Should There Be A Lioness Program?


by Chris Bodenner

A reader writes:

You wrote, "But of course only individuals physically capable of combat will be sent to the battlefield, and women, on average, are not as capable as men." I'm sure you've received complaints about this line. Indeed, the anticipation of complaints is why you italicized "on average." It is simply impolite to say it: vanishingly few women are capable of the physical performance that the mission requires for infantry combat.

The military actually takes this into account: promotion scores in the Marines depend on physical fitness test scores, and they are curved for women. Heavily. If not for the curve there would be hardly any females in the Marines at all. Men are held to a higher physical standard to get promoted. Is this fair?

How much more so is this important in the infantry? Is it fair to ask infantry Marines to go into combat with a fighter on their left who isn't carrying the ammunition for the machine gun she needs to, because, well, it's too heavy for a woman? Or to go into combat with a compatriot who isn't able to carry him to safety if he is wounded, because she's not strong enough? Does egalitarianism entail no responsibility to be qualified for the position sought, when lives are at stake?

I have served in Iraq; I know Lioness Marines; I completely object to the program. It is one thing to say that we will overlook the reduced combat capacity of a woman in order to be able to search a female Afghan without offending a local sheik. It is another thing to say we will categorically lower the physical standards of a physically-intense, life-threatening field because almost no women would qualify otherwise. I will not let Marines die so that ERA supporters back home can hug themselves and say that patriarchy is dead. And I say that as an ERA-supporting, single-payer advocating, atheist socialist democrat.

Actually, I haven't received any complaints about that line, presumably because most readers agree that while the average woman is not as strong as the average man, there are certainly scores of extraordinary women who are stronger than many men - including many in the military.

But to the reader's larger point: I agree there should be one physical threshold for both men and women in combat units. And yes, currently they are different standards in place. For example, biannual physical training (PT) tests in the Army require men aged 17-21 to complete a 2-mile run in at least 15:54, while the female equivalent is 18:54. However, these are requirements for all Army personnel, not combat units (remember than women are still formally blocked from combat units). So while that different standard isn't technically "fair," I don't see a problem with it, since the typical Army job is unrelated to combat and thus not based on physical prowess. When the military does finally allow women into combat units on a formal basis, only then are equal requirements essential.

However, the Lioness Program - which allows female Marines to temporarily serve in combat units for the purpose of searching Muslim women - seems to muddy that distinction. So I can understand why the reader would object to the program. But would his objection - that a woman, in a rare instance, would have to carry a man to safety - really outweigh the overall need for female-searching females? Also, I'm guessing there are other temporary positions in combat units filled by people who don't have the same strength as combat Marines. Some translators? What about embedded reporters?

Despite all the reader's objections, he still doesn't seem to reject the idea of women in combat units. He wrote: "[V]anishingly few women are capable of the physical performance that the mission requires for infantry combat." Few, but still some.

(U.S. Marines and Navy sailors receive training in Al Asad, Iraq, during the Lioness Program on March 27, 2007, on various improvised explosive devices being used to attack coalition and Iraqi forces. This program is being taught to ensure the proper care is taken while searching female Iraqis. Photo by Sgt. James R. Richardson, U.S. Marine Corps.)