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Women Can't Do It, and Men Can't Change: Some Thoughts on Agency and Gender in U.S. Marine Corps Training

Frank J. Tortorello Jr.


In this paper, I use ethnographic data gained from participant-observation as a civilian with active-duty U.S. Marines in martial arts training to interrogate the bases of claims that women ought not to be permitted in direct-combat units (meaning units like infantry, tanks, special forces, and artillery). First is the claim that the relative physical weakness of women compared to men is a fact of human-species biology and so an unchangeable obstacle to their meeting the minimum standards for combat. Second is the claim that women per se are disintegrative of otherwise natural, all-male bonding processes that equate with combat effectiveness. For simplicity's sake, I call these claims "women can't do it" and "men can't change," respectively.

     I demonstrate how the purpose and values of the Marine Corps are primary components in the generation of Marine identity and use them to reconstruct the cultural logic that leads to their understanding of who and what counts as a "good Marine." Then, I show how that understanding is primarily dynamically embodied: for Marines in training and in combat, deeds speak louder than words. I go on to show that training is a means of maximizing personal and team (dynamically embodied) agency toward the Corps's values and purpose. Training, in short, is a transformative process of enculturation into a total, embodied commitment to the organization and its values. Ideally, being a Marine is a way of being, not a job. I conclude that both objections to women in combat units and in combat are unsustainable from both empirical and theoretical standpoints. Both objections function as justifications of or excuses for ways of being that are antithetical to fundamental military, and especially Marine, values.


In the summers of 2007 and 2008, I participated as a civilian in active duty Marine training at the Martial Arts Center of Excellence (MACE) in Quantico, Virginia. My purpose was to conduct participant-observation about Marine conceptions of courage, one of the core values (along with commitment and honor) of their organization. Based on the Marine mantra to "train like you fight and fight like you train," I hypothesized that courageous action on the battlefield would be found in some prototypical form in training. These training iterations were seven-week long programs called the Martial Arts Instructor-Trainer (MAIT) course. This course is designed to produce physically conditioned and mentally tough Marines whose actions are guided by Corps values. Practically, graduates of the course are Marine Corps Martial Arts Program (MCMAP) experts who can serve throughout the Corps training others to be program instructors. In so serving, they are expected to embody the Corps's warrior ethos.

     My training class in 2007 contained three females: two trainees, both second lieutenants, and one trainer, a sergeant.1 The majority of the class of around thirty-five participants was male and junior in rank, primarily noncommissioned officers such as staff sergeants, sergeants, and corporals. While my research was not focused on or designed to elicit cultural insights into women in Marine training, their presence provided the basis for some ad hoc data collection. Women stood out because of what seems to be a popular scholarly notion that

[a] culturally produced activity that is as rigidly defined by sex differentiation and as committed to sexual exclusion as is war points to a crucial site where meanings about gender are being produced, reproduced, and circulated back into society. After biological reproduction, war is perhaps the arena where division of labor along gender lines has been most obvious, and thus where sexual difference has seemed the most absolute and natural (Cooke and Woollacott 1993: ix).

The United States Department of Defense (DoD) appears to affirm just these assumptions about warfare by maintaining a policy of barring women from combat units such as infantry, tanks, special forces, and artillery.

     The presence of women stood out as well because the Marine Corps, uniquely among American military service branches, maintains a gender-segregated basic training program for new inductees. As commanding general for the Parris Island Recruit Depot, Brigadier General Richard Tryon stated, "[T]he age old attraction that exists between boys and girls, men and women, that by keeping them separate we eliminate that" (cited in Grant 2007). While MAIT training is advanced rather than basic training, the existence of a general principle of segregation of men and women seems to be foundational to the Corps. Certainly, the Corps follows DoD policy in not assigning women to combat units.2 Assumptions about war as well as gender-based policies that affirm them go to foundational anthropological concerns because they elicit questions about the relationship between nature and culture that, in turn, figure into claims about women and men in combat.3

     My purpose in this paper is to interrogate two common objections to women in combat units in the United States military using ethnographic data from actual military training among U.S. Marines. The first objection focuses on the relative physical weakness of females compared to males, especially in upper-body strength. Hunter Armstrong, an expert on interpersonal combat and advisor to the MCMAP, provides a version of this perspective in the documentary, The Marines. He states,

There're two different biologies; I don't think anybody would argue with that. One of the big problems women have physically is they can't handle the physical stress of carrying the loads over rough terrain for long periods of time. [2007]

Generally, but not always, human females are physically weaker than males, and this necessarily and fatally compromises (combat) performance. This argument is usually cited in relation to the immense loads, often 100 pounds or more, carried by Marines in combat environments.

     The second objection focuses on unit cohesion, often characterized as "male bonding." Unit cohesion generally is thought to be an intangible connectedness among unit members that indicates a sense of obligation (if not trust or love) for other unit members and the whole (versus the individual). The orientation is captured in the catchphrase "mission before self." The result is (supposed to be) substantially greater ability both to endure punishment and to accomplish goals as individuals and as a team. Integrating females into the male-bonding process is thought to prevent, disrupt, or destroy bonding. Anthropologist Anna Simons puts it this way:

Without meaning to, women automatically alter the chemistry in all-male groups. As soon as the first soldier acts protective, defensive, flirtatious, or resentful, he initiates a dynamic which causes others to do the same, to do the opposite, or to do something else all in the name of setting themselves apart. This is completely antithetical to what units need, which is for individuals to work together and not at cross-purposes. Nor is the rivalry just over who's paying how much attention to whom. It is also about whether special attention should be paid at all. Even for those who are convinced that females shouldn't be treated any differently from males, there's a problem. To ensure that women aren't receiving any extra attention requires paying special attention.

     To a greater and different degree than any other type of organization, small combat units are predicated on complementarity and unquestionable mutual trust. [2001:95]

Apparently, women trigger a cascade of self-interest among males simply by their presence. In using the language of chemistry, Simons presents this as an effect that is beyond the control of men as persons or agents. Their behavior is necessitated by some quality or force characteristic of intersex relationships.

     We should pause here to note that Simons's formulation actually collapses the social into the natural. We are invited to think that males generate social stability in the same way that complementary chemicals generate a balanced state. The introduction of women is like introducing a solvent, much in the way that chemical solvents were used in the Gulf of Mexico to disaggregate oil. But is it really the case that the social world operates in the same way and with the same necessity as the natural world? I think not. For example, it is indeed necessary that, as long as the earth keeps spinning, the sun will rise. In the social world, however, we tend to think about events quite differently. Unless a person is biologically broken in the sense of, say, psychotic, we in America tend to think that people have a substantial degree of control over their own actions. Simons's formulation contradicts the idea that, in a normal state of affairs, people will decide how and why to act in any of a range of ways. We will see that this idea of natural necessity is fundamentally contradicted empirically and theoretically in Marine training. We will also see it contradicted by one of Simons's own informants.

     With this background, we can say that both objections convey a sense of irremediable or automated outcomes. Neither, that is, is under the control of the relevant actors. Female physiology is stable and fixed. Women's disintegrative impact on male groups is automatic and beyond either men or women to mitigate. While the training courses I attended focused directly on physiological capacity and social integration as subjects of critical performance assessments on the part of instructors and trainees, the emphasis was on challenging and growing both. Tacitly, U.S. Marine Corps training by its very existence and its stated purposes requires that both physiology and social integration are malleable, not naturally necessary, and variable, not steady state (once achieved). This applied, moreover, to both males and females. How does this work in Marine training?

     We might think of military training as "domesticated combat," meaning that salient characteristics of combat are replicated, while others are eliminated to avoid the killing, maiming, and dying that occur in actual combat. Salient characteristics of actual combat that are replicated include ambiguity, uncertainty, split-second decision making, surprise, and exhaustion, as well as physical, mental, and moral stress and discomfort. The Corps seeks to maximize the ability of Marines to lead themselves and others in facing such challenges by having them practice doing so. They capture this process in the phrase "train like you fight and fight like you train."4

     Marine fighting, as with most military combat, is primarily dynamic and embodied. Marines use their bodies and the bodies of individuals acting in concert as one body, or unit, to enact prized cultural values. One way to appreciate the novelty of this understanding is to consider the almost dialogue-free first twenty minutes of the film Saving Private Ryan (1998), which portrays American soldiers storming the beaches of Normandy, France, during World War II. When asked how they can tell that what is portrayed in the movie is courageous, combat and noncombat veterans answer by referring to some form of visual identification like "by the way they moved" or "because they charged the enemy" or "because they kept attacking despite casualties." I take these answers to provide direct ethnographic evidence that the ways people move in context are socially and culturally meaningful. Observers read, or interpret, meaning in movement. We can conclude that peoples' bodies are sociocultural resources for generating meaning. Had the soldiers depicted in the film, for example, simply changed direction and run back into the water, we would have a very different sense of what their actions meant and so a very different opinion of them as soldiers, as Americans, and as people.

     For combat veterans, courage as a value is a way of being, of choosing to use one's body as a resource in dangerous situations to enact still other values. It is not a quality of the psyche or a biologically-automated response to a threat. Attacking, by choosing to physically rush at an enemy either as an individual or as a member of a squad of Marines is, in fact, the enactment of Marine Corps courage. Marines, as warriors, tend to speak most forcefully and loudly through the ways they move rather than the ways they vocalize. Deeds, in short, speak louder than words to Marines. Using this background we can pose a new question that combines and refines the two objections of women in combat and in combat units: "If women cannot enact, that is, embody, prized values or if women undermine the ability of groups, that is, units of individual bodies acting in concert as one body, to act in a unified way toward a common purpose, then on what basis can or should we include them in combat units?"

     Since I intend to analyze the fine detail of training as a dynamically embodied activity in order to understand what counts as a Marine-ready-for-combat, it is crucial to delineate the social and cultural context. Context is critical for understanding the meaning of social action and, as a result, the generation of identity. The reason can be illustrated through a simple, everyday example. Americans who enter a retail shop with a counter behind which an attendant stands rarely go behind the counter, despite the ease with which they might do so. This is because people assign sociocultural values to other people, to actions, and even to spaces that become part of the local context. We then use these assignments to identify who is "authorized," for example, and who is not.

     A person going behind a counter in a retail shop can generate ambiguity or concern about his or her identity that then requires explication. We can imagine a relatively benign person ("Oh, sorry, I didn't realize . . .") or a malicious person ("Hand over all the money") or a sort of neutral person ("I'm here to fix to light"). We can tell from this example that there is a range of possibilities for identification of a person as being of a certain kind. Mistaking, breaking, or honoring sociocultural values that are part of a local context gives us the opportunity, if not requires us, to make identity statements about others (and ourselves for that matter) as beings of a certain moral status or character. Contexts, then, help us define and be defined as certain kinds of persons. This is why an understanding of context is required for a robust understanding of not only action but of how and what personal identity is generated in action.

     Using this approach will permit me to offer a reconstruction of the cultural logic that informs the U.S. Marine Corps's concept of a Marine-ready-for-combat, or "the good Marine." I intend to bring out, that is, the social and cultural pre- and proscriptions for dynamically embodied action that create opportunities to consider a trainee a good Marine. This will allow construction of a Marine-specific standard for analysis with which we can look at issues like women in combat from the Corps's own perspective.

Purpose, Values, and Identity in the United States Marine Corps

The United States Marine Corps (USMC) is America's "quick reaction force," meaning that their purpose is to be the "[f]irst to fight, ready to win battles in the air, on land and at sea."5 The Corps's primary purpose is warfighting; if so, we need to know what war and fighting are to the Marine Corps. During my fieldwork, one Marine leader alerted me to the small volume called Warfighting (2007:3) that was, in his view, a concise summary of the Marines' approach to war. In it, the Corps defines war as "a violent struggle between two hostile, independent, and irreconcilable wills, each trying to impose itself on the other." The Corps states that the means of resolving such conflict "is through the use of violence, or the credible threat of violence, that we compel our enemy to do our will. Violence is an essential element of war and its immediate result is bloodshed, destruction, and suffering" (United States Marine Corps 2007:14). The Marine Corps asserts simply and directly that war is fundamentally an interactive social process focused on dominating the enemy. Domination can be realized either in the enemy's submission or the enemy's death.

     The Marine Corps is quite clear about which Marines need to be prepared to "violently close with the enemy:" all of them.6 U.S. Marine Colonel Mark Triplett, assistant chief of staff at Parris Island Recruit Depot states, "I don't care if it's a female, a male Marine, a cook, a baker, or candlestick maker, whatever, everybody is a basic rifleman in the Corps" (The Marines 2007). The Corps requires that all enlisted Marines receive training as combat infantry and all officers receive training as combat infantry platoon leaders regardless of their job (or Military Occupational Specialty, MOS). The tagline used to capture this approach is "Every Marine a rifleman."

     The necessity for all Marines to be combat-ready, regardless of gender or MOS, is not only the expression of the Corps total commitment to its combat purpose. It is also a value accepted by the Corps practically in the face of the realities emergent in counterinsurgency warfare. Marine Corps Major Jackson Reese notes that

[t]he current battlefield in Iraq is one that does not discriminate among combat and support marines. Insurgents continue to target large formations, such as a FOB [Forward Operation Base] and small formations, perhaps more vulnerable targets such as logistics convoys or patrols. Any of these formations may be comprised of female marines working in a supporting establishment, that is, non-combat specialty. [2008:39]

As a matter of recent historical fact, gender distinctions and policy limitations imposed by the Department of Defense are enforced in a counterinsurgency environment only to the extent that the enemy cooperates by fighting according to Western cultural values. Such values, much to former President George W. Bush's chagrin, include the notion of acquiescing once beaten on a conventional battlefield so that clearly demarcated and stable "front lines" and "rear echelon areas" may be designated.

     Cementing the Corps's commitment in 2007, the commandant of the Marine Corps complemented "every Marine a rifleman" by ordering that all Marines be enabled to deploy to Iraq or Afghanistan. He wrote, "When they join our Corps, Marines expect to train, deploy, and fight. That's who we are; that's what we do; and we must allow every Marine that opportunity."7 The attendant catchphrase is "every Marine into the fight."

Training for Combat

If every Marine is a rifleman and every Marine is (offered the opportunity to be) in the fight, then every Marine must be trained for close combat since the Corps believes that, for combat infantry, close-range combat is a universal event.

The dilemma of close-range combat; hand grenades, close-in assault fire, weapons fighting, and hand-to-hand engagement [that] will always be a part of the Marine Corps mission. In this respect, the ethos of the United States Marine Corps is timeless. The closeness of interpersonal violence remains unmatched, whether on the beaches of World War II or in downtown Mogadishu, Haiti, or East Timor. [United States Marine Corps 2007, MAITM 09: 6]

We should pay close attention to this understanding of combat and violence in the larger context of the purpose of the Marine Corps because it reveals important value-orientations comprising what counts as a good Marine.

     The cultural logic that underwrites what counts as a good Marine appears to go like this:

  • Warfighting in its purest form is ground-based and conducted in defense or advancement of prized cultural values.

  • On the ground, the most effective, generally applicable weapon is a rifle-armed Marine.

  • Based on long experience, ground combat is best executed quickly, aggressively, violently, and at close quarters.

Once an enemy is identified as such, the good Marine is one who quickly, aggressively, dominates the enemy at close quarters using violence or the threat of violence in the defense or advancement of prized cultural values.

     There is one final component of this cultural logic that deserves special attention. The U.S. Marine Corps Lejeune Leadership Institute's Discussion Material For Small Unit Leaders: Issues of Battlefield Ethics and Leadership (2008) conveys the moral and legal expectation that Marines employ violence in principled ways:

The principles of discrimination in the use of force and proportionality in actions are important to Marines for practical reasons as well as for their ethical or moral implications. Force that causes unnecessary harm or death to noncombatants may create more resistance and increase civilian sympathy for the insurgents and their cause especially if the populace perceives a lack of discrimination in their use by Marines or other local forces. The use of discriminating, proportionate force as a mindset goes beyond the adherence to the rules of engagement. Proportionality and discrimination applied in COIN [counterinsurgency] require leaders to ensure that their units employ the right tools correctly with mature discernment, good judgment and moral resolve. [2008:9]

Though this brief example does not cover the many complex ethical and legal characteristics of modern warfare for Marines, I want to emphasize that the Marine way of warfare and of being a warrior is not simply a matter of utility and efficiency. I also want to emphasize that the very existence of this discussion material implies two important follow-up points. First, Marines need to make value judgments based on many complex ethical and legal requirements routinely and often under extreme time pressure. Second, battle spaces and what Marines do in them are not only physically ambiguous and risky but also ethically and legally ambiguous and risky. These characteristics of battle spaces and of Marine actions require training. For Americans, there is nothing natural in deciding what to do in an encounter with an armed opponent who turns her weapon on you but also appears to be about twelve years old. Fighting the American Marine way is a cultural, not a biological, phenomenon.

     The Marine Corps ideal, then, is that every Marine, regardless of military occupation or gender, should be a rifleman and be prepared to engage in close, violent combat with the enemy while embodying the ethical and legal standards that the Corps and the United States prize. The Corps trains all its members to be close-combat-capable riflemen because they deeply value being warriors as a way of life. Disconnecting the use of violence from its personal enactment or its ethical context does not constitute the U.S. Marine warrior ethos. Rather, the Marines embrace it and seek to act ethically as individuals and in teams through total commitment of their entire being to combat.

     The content of this ethos is critical. It concerns, as we will see momentarily, a total commitment to selflessness. That is, reports like "I'm hot," "I'm tired," "I'm hungry" are absolutely antithetical to the ethic of being a warrior. Such reports are considered indulgences of the self, or, "going internal" as the Marines I trained with called it. Going internal is a kind of betrayal because it puts the self above the mission. For Marines, it is the other way around: mission before self. One facet of this orientation is that others, meaning other Marines, the Corps itself, and others categorized as those who are to be protected are the raison d'etre for Marines.

     One training program within the Marine Corps that is substantively directed at creating and enhancing the Marine warrior ethos is the MAIT course. In 2000, Commandant of the Marine Corps General James L. Jones established the Marine Corps Martial Arts Program to continue the long tradition of preparing Marines for combat.8 The cultural logic delineating the good Marine is realized at the MACE in training that combines three disciplines—"physical," "mental," and "character"—that, as I heard them described during my fieldwork, are "the three legs of a stool; take away any leg and the stool falls" (Fieldnotes, June 27, 2007). While I heard various phrases describing the point of this three-discipline martial arts training such as "burnishing the armor," "turning Marines into better leaders," and "creating ethical warriors," most trainers and trainees thought that the course was transformative.

     What exactly is transformed? In my view and in my experience, it is the agency of the Marine. Marines are taught how and to some extent why to maximize their agency in terms of their physical capabilities, mental acuity, and moral character toward being a warrior. One Marine instructor stated that all human dimensions of being a Marine center on [the] grounding principle [that] being a Marine is being a Marine in combat (Fieldnotes, July 2, 2007). Unpacking this instructor's truism in light of the analysis so far suggests that maximizing agentic capabilities enables Marines to engage a maximal range of the kind of ambiguous and risky situations of violence that they both produce and encounter. Training to maximize agency, therefore, frees Marines to act rightly according to prized personal, Corps, and national values.9

     How does this complex transformation happen in training? Through habituating oneself to think and act according to Marine Corps values to the best of one's ability. In short, it happens through enculturation. We can appreciate the process of coming to embody Marine-ness in the physical, mental, and moral realms through an example. In the martial arts move "Counter-to-the-Round Kick," Marines learn to stop an attack designed to incapacitate or kill them. Round kicks can be delivered at up to twenty-five miles per hour yielding up to 550 pounds of force to the head, ribs, or knee. Figure A below represents a Labanotation transcription of both a round kick and a counter-to-the-round kick.

Figure 1
Figure 1. Counter to the Round Kick—A attacks B with Round Kick, B blocks, attacks A.

A visual representation of this kind of attack and counter move from the A&E Television Networks production Human Weapon: Marine Corps Martial Arts (2007) can be found here // The critical concept in this move is that the defending Marine turns the attacker's kick into a liability by moving in and toward the oncoming kick. This move not only reduces the force of the kick but also permits the defender to secure the leg and remove a source of support (and therefore fighting ability) from the attacker. This transitions the attacker into a defender and embodies the Marine Corps preferred approach to attack aggressively in warfare, even when being attacked. Two important principles of combat emerge here that are simultaneously biophysiological and sociocultural.

     Biophysiologically, moving in and toward the kick guarantees an experience of pain but trades that experience for a decrease in the strength of the kick by blocking the power-producing rotation of the hips and the whip of the foot at the kick's apogee. Trading initial pain in the pursuit of a combat advantage is a critical sociocultural principle that Marines need to learn in order to transition the attacker into a defender.10 Transitioning an attacker into a defender is an embodied action that realizes the purpose of the Marine Corps: it permits the Marine combatant the opportunity to impose his or her will rather than being imposed upon. It is constitutive of being a good Marine in that it is a commitment not only to the immediate combat but to combat in the aggressive, Marine way.

     Biophysiologically, the countermove also permits the Marine to avoid trading blow for blow and turning combat into a test of physical strength and endurance. As the video referenced above shows, the Marine uses physics and gravity, not sheer physical strength, to deliver a crushing blow to the opponent's back and head. Turning an attacker's strength into a weakness ensures that a test of strength is avoided. It avoids the Roman writer Vegetius's fourth-century CE rhetorical observation, "What can a soldier do who charges when out of breath?" (cited in Leeb, Phillips, et al. 1985:164). This too is a sociocultural principle that needs to be learned by Marines, since the fact of human physical variability in light of local conditions can make strength-on-strength a risky way of using one's body. Extremely strong Marines can become extremely weak after five days in combat with little food or water or sleep. Marines are taught not to rely only on physical strength in combat.

     I want to emphasize that these principles and dynamically embodied movements are choices that embody the combatant's judgment and so values. In my first attempt at countering a round kick, for example, I chose to move out and away from the kick in an attempt to nullify if not mitigate my anticipation of a pain experience. My training partner immediately stopped and demonstrated the correct directionality for the move. My moving out and away was in no way "natural," that is, it had nothing to do with a so-called "fight or flight" instinct under the control of a species-specific, evolved nervous system, since I neither fought nor flew. Rather, it was the result of my civilian attitude toward pain and my preference to avoid it.

     My concept of combat was to avoid until I could be certain that I could do what I wanted to do. What I had to learn was that, in a combat situation, generally it is much more dangerous, exhausting, and painful to move out and away. I also had to learn that, in combat, pain is unavoidable. During knife training, for example, one instructor warned us to expect to get cut in a knife fight. That we had to be warned to manage our expectations indicates that, conceptually, Marines could be surprised. Being surprised in a fight can result in hesitation and so give an opponent an advantage in time. In this sense, moving out and away can give an opponent an advantage not only in time but in space, and so the opportunity to move in his or her own aggressive way.11

     The existence of ranges of action in the analysis of action so far indicates that combat is primarily conceptual, embodied, and under the control of the person no matter how automatic some combat looks. Control is achieved through practice and constant monitoring by trainers and trainees themselves during training. As the embodied conceptualization of how and why to move one's body grows, so does one's agentic command of combat in terms of speed, tactical choices about moves, assessments of opponents, and so forth.

     Combat, then, is "trained habit" under the autonomous control of the person.12 Mastery of combat amounts to the transition from having to think about the moves themselves to being able to think about other things while moving. This is akin to driving a car home while having an intense conversation with a passenger. The complex and intelligent act of driving home can remain out of focal awareness as the driver concentrates on the meaning of the conversation.

     Before addressing women in Marine training, I want to offer an observation about the character of combat and combat training. For Marines, once the decision to enter into combat is made, total commitment to that action should ensue. This is captured through the instructors' use of the phrase "combat mindset." Focus, concentration, spontaneous decision making with the body as a resource, and high levels of conditioning in physical, mental, and moral disciplines are all required in ambiguous, risky combat environments. Marines practice being totally committed in training. I will illustrate the depth of this principle through an ethnographic experience.

     On June 14, 2007, we were engaging in a "pool drill." In this exercise, we were to wear our camouflage utility uniform ("cammies" to the Marines), combat boots, flak jacket, Kevlar helmet, ALICE gear (All-purpose Lightweight Individual Carrying Equipment, a series of straps and belts used to secure implements like canteens and knives to the body), and a backpack. The mission was, simply, to swim around the edge of the pool using only approved strokes and without "cutting the corners" or touching the bottom or the sides at any time. The conditions of this drill ensured that the Marines had to put out 100 percent effort. We had just experienced three preparatory water drills with gradually increasing amounts of equipment, so this drill would be performed after we were already weakened. With no solid ground, we had no way of avoiding the effort that would be necessary to at least maintain our ability to breathe. The drill itself, then, was designed by the instructors to elicit maximum effort and focus to a level similar to a combat environment.

     In assessing my physical and mental state, as well as the distance around the outer edge of the pool, I actually thought that drowning or some no doubt painful and terrifying approximation awaited me. And it is exactly on this point that the instructors later upbraided the class and its relatively poor performance. Although I made the swim, a number of Marines did not and required a life-saving float to be tossed to them from the pool's edge or handed to them from one of the instructors monitoring the exercise from in the water. The instructor in charge of the class yelled at the assembled Marines saying, "Do you really think that we'd let you drown?! Why was this not 100 percent effort?! Why didn't you put out?!" The lead instructor amended the training schedule, and the class spent the next hour in the gym going through a series of grueling drills as a penalty for our lack of effort and trust.

     Given my interpretation of the drill itself mandating combat-environment-like effort, on what basis could the lead instructor criticize the Marines for not putting out? What the lead instructor meant by his criticism was that the Marines failed to live up to a foundational responsibility: despite the real difference between training and combat, their responsibility was to act as if they were in a combat environment through their own effort. They were being challenged to use their imaginations and drive themselves to generate the stress and exhaustion that can compromise their capabilities as agents on the battlefield, even as they were expected to strive to overcome them. The lead instructor's unspoken demand, then, was that the Marine trainees should have struggled onward until they went down.13 The key indicator of their failure was embodied action: in reaching for the pool ledge or a float, they thought about themselves and not their mission. While civilians might question a demand for this kind of seemingly self-destructive effort, the Marine Corps does not because there are no floats or time-outs in combat. The ethical principle was this: when faced with a desperate situation, it is better to try to influence the odds with one's own agentic intervention in active pursuit of the slimmest chance of success than it is to give up. The theoretical-moral principle is absolute commitment to exercising one's own agency and, potentially, to go beyond it. In effect, the lead instructor was training us in the moral value of courageous self-sacrifice.

     The lead instructor told me that the instructors viewed the water exercise as particularly important for discovering the strengths and weaknesses of the trainees. Later I asked him, half-jokingly, if he had expected the Marines who were struggling to "put out" until they passed out. He replied in all seriousness that he did and that was why he upbraided the class (Fieldnotes, June 18, 2007). Whether any particular individual actually incapacitates him- or herself in an effort depends on the individual's agentic choices, including the choice to trust the instructors not to let them drown. The quantity and quality of dynamic activity thereby becomes a measure for assessing Marine commitment and so for assessing courageous self-sacrifice. I am indebted to Dr. Charles R. Varela for noticing that the meaning of striving for incapacitation on the part of each Marine (as a self) in the service of, for example, other Marines (as an other) means that the individual and the collective have become one unit of action in reciprocal sacrifice. A good Marine is one with his or her unit, and vice versa.

Women in Marine Training

There were two female trainees and one female instructor in my training class in the summer of 2007. Both trainees were young second lieutenants right out of the basic school for officers. Both were participating in the training while waiting for their duty assignments to units in the Corps. The instructor was a sergeant. I noticed that there were two policies that differentiated men from women in the training proper. One piece of training gear was a heavy vest designed to carry even heavier ceramic or metal plates to protect Marines in combat from bullets and shrapnel. Symptomatic of the "train like you fight" principle, we generally wore these (without the plates) while doing daily training. The women were required to wear them at certain times when the men were not, however, in order to protect their chests from damage in any exercise where physical contact might occur.

     The second policy permitted women lighter weights, such as kettlebells, in some of the training exercises. Despite these differentiating policies, the first perhaps imposing an additional burden on the women and the second perhaps lessening their burden, I did not hear the men or the women instructors or trainees complaining in public or private about either one. My sense during the training was that the course was so grueling in so many dimensions, physical, mental, moral, that these policies were not thought by either gender to make a material difference in individual or team performance. It has occurred to me since that any such complaint might have redounded on the speaker with ill effect. We have already seen that as a matter of institutional and individual fact and value, pain and "unfairness" in each of the dimensions are endemic to being a Marine.

     Moreover, we practiced pain management and mental focus by wearing groin protectors similar to those worn by boxers and kicking each other in the groin. The principle behind such a drill is straightforward and in line with managing expectations about getting cut in a knife fight. Experiencing what it feels like to get kicked in the groin is a way of teaching the trainee not only that she or he can still function but that the situation can be turned into an opportunity to counterattack the opponent. Neither the men nor the women complained about the use of protection on the part of the males. This seems to me to affirm a rather commonsense understanding of protecting sensitive but gender-differentiated areas of the body as part of the domestication of combat in training. In short, such "concessions" to biology were different but standard and so not important.

     Structuring training in deference to differential biophysiology did not extend to the social and cultural realm of Corps values such as "having character." On the first day of training, we were introduced to the staff's expectations for performance in the course. The senior non-commissioned officer (SNCO) at the MACE asked the class if there was anyone who "didn't want to be there" and, if there was, "Don't wait and whine about injuries or other bullshit; don't be a girl and frickin' whine about it. Frickin' don't be afraid to get out, don't hit on no injuries, have a sack." After a short pause, he added, "In deference to the girls in the room, they're Marines, not girls" (Fieldnotes, June 11, 2007). After another short pause, he went to say that "big boy rules apply," that "you shouldn't do stupid shit, go out and get drunk, stuff to get you in trouble, cause you could be dropped from the course." Moreover, "if there is anyone on Creatine or other kinds of performance enhancers, that shit isn't allowed since it can shut down your kidneys" (Fieldnotes, June 11, 2007). Since a lot of the Marines were staying at the local Days Inn, on the government's money, and the Days Inn was providing them laundry service and breakfast, "You should have some common decency and not throw your shit around in your room at the hotel. Don't leave your shit 'adrift.'" Finally, he warned them, "Don't go out and blow all your money. Put some away" (Fieldnotes, June 11, 2007). Being of good character is, apparently, gender-free and expectations for being of good character extend beyond "work hours" to all areas of the Marine's life.

     That the SNCO used stereotypical gender constructions to express a gender-free standard of action for being a good Marine was certainly ironic but not ineffective. Having good character, in the SNCO's terms, is being a man, and being a man is defined as being opposite to being a woman especially in reference to acceptable responses to enduring the rigors of the course and attendant injuries. Women's action is constructed as primarily avoidant: they refuse to look at themselves critically and accept responsibility for who they are or are not. Fear about how a lack of commitment would reflect negatively on one's character and covert plans to use an injury (real or fabricated, apparently) to mitigate that fear and hide that lack of commitment are constructed as a typical women's strategy. What the SNCO constructs as antithetical to having good character and being a man is deviousness and selfishness. This is exactly opposite to the transparency found in dynamically embodied action and selflessness in the pursuit of prized values.

     Being a man, moreover, is constructed implicitly as employing the opposite of the typical women's strategy. It is constructed metaphorically through reference to Marines choosing (somehow) to have male genitalia, specifically a scrotum, which is present only if one has testicles. Importantly, and ironically, the construction of proper activity for men is metaphorical and not literal. Having a scrotum—biological maleness—is neither required nor a guarantee of acceptable performance since the implication is that Marines need to choose to have one! That is, they need to choose to honor and enact the kinds of actions that the Corps values. Just because men are involved in the activity of training for warfighting and by extension the activity of actual combat does not mean that they will succeed and so, presumably, have that activity valued by other men. Only after a Marine has dynamically embodied prized values are character and moral attributions assigned. Actions speak louder than words, or, in this case, biophysiology. We should note that such a speech would be neither possible nor required if combat had any basis in an instinct or was in any way "natural."

     Any sense of an easy or necessary association of men's biological equipment with character or moral status was further unsettled by the malleability of what counts as success in training and by extension in combat. Success depends on the context and the values being employed and pursued. For example, my success in training was, at one point, measured in terms of a comparison between my capabilities associated with my age (forty-two years old) and my fellow trainees' capabilities associated with their age (mid-twenties on average).

     In assessing my squad's group performance after an iteration of the Combat Conditioning Exercise (CCX), one instructor said he'd give us a seven out of ten on the performance scale. He said we were weak in the beginning but started coming together in the later stages. Giving 100 percent was what it was all about, and if we weren't going to give 100 percent, we could come back in on Saturday and run the room again. He pointed at me and said, "His 100 percent is probably half or 5 percent of yours, but he was giving 100 percent for where he's at. That's what we want!" Do we need to come back here on Saturday? No? OK!" (Fieldnotes, June 19, 2007).

     Though I clearly failed when measured against the physical conditioning requirements (for example, I could hardly lift my arms and fight the instructors in the boxing component of the CCX), I succeeded when measured against pushing myself to my physical and mental limits. Note too that what counts as "100 percent" is also malleable and susceptible to situation-based interpretation on the part of the person authorized to make such judgments. Though I was close, I hadn't, for example, pushed myself to the point of rendering myself unconscious, as was the lead instructor's expectation and requirement during the pool drill. This could have been an anomaly given my status as a civilian and not a Marine. But I found that this standard was being applied generally to other Marines, both male and female.

     In point of fact, different Marines gave 100 percent, or less, at different times, during different drills. Individual and team performance in the class was generally upward, steadily over time, but not in all cases and not without significant variation. Some Marines started strong but by the end of the class were on the verge of failing. There were some Marines who were growing physically weaker over time because they were not eating well or their bodies were not as well conditioned going into the class and so could not withstand the long-term punishment. Other Marines weakened mentally. This process seemed to center on moral issues. There was, for instance, one Marine who simply "never got it" according to one instructor and did the minimum to get by; or, in another case, a Marine who told me he was "fed up" with the Marine Corps and actually committed the cardinal sin of saying that he quit during a drill (the instructors nearly honored his claim). Marines never quit; they may get killed or get incapacitated, but they never quit.14 Some Marines, on the other hand, were weak both physically and mentally at the beginning of the course and grew stronger as it progressed.

     These same descriptors applied to the three squads of Marines insofar as they were a single body, or unit, composed of individually committed bodies. Team performance both varied and did not, depending on, for example, the kind of drill (intersquad competitive or intrasquad competitive) or the time frame chosen for reference (one drill or the entire course). For example, there was a substantial penalty for coming in last on a competitive drill where the squads were pitted against one another. The penalty was that the last squad had to carry a telephone pole weighing hundreds of pounds anywhere the squad went on the base during training hours. My squad never carried the telephone pole since we were never last. My squad, moreover, contained one of the two women trainees.

     While it is true that a good squad can perform with one or more physically or mentally weak members, not only was our female member not weak in either form, but she contributed materially to the cohesiveness of the otherwise all-male team simply by performing well, which, as we now know, is the physical, mental, and moral commitment of oneself to the values of the Corps. In fact, the worst performing squad over the entire course was the squad without a female member. This is significant from an empirical point of view. It presents countervailing evidence to Simons's objection that women automatically and regardless of intention disrupt the male bonding that makes strong unit performance possible. If female-male cohesion can be accomplished in training, then we have a prima facie case for cohesion in combat.15

     I would like to illustrate these points using a video from my training class. Figure B below shows a drill called "The Bear Pit." The object of the drill was to dunk one's opponents' heads under the water (and, as a safety measure, make sure they came back up).

Figure 2. The Bear Pit.

We can see that there is a definite advantage to being physically strong but physical strength is not necessarily either primary or decisive. In the first fight, for example, the Marine in the center takes advantage of the commitment of the other two to fight and opportunistically joins with one to eliminate the third. While this saves him energy, it also preserves some of the energy of his soon-to-be-opponent. His move does succeed, however, in removing what seems to be a greater threat: the possibility that the other two Marines would team up, mid-fight, and turn on him. This example confirms the idea that "strength on strength" is ambiguous and needs to be employed judiciously. Its status as a "good" or "bad" value actually depends on its employment and success in concrete situations. The Marine in the center could have, for example, simply jumped in and tried to fight both other Marines simultaneously and so pitted his strength against theirs. This approach would hold the promise of ending the combat quickly in his favor. Instead he chose to (try to) generate a less risky route. That there is no way to tell ahead of time which route he should have chosen is indicative of the monumental weight and responsibility resting on the Marine's ability to employ his or her agency in combat.

     I hasten to add, however, that a combatant inviting if not producing a greater degree of risk by pitting his or her own strength against that of an opponent seems to have had some degree of attraction to trainers and trainees. This may be an American masculine value. Whatever its source or status, it is a tendency that some combatants could take advantage of. In the second fight, the female Marine chooses to try to eliminate one opponent quickly through an aggressive attack that leaves her unprotected from an attack from the rear. A Marine on shore shouts, "Way to get in there, ma'am." This is a perfect example of inviting risk when a Marine chooses to employ strength on strength tactics. When her attack fails, she is vulnerable to the physically largest Marine in the pit. In taking advantage of his physical strength and size, the Marine ends the contest quickly simply by pulling both of the other Marines into the water.

     This kind of capability, and the sense of knowing when and how to use physical strength directly, can be absolutely decisive. It is exactly why, despite its failure, an aggressive move like that of the female Marine is prized in the Marine Corps. In fact, her example helped me to make sense of something said by an advisor to the MACE who emphasized that "the women, especially, are deadly once they get to a weapon because they know that they're not going to outmuscle a guy" (Fieldnotes, June 20, 2007). Faced with a test of strength on strength with two men, the female Marine appears to have sought to take control of an opponent and knock him out of the fight as quickly as possible. We might ask, in one way, what other option she had available. If she paused, the two men might have formed a hasty alliance and eliminated her quickly. As it was, she brought the fight to the enemy despite the odds. Never quit, and if one must die, die fighting.

     In the third fight, the female Marine from my squad pauses briefly to consider how exactly to get involved, as the two men have locked up with each other. Another Marine on shore shouts, "Let 'em beat each other up, ma'am," advice that she does not heed. Instead, she changes her tactics and seeks a hasty alliance with one of the other Marines, as in the first fight. The Marine on shore then switches his advice to the Marine targeted by the female Marine. She, meanwhile, tries to remove one of her opponent's legs as a support. Her attempt fails, and the tide appears to turn against her as the weight of her two opponents come toward her. Instead of fighting their weight, however, she moves with the force while locking an arm around one of the Marine's neck. When they finally fall, she is able to use gravity and the momentum of her opponents to drag one opponent's head under water. This is an example of choosing to employ the principle in hand-to-hand combat that "where the head goes, so goes the body."

     She then does something equally intelligent. She simply twists her body and uses her body weight to pin her other opponent. That she could have chosen to, for example, disengage, stand up, and reset, illustrates that the twist was a choice to aggressively end the engagement. This positions her as the embodiment of aggressive engagement with the enemy that the Marine Corps prizes. It is important to notice too that she has the presence of mind to control her last opponent's head just as she did with her former opponent.

     The female Marine's actions illustrate the balance that Marines need to achieve in employing physical and mental capabilities in combat. It also illustrates the role of luck. The female Marine's arm could easily have slid off due to the water. That her high-risk, aggressive fighting paid off made her accomplishment a real crowd pleaser. Enhancing the delight of the onlooking Marines is, of course, the assumption that, being a woman, the female Marine is less physically strong than the men and so was less likely to win the engagement. Marines pride themselves on generating and facing risk based on their own agency.

     While I would not argue with the notion that there is some element of chance and luck to her success, the female Marine's exercise of her agency was the critical factor in the engagement according to the assembled Marines. She used her body and training as resources to generate a favorable outcome for herself. Her relatively smaller stature and strength, while important, were both relevant and irrelevant at different times and in different ways during the engagement. For example, she bolstered her strength by going with the force and weight of her opponents rather than continuing to try to outmuscle them. What I want to emphasize is that the range and nature of evolving combat situations both presents and removes opportunities. Strong Marine combatants are not simply physically strong but strong in the intelligent application of different combat tactics depending on their practiced judgment of the circumstances and the other combatants involved.

About Women in Training

In light of this explication of Marine training, we can return to the objections to women in combat and in combat units. While it may be true, as Hunter Armstrong argues, that women are generally weaker physically than men, especially in terms of upper-body strength, it is an overly narrow way of approaching the question. As we have seen, combat is not simply physical; it is also requires intelligence and moral judgment. This means that the primary basis for judging the performance of combat infantry is not solely physical capacity.

     I contend that this realization is already built in to Marine Corps combat philosophy. It is one good reason that the Corps trains Marines to fight in teams. The Corps realizes that not every Marine will have maximal agentic capability, all the time in all situations. Having a team creates support and redundancy in combat capability. Teams reduce the risk presented by potential and actual variations in individual performance, capacity, or capability. One question does emerge here: does the "general and relative physical weakness of women" mean that women will necessarily fall below minimal standards set by the organization for combat capability? Apparently not, at least according to the Marine Corps. The Corps turns out separately trained women Marines, but they are trained to the same physical, mental, and moral standards as the men. Colonel Mark Triplett, assistant chief of staff of Parris Island Recruit Depot affirms what we just observed from my MAIT course. He states that, "[Women] have to meet all the same graduation requirements; in other words, there's no difference in the Marine Corps between what a female recruit and a male recruit gets here at Parris Island" (Grant 2007).

     The empirical evidence from my training class contradicts Anna Simons's notion of women's automatic, unintentional social disintegrative impact. The cohesiveness of my squad during training had less to do with the presence of a female and more to do with how she, and for that matter, how we all, performed. For example, at one point in the second week of the training, I wanted to ask the class a question collectively while all were milling around after a drill. One of the instructors, a combat veteran, shouted to the training class as follows: "Hey, listen up! The Doc [my nickname] wants your attention. He's a good guy; he does a lot of what we do, right?" (Fieldnotes, June 22, 2007). The instructor bridged the gap between me, as a civilian outsider, and them, as military insiders. His positioning of me as someone worthy of their attention was not only based on the authority of his judgment as an instructor, combat veteran, and leader but on my dynamically embodied performance to date.

     I submit that the same basis for judgment of the performance of women was laid out by the SNCO's introductory speech about staff expectations. Women were not to be judged primarily on the basis of their gender but on the basis of their performance. In the case of both second lieutenants, that performance in training was exemplary of Marine Corps values for combat. No instructor expected the women to succeed all the time and in all situations, but rather the expectation, just as for the men, was that they tried 100 percent and grew and learned and got better at accomplishing their missions. This amounts to Marines being held accountable for striving to achieve an ideal, not for achieving the ideal. If achieving an ideal were routine or possible, then it is not an ideal.

     This did not mean that there were no changes to group dynamics with the introduction of women, but those that came to my attention appeared to be, at best, inconveniences, and at worst, annoyances. Both women were assigned to the same squad in the training class a few days after the course began (and later separated when some Marines were dropped from the course). One squad leader trainee spontaneously walked up to me and said, "Now I have two women in my squad. Can't swear anymore, can't get to use baby-wipes, no more saying, 'bitches,' like callin' my Marines, 'get over here, you bitches,' no more guy-talk" (Fieldnotes, June 27, 2007). The squad leader trainee's comments would seem to be symptomatic of impending unit disintegration, but his squad was not the all-male, worst-performing squad.

     Another example of a change in a group dynamic occurred when one of the women had to urinate while we were in the midst of a drill some distance from any facility and with no instructor around. The mechanics are different between the sexes as is the social impact of exposure. The female Marine announced her intention to go further into the woods and then somewhat desperately asked the men not to look. The potential was for the men to indulge themselves and look despite her entreaty. But her plea worked. It became apparent that none of the Marines would risk a look and so be the first to admit he couldn't control himself.

     We might be tempted to think, as Simons suggests, that the social disintegrative power of women or men sneaking a peek at a female Marine is "natural" and so automatic. In fact, one of Simons's key informants, a U.S. special forces soldier, claims this is the fact of the matter. "If a woman comes into my office, I do a physical assessment. Even if it's just ten seconds, I go through a sexual scenario with that woman. Can I ignore it? I try to. In this culture, there are penalties for acting that out. But it's natural. There's nothing wrong with it. We have to be real about it" (Simons 2001:94). Simons agrees with him: "Ultimately, this is the basic, undeniable, unresolvable problem: heterosexual men like women in ways they don't like other men. What they feel for women is not what they feel for men. How they think about women is not how they think about men. And what they see when they look at a woman is not another man" (Simons 2001:94).

     We have seen, however, that supposedly automated biological and cultural responses of all kinds were not automated at all. Male Marine social cohesion did not disintegrate in the presence of a female Marine nor did a group of male Marines peek at a semi-naked female Marine. We saw that actual (not claimed) automated responses such as sympathetic nervous system signals (pain) are routinely ignored or not even recognized as Marines train themselves to focus on combat, not pain. This is part of learning to maximize personal agency by exercising self-control in pursuit of values larger than oneself. In this light, Simons's informant's comments contradict the model of self-control and agency that is so powerfully evident in military training. If this analysis is correct, we may interpret his comments as a justification of a preferred way of acting, not a realistic bowing under the weight of behavioral necessity from the evolutionary past of his sex.

     We may distinguish this kind of talk about women in training from talk from women in training. The former is commentary about women's embodied performance that is often fraught with misconceptions of the relationship between biology and culture. As seen in the conduct of Marines in training and in the U.S. military generally, the relationship is conceived hierarchically, with culture subsuming biology. The relative physical weakness of women compared to men may exist as a matter of fact, but the physical, as we have seen, is only one aspect of being a Marine. Moreover, the relative physical capacity of any particular woman may be greater than any particular male Marine under all circumstances or greater than a particular Marine after he has been in combat for five days. Differential capabilities are a fact of the military endeavor, not an aberration. As we have seen, there are a great many ways in which the Corps tries to eliminate, equalize, or manage these differences. Moreover, Marines of varying size, strength, and dexterity appear to enhance the Corps's capabilities. Possessing a small, swift, and agile Marine to scout a building ahead, for example, may be just as important for the Corps as possessing a large, slower, and awkward Marine who can carry an 80-mm mortar base plate and five rounds of mortar ammunition on top of his regular gear.

     A fair and just consideration of the question of women's military capability in this regard must include mental and moral aspects, as well as the use of intelligence, judgment, and actual performance both in training and in combat. Similarly, any objection to women in combat and in combat units based on a supposed natural disintegrative impact on all-male groups simply is not sustainable based on the empirical evidence offered within the context of this study. We should notice that these objections are internally related. The extent that cultural value positions about women and men are naturalized, that is, seen as somehow automated (as a putative consequence of the evolutionary development of our species) is the extent to which these objections will be thought grounded, viable, and convincing.16 Maintaining such naturalized and narrow views of females and their incapacities as well as of men and their inability to change in light of changing and perhaps painful social dynamics runs exactly counter to the core values of the Marine Corps and the American military. In short, such maintenance is self-indulgent.


1 Marine Corps rank structure for enlisted personnel, from lowest to highest, is private, private first class, lance corporal, corporal, sergeant, staff sergeant, gunnery sergeant, master sergeant, first sergeant, master gunnery sergeant, sergeant major, and sergeant major of the Marine Corps. Rank structure for commissioned officers, from lowest to highest, is second lieutenant, first lieutenant, captain, major, lieutenant colonel, colonel, brigadier general, major general, lieutenant general, and general.

2 As a matter of recent historical fact, women have been in combat and have been decorated for bravery by the U.S. military despite Department of Defense policy. The lack of linearly defined "safe" or "cleared" (of the enemy) areas common in an insurgency/counterinsurgency situation like those exemplified in both Iraq and Afghanistan means that maintaining a strict separation of combat versus noncombat or support troops is nearly impossible. For example,

Sgt. Leigh Ann Hester of the 617th Military Police Company, a National Guard unit out of Richmond, Ky., received the Silver Star, along with two other members of her unit, for their actions during an enemy ambush on their convoy.

Hester's squad was shadowing a supply convoy March 20, 2005 when anti-Iraqi fighters ambushed the convoy. The squad moved to the side of the road, flanking the insurgents and cutting off their escape route. Hester led her team through the "kill zone" and into a flanking position, where she assaulted a trench line with grenades and M203 grenade-launcher rounds. She and Staff Sgt. Timothy Nein, her squad leader, then cleared two trenches, at which time she killed three insurgents with her rifle. (//

3 In theoretical terms, the issue of women's capability and men's incapability brings us to this: if we think that the source of human cultural action is some sort of evolved biological mechanism (such as proposed by many evolutionary psychologists), then logic and consistency dictate that we view cultural action as behavior, not action. The term 'behavior' denotes that the activity is beyond the control of individual persons. The model for understanding human behaviors is an automated biological function, like digestion. Scientifically, this is the wrong model for understanding cultural action because human beings do not possess the kind of nervous system that would permit it. See the authors cited in note 16 below.

4 One of my training squadmates cemented the deep connection between training and combat after a particularly difficult and challenging forty-minute drill called the Combat Conditioning Exercise (CCX). The exercise takes place in a purposefully overheated room about 25' by 25' and includes a number of complex team-oriented and leadership tasks rooted in grueling physical exercises. The room is filled with yelling, and a soundtrack plays recordings of machine-gun fire, yells, babies crying, and other sounds at ear-splitting levels, with a clear design to tempt the participating trainees into concentrating on themselves—or, as the Marines put it, "going internal—rather than on the mission and team. After this drill, spontaneously, my training squadmate turned to me and said,

You know, I fought at Al Kut and Fallujah; I'm a radioman. What was going on in that room was just like combat—the noise, heat, the physical exertion, the mental strain—in my first firefight, I froze—I'm not even gonna lie, I'll say it. I was laying in my rack and boom! Mortars. My staff sergeant hit me on the back of my helmet to get me going. It's loud, people are yelling, and you're moving up and back, get to the side, move up, you're moving all the time, and I'm carrying all my gear, and I have to keep up with my CO [Commanding Officer] who doesn't have anything on except his flack and pistol! I was carrying my own body weight in gear, and I had to keep up with him. And not just that, I had to listen to the radio for my CO's call sign while I was trying figure out what was happening, and in all this time, you have to keep thinking [points to his head] because, you know, there's rounds coming down range [people shooting at you], so on top of everyone yelling and the confusion and being hot and not knowing what's up ahead or over the next wall, or how far you have to go, you're listening to the radio and fighting . . . DAMN! [shakes his head from side to side, looks down, half-smiles] In a lower voice he adds, "Good times, good times. You know a lot of guys got a tattoo after OIF 1 that said, 'Some gave some; some gave all.'" [Fieldnotes, June 19, 2007]

5 //

6 The phrase is that of Marine colonel and infantry combat veteran Bryan P. McCoy in The Passion of Command 2006:78.

7 //

8 From the Martial Arts Instructor-Trainer Manual (United States Marine Corps 2007, MAITM 09: 8).

9 When there is a misalignment or contradiction between Marine selflessness and, for example, values implicit in the conduct of a conflict as demanded by the nation, frustration, anger, and loss of morale tend to ensue.

10 This is why contemporary anthropological approaches that valorize subjective experience as the primary way of representing others are irrelevant to understanding modern Western combat qua combat. Pain and other emotions are thought to be of secondary importance, or even debilitating or distracting relative to their commitment to maintain focus on their mission. I was introduced to this notion in an abrupt way during my second day of training in 2007. We set off at a run to a training field to engage in grueling two-hour drill known as "The Heartbreaker." My squad was in a line, one Marine behind the other. I was at the end and fairly close to the Marine in front of me. His body blocked much of my view of the ground, and I accidently stepped onto a tree branch with my left foot. By doing so, I locked the branch in place. In bringing my right foot down, my right calf hit a sharp protruding sub-branch. The sub-branch gouged a three-inch furrow into my calf and, when my foot landed, put a dime-sized hole in my calf at the top of the furrow. The pain was terrible, but I kept running.

     During the ensuing drill, we were tasked with "buddy-squats." One Marine has another lay sideways across the top of his shoulders and then executes squats. When my turn came to lie across my training partner's shoulders, my hips began to slip from up by the back of his head down his back. This pulled my legs down his back as well, and, instead of holding them both by curling his right arm over them, he ended up holding my right foot, bent at the knee, over his shoulder while I essentially held on to his left shoulder. As he executed the squats and I tried to stay on his back, my injured right calf rubbed over his flak jacket. I held on for a few repetitions but then told my training partner I had to get down. He dropped me, and I went a few feet to the side to check my leg. My training partner was told to do push-ups while I got myself in order.

     Standing near me was the second most senior noncommissioned officer at the MACE, with his arms folded and an impassive look on his face. I rolled up my cammie uniform leg and saw a yellow, green, blue, and black bruise with the furrow and hole caked with fresh and dried blood. The NCO bent ever so slightly to get a look and asked me, in a lighthearted way, "What'd you scratch yourself?" He then turned back to watch the drill in progress, and I was left to decide whether I wanted to get back into the drill. For Marines, physical pain is to be ignored.

11 There is an important experience, or, perhaps, lack of one, that highlights the idea that Marines-in-training are not responding according to the dictates of their biophysiology. After some time, I noticed that I was not feeling much pain when getting hit. I had actually developed what the Marines call discipline. Once I learned I wasn't going to die or have my arms broken or endure some similarly unrealistic result, my focus became not on impacts or pain but on executing my moves more precisely, more quickly, with better balance and alignment. Only later when I did not have to concentrate on combat would pain come into my focal awareness. I would then discover soreness, pain, and severe bruising on areas of my body I had not known had been hit.

12 The primacy of the agency of individual Marines in the training is reflected in an admonishment offered by the director of the MACE: "When you're out there giving it 65 percent or 75 percent, think about these [exemplary] devil dogs. You have to reach down sometimes. You're pukin' out there—brush it off and move on. Think about your brothers: they'll pull you through, and you'll pull them through" [Fieldnotes, June 13, 2007].

     The director asks the Marines to take themselves as objects of critical inquiry and act to express the prized values of the Corps and the MACE MAIT program. Such acts are tacit refusals of the physiological messages being received since they present an unacceptable invitation to focus on one's own pain and discomfort. In the refusal, there is a personal denial of substandard performance on behalf of the social others in one's group. The use of familial or kinship terminology is one important, readily available, and generally understood way of indexing the kind of unwavering commitment to other Marines that the director and the IT's expected. The Marines earned the sobriquet "devil dogs" or teufelhunden from the Germans for their ferocity in combat during World War I.

13 Film actors who train for a role in this way can be said to be pursuing combat training and not acting.

14 This incident indexes an important difference between training and combat. In training, the instructors had to take the Marine's word for it that he was unable to keep going due to severe cramping in both legs, despite their yells and threats of honoring his statement. In actual combat, the Marine would be pitting his sense of his capability and tolerance of pain against the possibility that he or other Marines could or would die because he quit.

15 An anonymous reviewer of this article offered the idea that the length of training and combat deployment is critical in Simons's understanding of the potential or lack thereof for integrating women into combat units and that a training course lasting seven weeks is too short to make the data I offer valid. In response, I want to point out that the IT's thought (and my classmates realized) that cohesion was substantially achieved (though not necessarily maintained or stabilized) by week four. The lead instructor asked the class what the difference was between the aquatic drill conducted on July 12, 2007, and the iteration earlier in the course. One of my squad mates said, "Well, we trust you now—there's IT's in the pool with floats and shit, and we know you won't let us drown. But in the beginning, we were like, 'Fuck you, Gunny! We don't know you'" (Fieldnotes, July 12, 2007). My squad mate's comments focus on the growing evidence of the embodied professional competency of the IT's, not on the IT's personality or gender. Moreover, the combat-experienced IT's worked actively to generate cohesion and expected such to occur at multiple levels of the class organization. For them, substantive cohesion was not only possible within the confines of the course but a reflection of their ability to lead and train well.

16 Simons's presentation of cohesion adopts just this theoretical position, apparently because she adopts (rather than theorizes) her informants' view of their world. The social scientist Peter Manicas (1987) warns that anthropologists need to do more than simply describe the social world in the terms used by its members; they must also assess whether those members have an adequate understanding of their world. Simons's special forces soldier is wrong to imply that his reaction to women is in any way "natural," in the sense of unavoidable, automated, given, or otherwise necessary and so beyond his agentic intervention. Sustained and devastating critiques of the pseudoscience at the root of such deterministic views about human action are offered by a range of physical and social scientists as well as philosophers of science such as Aronson, Harré, and Way (1995); Bunge (2001); Farnell (1999, 2000); Farnell and Varela (2008); Goodwin (2001[1994]); Grene and Depew (2004); Harré (1970, 1979, 1984, 1986); Harré and Madden (1975); Hauser (2009); Hebb (1958); Keat and Urry (1975); Lewontin (2001[1998]); Manicas (2006); Senchuk (1991); Toulmin (1990); and Varela (1999, 2003, 2009). I hasten to add that the Marines in my training courses who thought that the source of the human ability to fight is "in our DNA" labor under a similar misconception.

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