not benefit from their existence. On the contrary, we repeatedly and vocally deplore the lower standards applied to women (70-second flexed arm hang? Red boxes on the O-Course?), and have described the implications of lower standards as restrictive, dangerous, and biased.
Lower, different physical standards for women are restrictive, because they teach women and men alike that women simply aren’t capable of tougher physical achievements. Higher standards may be tough to reach at first but they are reachable, and by holding expectations low we are just teaching that that’s all we can expect from women.
Lower, different standards are biased, because they separate Marines into two categories based on nothing but stereotypical beliefs that certainly don’t apply easily to any individual, male or female, who decides they want to become a Marine. Seriously, who wants to become a watered-down version of a Marine? We wanted to become Marines because of what Marines stand for. We didn’t want to become half-Marines, or Marines with an asterisk. We wanted the whole deal.
And above all, such standards are dangerous, because they call into question the abilities of female Marines based on externally-held beliefs about what those Marines are capable of. And really, the danger goes much deeper than that. I co-authored a Proceedings piece about that some time ago.
Why are separate standards for women there? Read First Class, by Sharon Disher, or Breaking Out, by Laura Brodie, to get an idea of how those standards were set and who really was asking for them (hint: it wasn’t the women trying to join the academies or VMI. It was the middle-aged men making the decisions and regulations.).
So to sum up: separate and unequal physical standards help no one and endanger everyone; most of us do not want or need separate standards; and the Marine Corps would be better with one standard for Marines based on the needs of the job. Stop blaming female Marines for being subject to lower physical standards, and start listening to them when they say they don’t want them. For crying out loud, we have been saying it long enough. That is all.
While catching up on USNI posts from the past few months, the recurring themes of professionalism, education, and the need for more ideas and thoughts to move us forward jumped out from my monitor. It seemed appropriate to be reading about such topics upon emerging from the black hole of preparing for and—hallelujah—finally passing my PhD comprehensive exams. I failed my first attempt last September, so over the fall and winter I entered into full-blown hermit mode to pass it this second and last attempt. We are only allowed two attempts; failing twice kicks you out of the program, a somewhat common occurrence.
Given recent posts by Will Beasley and LT Misso and LTJG O’Keefe, this experience seems particularly relevant. My initial failure and subsequent furious hibernation would not be worth noting on a public site except for one thing: in my program, military members seem to struggle to pass the comprehensive exams while our civilian academic peers have not struggled to the same degree. Certainly civilian students fail at times, but their rate of failure is significantly lower than ours in my cohort. Anecdotally, servicemembers going through comparable PhD programs at separate institutions have experienced similar problems.
I was not surprised strictly by our failures; I was surprised by why we each failed. We didn’t fail due to comprehension or writing ability. Instead, uniformly, we each failed because we did not thoroughly own the literature. We did not question it at its depth and tear it apart to its roots. We did not question in it ways that existed outside of our comfort zones. Each of us fully absorbed the stuff and spit it back out along with some tepid critiques, but we fell far short of the standard expected along the way. Something about the way we learned and processed information in the services created a mindset that was fundamentally different from what was expected of us by our professors, kind of like “academics are from Mars, the military is from Venus.” While all students have to reset their way of thinking and start digging deeper inside their own brains to reach a different level, doing that as a 24-year-old right out of college is different than doing it as a 45-year-old post-command O6 who has been hard-wired to process information in a completely different manner.
One of my military peers at school thinks it’s not that we think differently, it’s that we have had to view the world as it is instead of how it is theorized to be, but I don’t buy that. Many of us began to study International Relations to understand more of the world as it is versus what we saw of it, and to that end this education has been quite a ride. Instead, I think we struggle because from day one in the military, we are expected to process large amounts of information and to live by that information. Seriously challenging convention is not something we regularly include in that process. Thinking critically, independently, and “outside the box” is given lip service (often only during PME studies), but at no point do I see it being actively, comprehensively encouraged through all aspects of our careers. The level of creativity currently desired is rarely hard to summon.
My worry is not that we are doomed to struggle to pass big exams, it’s what that signifies for how we as a force encourage thought, education, and analysis, and what this means for the future of the military. At no point in my career—ever—have I been expected to think, question, or analyze to the degree that I am now in school. When I checked into my first squadron, I was handed a stack of pubs. Over the next few months, I slept with those babies under my pillow at times, trying to absorb the information they contained into my puny brain. I wasn’t trying to learn it in order to improve upon it, challenge it, or turn it all on its head. I was trying to memorize it as quickly as possible so that I could advance in the squadron and do my job quickly and competently. I learned this mentality and applied it rigorously throughout the following years, which eventually brought me around to my comprehensive exam last fall, which I then failed. I failed the exam because my brain did not grasp where it truly needed to go.
That failure is a failure for so many of us, and I believe it indicates a failure for the military at large. Do we steer away from critical thought? Why, how, and at what point do we stop encouraging it? Is it unconscious? Automatic? And what can we do about it? Why did officers in my program struggle so uniformly? Is this because by the time we reach the ten-year mark or more, we have largely been trained to think and process info in similar ways? In the execution of our duties, do we soak in information as fast as we can, hit the pertinent parts with a highlighter, and move on? That’s what each of us did on the comprehensive exam: we took the key points, made bland yet reasonable arguments with them, and thought we had done well. Rereading my answers from this past exam, I saw no glaring problems at first. I had answered the questions on the surface. But those answers weren’t enough. I had to question the basic accepted standards of each theory, each hypothesis, and each assumption. I had to make a convincing argument that master theoreticians were wrong in ways I had never thought possible, and I was wholly unprepared to do so.
Training our brains to think in a new way is not impossible, but it’s tough when you’ve trained for years to think differently, sometimes under life-or-death stakes. Yet more than ever before, we need challenging thinkers and writers in the services at every level. The level of comprehension and analysis I needed to develop to pass my comp was far beyond anything I’ve attempted before, and nothing in the past two decades prepared me for it. However, it has been surprisingly fun and liberating, and it is making me better in other aspects of my life too. It’s changing the way I look at everything. I wish I’d started this program years earlier.
Given the complexities of our world, the need for stronger civil-military integration, and the budget realities we face, we need people who are not afraid to look at a problem upside down and see a new solution or a new path. Can we encourage and teach this in the military? PME schools can make a dent in developing how we think, but don’t approach the amount of “immersion” and reaction to established theory that the group in my program needed to summon.* Resident programs don’t reach enough people, non-resident programs aren’t intense enough to produce deep changes in the ways we think, and programs targeting senior officers and enlisted are too little too late. While we have existing programs to send servicemembers to higher education, I wish we did a much better job of encouraging younger Marines and Sailors to dig into the world from the start instead of waiting twenty years. We should encourage and want everyone to not just comprehend a problem, but to find its shortcomings, pick apart its vulnerabilities, and imagine other options. We don’t all need to graduate from Princeton and redefine counterinsurgency, but we should encourage creative thinking and new perspectives from the beginning. How? I haven’t figured that one out yet, but pushing critical thought via the written word is a start. I do wonder how the last 14 years would have looked with a more questioning, challenging military.
*It would be great to hear from anyone associated with a PME school here. Do you see similar problems among students? Different ones? Opposite experience?
Earlier this spring, the former commanding officer of the Blue Angels was relieved of his duties as Executive Officer of Naval Base Coronado, CA, after he was found guilty at mast of “condoning crude practices on the F/A-18 flight team that led to a sexually hostile command climate.” I don’t know exactly what happened during CAPT McWherter’s second (or first, for that matter) tour as the commanding officer of the Blue Angels. Having read the Command Investigation from start to finish (available on multiple sources, but CDR Salamander has it posted on his site and it’s also available here), I am still unsure of the sequence of events and whether or not this is cause for alarm or celebration. I tried to read between the lines of the Command Investigation and failed at that too. Much of what is described sounds distinctly like regular squadron life, albeit on a more high-profile scale due to the nature of the Blue Angels.
Media reports and discussions focus on the pornography (or porn-lite as it may be), whether or not what happened was offensive, and the actions of the female members of the Blue Angels relative to the rest of the team. But those discussions miss the point, as does most of the ongoing commentary.
Having spent the majority of my Marine Corps time in a skid squadron, I think I have an idea for what gets said and done in such an environment. Skid pilots are not Blue Angels, but they are no shrinking violets either. Let’s just say my learning curve on such matters was steep. I was not offended by porn, nor was I bothered by dirty jokes, and there were plenty of both to go around. Luckily, however, I had a strong and close peer group with several amazing commanding officers. If something had felt wrong, I think that I could have spoken up with few repercussions. There were guys who were bothered by pornographic material, off-color humor, and similar things; out of respect for them others toned it down. That wasn’t the important part of squadron life, anyway, nor did it take up much of our time. What was important was whether or not you knew your job.
Pornography, sexual innuendo, et cetera, while raucously funny to some and at the right time, do not bring about unit cohesion. People don’t need porn to bond, or dirty jokes to trust each other. Humor is needed; smut, not really. Common interests and shared goals and standards, yes. Strong leaders to offer guidance versus camaraderie, yes. Giant phallic symbols on the roof? Not required. Those things are just not that important, but trust, mutual respect, and the understanding that we all have a job to do are. Creating and encouraging that kind of environment among a bunch of type-A, strong-willed pilots—or anyone, for that matter—does not require heavy doses of testosterone, porn, or raunchy humor. I belonged to some great squadrons, led by great COs, who led by example and were strong enough to stand up and do the right thing at tough times. That makes a cohesive Ready Room.
The point—regardless of the outcome of the investigation or the actual events in questions—is not that pornography, dirty jokes, and painted phalluses run rampant throughout naval aviation. It is that when a member of a unit asks others for some respect, a CO needs to take charge of the situation and lead. According to the investigation, CAPT McWherter inherited a broken, “fractured” Ready Room, and to fix it he allowed the pilots to follow the “will of the majority,” “failed to set limits,” and “returned the Ready Room to a more democratic style of leadership.” That sounds like putting the cart before the horse, and the ensuing mess suggests that it was. If people don’t trust each other, don’t respect each other, and cohesion is low, relaxing the rules and fostering overly familial relationships seems like a misstep, not leadership. Maybe that’s not really what happened, but the fact that none of the postmortem discussions note this bothers me.
The Marine Corps Times and the Commandant of the Marine Corps have been in the news together recently, and not in a good way. After hearing sketchy details at work about integrity issues, whistleblowers, and biased reporting, and seeing the associated headlines, I finally spent time doing some catch-up reading to figure out what was actually happening. As a result I am now completely confused, and given the questionable coverage, bizarre headlines, and the “he said-she said” nature of it all, I’m probably not alone.
The news cycle started with the reporting surrounding the video that surfaced in 2012 of Marines urinating on Taliban corpses. The incident and subsequent official investigation garnered attention, and the news cycle continued with stories about unlawful command influence and who did or did not make specific statements to others about the investigation. This winter, media coverage veered off into the bizarre with allegations that the removal of the Marine Corps Times from the front shelves of PXs around the world was a purposeful act directed at the paper by a vengeful Commandant’s Office. The reporting of the incidents in question is, of course, mainly performed by the Marine Corps Times and published by the same; as far as professional publications go, Foreign Affairs it isn’t. I don’t know that stating that “the Commandant’s Office punted all questions” is a shining example of unbiased, objective reporting. To be honest, I haven’t heard too much grumbling from fellow Marines over the stories; those I spoke to seemed as unaware as I was about the details of the stories in question. It seemed like the kind of background noise and drama that Marines avoid.
But the articles, however biased they may be, are disturbing for their existence if nothing else. Why are we reading about the diverging statements of top Marine generals? Why does it seem like the Commandant’s office has a message problem? Is the Marine Corps Times stirring the pot in order to report on legitimate problems? Or is the paper, in the words of the Commandant’s office, hoping to undermine good order and discipline by broadcasting stories that question the integrity of a sitting Commandant and cast doubt upon his abilities?
(One article in particular left me thinking that I had forgotten how to read the English language. A Marine Corps Times reporter interviewed four Public Affairs Officers, but I really can’t tell if any of the questions were answered in the process. Give it a try here and let me know what you figure out.)
In wading through the mess, one point jumped out: the Marine Corps is creating an OPT to help decide what should be placed near the front of Marine Corps exchanges. We are going to have “focus groups,” “discussions,” and “an ongoing process” in order to conduct a “holistic,” “comprehensive review.” (All this from the same article).
What is going on here? Have we completely lost our way? We are at war and the Marine Corps is in a spitting contest with a JV paper over where that paper is placed in the PX? We’re cutting funding by the pantload, trying to refocus a force after over a decade of conflict, and are spending money and energy creating an OPT to figure out what should go near the front of the PX? This entire exercise seems way beneath the dignity of the Commandant’s office. Figuring out the PX layout and products should be number 800 on his priority list. What am I missing?
The message we are sending to our Marines with this mess is not pretty. It resembles the ugliness and distractions of politics. It reminds me of what my kids do when they are trying to keep me from discovering the indelible marker drawings on the wall or the candy they hid under their pillows. I am honestly not sure where the blame lies for this situation, but I hope for our own sake we recover quickly and move on to the 799 items that are more worthy of our attention as a service.
A few weeks ago, I started writing a post that discussed a particularly relevant and compelling thesis written by a student at the Marine Corps’ Command and Staff College. The thesis in question was written by a fellow Marine, Major Misty Posey, and is creatively titled “Duped by the ‘Frailty Myth:’ USMC Gender Based Physical Fitness Standards.” Great title, although it is so descriptive that it might lead some to believe that they can dismiss it without reading it. Don’t be fooled; it’s worth every paragraph. Mid-way through my work on the post (I write slowly), it became even more relevant, because the Marine Corps announced that it was going to postpone the requirement for women to perform pull-ups instead of the flexed arm hang as part of the Physical Fitness Test (PFT).
My first reaction to this news was to slap my forehead again. My second was to work harder at carving out the time to write this post in light of the news. Grad school and the holidays intervened, life happened, and I woke up this week to find two separate newspaper articles (Washington Post and San Diego Union-Tribune) beating me to the punch.
I wrote about pull-ups last summer, when I first heard that the requirement might be delayed. My opinion has not changed. But Major Posey’s thesis says it bigger and better; she describes the Marine Corps as “institutionally constipated,” a phrase I can only hope to use myself in my writing one day. I sincerely hope some of our leaders read her work.
She explains in great detail how men and women develop physical expectations and how this affects actual capabilities, and it rings true. I wrote earlier that while many male friends had to do pull-ups in high school PE, I was only required to run/walk one mile after a year of “training.” I had to learn line dancing in PE another year. And a third year involved a semester of “Jake on the Beach” aerobics tapes—the low-impact version so as to not hurt us girls. That’s a far cry from doing pull-ups. And the gap between what we expect our men to do and what we expect our women to do only continues to grow and become entrenched after high school. Remember the President’s Physical Fitness Test? No wonder women show up at 18-22 years old and can’t do pull-ups. I couldn’t either. It no surprise that it’s taking some time for women to develop the upper body strength and mental confidence needed to do pull-ups.
The pull-up requirement delay is causing mass hysteria among those who think such an event signifies the end of the world is approaching, or at the least that dogs and cats are starting to live together. I beg our leaders to take a step back and focus on a few brief points: 1) these are just pull-ups. And women are often starting from a lower level of strength. Of course they will get there, it will just take time. It has only been a year, for crying out loud. 2) These are Marines we are talking about. Again, they will get there. Just takes time. 3) Keep it at a delay and no more. Don’t throw out the requirement.
We really should make this whole discussion a discussion about the PFT itself, while we’re at it. It is meant to measure individual fitness, thus the gender-normed and age-normed standards (any takers on the age-normed standards? I don’t hear much about them). Yet it fails at that task, and is systematically used and interpreted in a very different way anyway. What are we really trying to do here, measure overall fitness or ensure we are aware of strengths and weaknesses in our units? What would benefit leaders more?
Truth is, women can get plenty strong, strong enough for all the pull-ups we need. I’m not in love with pull-ups; make the test pushups instead. Or handstands. Bear crawls. Whatever. But we should set one standard for all Marines and stick with it, and make it high. Separate standards hurt women far more than they could possibly help them, and they hurt the Marine Corps. Delaying the change is not necessarily bad…as long as the change happens.
Here’s the thing: the flexed-arm-hang requirement, the postponement of the pull-up requirement, lower physical standards…these things simply limit Marines. They limit personal expectations, they limit expectations of others. They effectively pat our Marines on the head and say, “nice try, honey, but we don’t think you should bother with this.” Why do that? Why shoot ourselves in the foot and limit our future leaders and the future of the Marine Corps?
Who determines any individual’s physical baseline? Who sets those limits? By delaying the pull-ups and questioning women’s abilities to perform to that standard, we are imposing external limits. We’re saying that women should not be expected to have great strength, that pulling our own weight up to a bar 20 times, or even 3 times, is too much to ask. And that, right there, is what makes me worry. I believed it for years, and I was wrong. And now I’m older—I could have been doing these for years! Instead of limiting our Marines, we should ask more of them: set the bar high, and encourage them to fly right past it. We’re not doing that right now.
(Fun Facts from the Marine Corps Times: the first female PFT, in 1969, required women to perform a 120’ shuttle run, vertical jump, knee pushups, situps, and a 600-yard run/walk. The PFT has only been altered two more times for women: in 1975, it changed to a 1.5 mile run, situps, and the dreaded flexed-arm hang, and in 1996 the 1.5 miles changed to 3 miles. Maybe it’s time for a reassessment?)
Three weeks ago, a good friend and former roommate, Major Jenn Marino, USMC (Ret), started on her cross-country bike ride to connect with Gold Star families. I mentioned this on a previous blog, but now the ride is a reality—she started it over two weeks ago. Jenn was a Ch-46 and Marine One pilot who started meeting and talking with Gold Star families while still on active duty. As she struggled with the question of what she could do to make a difference in the lives of these families, and how she could help, she came up with the idea for a cross-country ride. She decided that one way to honor those we have lost and the families they left behind would be to ride across the United States in honor of them, from Camp Pendleton to Camp Lejeune and ending in Quantico, meeting the families along the way. Over the 77-day trip, Jenn is conducting interviews with many Gold Star families, and is dedicating each day’s ride to someone else as she gets to know them through their survivors.
Her journey gives a voice to these families and to remind us all about what we have lost as a nation. She is also amazed, repeatedly, by how great loss can galvanize people to act, and writes about the people she meets most evenings after her day’s ride. She has a website, www.goldstarride.com, and a Facebook page: https://www.facebook.com/GoldStarRide. She updates the Facebook page daily with stories of those she meets and those she rides in memory of. Please take the time to look through her sites, and to read about the families and sons and daughters they lost.
The enormity of this ride is humbling. Yet at the same time, the work she is doing is life-affirming, as are the memories she relays. Hopefully people will follow along with her on her journey, and perhaps show up along the route in support. She is planning to do two key legs during the last week of October: one in Camp Lejeune on October 23, to commemorate the 30th anniversary of the Beirut barracks bombing, and the final leg up to the National Museum of the Marine Corps on October 25. A ride like this will need all the support it can get.
Last fall, the Commandant of the Marine Corps announced that starting in January 2014, as part of the annual Physical Fitness Test, female Marines would be required to perform pull-ups just like male Marines. The announcement was a long time coming and way overdue. (And no, I have no innate ability when it comes to pull-ups. On the contrary, my upper body strength is unimpressive, and as work and family demands have increased over the years, my interest in getting stronger regularly falls by the wayside, trumped by everything else that needs constant attention. A weak excuse, sure, but we’ve all been there.)
But PFT changes are way overdue, and adding the pull-up requirement is an honest start. It’s only right that as Marines, if we expect some to perform pull-ups as part of the PFT, we should all be expected to do them. The flexed arm hang is a poor approximation for upper body strength; I consistently max it and have yet to practice it. But critically, for a service that prides itself on its high standards, expecting—requiring—different outcomes based solely on gender creates more problems than it solves. The Marine Corps should expect all Marines to meet the minimum standards, not just some. Pull-ups may be harder for me to do than others, but I should be able to perform them as required. And I will, it’ll just take more work on my end.
So when I recently heard a rumor that the Marine Corps is reconsidering the requirement for women to do pull-ups based on low success rates and sub-par numbers, I slapped my forehead in response. It’s only been seven months since the initial announcement, and we’re already rethinking it? We’re talking about discarding the pull-up requirement before it even goes into effect? This bothers me on every level. To those making this decision: don’t take it back. To say to the women out there, “We were wrong, you’re not capable, go back to your arm hang and sorry we had you all worried?” Please, please don’t. Stick to the standard, keep the expectations high. Force us all, male and female, to hoist ourselves up to that bar. At least three times, and preferably many more.
The PFT has its share of problems: the different standards for men and women, the way it reeks of favoritism, how it diminishes us as Marines by expecting less, and the way the sliding scale also favors age (but no one complains). On one level, I get it: it’s a fitness test, and I recognize that we’re trying to measure a fitness level and not unambiguous strength in three areas. But we go about it wrong, resulting in a convoluted system that misses the boat. We were heading in the right direction with the pull-up change. Let’s get back to that.
Think about this. We’re only seven months into the change. Seven months doesn’t mean squat when we consider the weight of the preceding years and the different expectations many people face in high school and college. There’s a giant gulf between what is expected athletically of men and women from a young age. By my husband’s senior year of high school, he was required to perform ten pull-ups as part of his P.E. classes after years of preparation. By my senior year of high school, I was required, after building up to it over a year, to run a mile. One mile, that was it. Pretty sure we didn’t even have to run the whole time. There was no expectation for girls to do pull-ups, pushups, or any other strength training. Which one of us showed up better prepared?
Many of us have to start from scratch, or at least from a low standard. But we are talking about Marines; if we expect Marines to do something, they generally won’t disappoint. Give the standard time to work. Give Marines time to believe that we can all do it and then to act on that belief. We’ve got time: the requirement doesn’t take effect until next January. This spring, realizing that it had been years since I’d attempted pull-ups, I set up a bar in the hallway, jumped up there, and tried to knock some out. It was an epic failure. But after working on it, I’m there now. I can’t max it yet, but if I can haul my old, mother-of-three self up on that bar and make it happen, then so can anyone.
The point? This is about pull-ups, but it’s really about much more. Don’t go back to the ridiculous arm hang. Make us all work for it. Set the bar high, and Marines will reach it.