A day after Defense Secretary Jim Mattis told VMI cadets that the “jury’s still out” on women serving in combat infantry units, he defended the remarks, saying they had been misconstrued by the media.
At the Virginia Military Institute Tuesday, a male cadet asked Mattis the following question:
“Sir ... first off I’d just like to say, pardon my language, but there are a lot of bad-ass women here, some [more] physically fit than I am, some smarter than I am, but I remember I was doing some research on the Marine Corps’ experiment to see if female in combat arms makes us more combat effective, and I would just like to hear your thoughts on that.”
Mattis gave the cadet an extended response, which was rooted in the idea that the country still needs to decide what kind of society it wants, and that there still was not enough data to determine whether females in close-quarters combat were a military strength or weakness. He told the cadet he had not crafted the policy to open all combat positions to women, which was done by his predecessor, former Defense Secretary Ash Carter.
“Remember our natural inclination to have this open to all. But we cannot do something that militarily doesn’t make sense,” Mattis told the cadet.
Mattis' references to what, from his experience, makes for a strong infantry ― “They’re cocky, they’re rambunctious. They’re necessarily macho. And it’s the most primitive, I would say even evil, environment. You can’t even explain it." ― drew criticism Wednesday from women’s service member advocacy groups.
“When the most senior military leader makes it clear that this was not a policy that he supported, but one that he “inherited” he is tacitly endorsing efforts to undermine the success of the women currently serving in the infantry and in combat arms. He is sabotaging the efforts of his men and women who are working to integrate women," the Service Women’s Action Network said in a statement.
Mattis concluded his answer to the cadet by saying each service chief was looking at the issue, and that, "I’m open to it, and I’ll be working with the chief of staff of the Army and the others to sort it out.”
On Wednesday, Mattis said that his remarks had been misconstrued by the media and that at the speech, “the female cadets took it just the opposite ― that the door was open,” he told reporters at the Pentagon Wednesday. He also repeated that he did not have enough data yet. But he did not say he supported women serving in infantry posts.
“Right now, I prefer just to say that I handle problems when they’re brought to me,” Mattis said. “I have not had problems brought to me. If you look at other nations that have opened infantry positions to women, you see a very small, very small number. We can’t even draw statistical performance indicators from other nations right now. So I don’t talk about things that I don’t have data on.”
Tara Copp is the Pentagon Bureau Chief for Military Times and author of the award-winning military nonfiction "The Warbird: Three Heroes. Two Wars. One Story."