Mattis’s views on women in combat takes center stage

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Retired Marine Gen. James Mattis’s stance on women in combat and LGBT troops will be thrust into the spotlight Thursday when he faces senators for his confirmation hearing to be the next secretary of Defense.

The man whom Mattis is in line to replace, Defense Secretary Ash Carter, opened all combat jobs to women with no exceptions in late 2015 over the objection of the Marine Corps. This summer, Carter also lifted the ban on transgender troops serving openly.

Supporters of the changes have been worried since Election Day that President-elect Donald Trump’s administration will roll them back. 

Mattis has expressed skepticism in the past about whether women are suited for what he called “intimate killing” and has blasted civilian leaders with a “progressive agenda” pushing “social change” on the military.

{mosads}Though Mattis is highly respected for his military service and is expected to be confirmed, wary senators will likely push Mattis to answer for his past comments when he faces the Senate Armed Services Committee. 

“I would have a concern if he wasn’t committed to supporting the policy going forward,” said Sen. Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.), a member of the committee. 

In a 2014 speech at the Marines’ Memorial Club in San Francisco, Mattis questioned whether women can handle the “atavistic primitive world” of the infantry.

“The idea of putting women in there is not setting them up for success,” he said. “It would only be someone who never crossed the line of departure into close quarters fighting that would ever even promote such an idea.”

He stressed that his concerns were not about individual women’s ability to meet physical requirements. The point, he said, was mixing “Eros,” the Greek god of love, with the trenches. 

“Some of us aren’t so old that we’ve forgotten that at times it was like heaven on earth just to hold a certain girl’s hand,” he said, to laughter and applause from the audience.

In a 2016 book Mattis co-edited with Hoover Institution colleague Kori Schake, the pair warned about the dangers of imposing social issues on the military, such as female combat troops and openly LGBT service members.

“We fear that an uninformed public is permitting political leaders to impose an accretion of social conventions that are diminishing the combat power of our military,” they wrote.

It’s a sentiment Mattis reiterated in a September interview with the Military Times. 

“We have to be very careful that we do not undercut the military battlefield effectiveness with shortsighted social programs,” he said.

Concerns about Mattis’s statements are compounded by Trump’s own comments on the campaign trail.

Trump blasted “political correctness” when asked during an October town hall about “social engineering” in the military. In September, he said he wanted to crack down on the “massive problem” of military sexual assault, but defended a 2013 tweet that blamed mixing men and women for the issue. 

Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), chairman of the Armed Services Committee, said he expects Mattis to echo what many Republicans have said about the issue of women in combat roles.

“I haven’t asked him about it, but I’m sure he will say that he supports the role of women in combat as long as we don’t lower standards,” McCain said. “That’s my view, and that I think is the majority of the committee’s view.”

But Democrats aren’t so sure. 

Asked if she has concerns about Mattis’s views on women in combat and transgender troops, Sen. Jeanne Shaheen (D-N.H.), a committee member, firmly said, “Yes,” without elaborating.

Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.), a vocal advocate of women in the military, said she plans to ask Mattis for clarity on his views at the hearing. Gillibrand has already said she opposes Mattis for an unrelated issue: He needs a waiver from Congress to bypass a law that says Defense secretaries must be out of uniform for at least seven years.

“I do have concerns about women in the military and how sexual assault in the military is being addressed,” she said after meeting Mattis last week. “I’ll ask those questions specifically in the hearing so he can answer them for the record.”

Kate Germano, chief operating officer of the Service Women’s Action Network, said even if Mattis doesn’t outright reverse the decision to open all combat jobs to women, he could allow the Marines to slow-roll implementation, which she has accused them of doing already.

“I think this could absolutely exacerbate that,” said Germano, a recently retired Marine Corps officer. “The fact is that for women who want to pursue those jobs, that’s a letdown for them.” 

Having a leader who doesn’t support women in combat could also hinder other efforts to fight gender bias, Germano added, such as integrating male and female Marines’ basic training and improving the military’s family policies.

As of Monday, her group had met with all but one member of the Senate Armed Services Committee to talk about Mattis, she said.

Germano said she’s worried that Gillibrand’s concerns about Mattis are being overshadowed by her opposition to his waiver. She also added that staffers for Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.), who joined the Armed Services Committee this year, have told the group she has concerns about Mattis’s positions as well.

Warren’s office did not return requests for comment.

Germano additionally highlighted Mattis’s close working relationship with Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Joseph Dunford, who as commandant of the Marines recommended Carter keep some jobs closed.

Asked this week whether he expects the women in combat policy to stay the same in the next administration, Dunford said he “can’t comment on anything that might happen in the future.”

The Palm Center, an independent think tank that researches issues of gender and sexuality and has been active on the military’s LGBT policies, has also been reaching out to senators ahead of Thursday’s hearing.

The group has been circulating a sheet of questions for senators to ask Mattis, including whether he supports the existing Pentagon policies, directives and implementation guidelines regarding open service by LGBT troops, what a reversal of the policy would consist of and what effect a reversal would have readiness, unit cohesion and morale.

“I expect Gen. Mattis, if he is confirmed, to take aim at LGBT troops and women and to politicize military personnel policy on the basis of outdated moral beliefs,” said Aaron Belkin, director of the Palm Center.

Republicans mostly did not support the transgender policy, saying the Pentagon did not provide adequate evidence that readiness would not be affected by allowing troops to transition in-service.

A RAND Corp. study commissioned by the Pentagon estimated about 65 troops per year would seek to transition and anticipated “minimal impact” on readiness.

Republicans were more divided on allowing women in combat, with some outright opposing any change, some upset Carter overruled the Marines’ request to keep some jobs closed and others supportive of the idea so long as standards aren’t lowered to ensure women make it into the newly opened jobs.

Sen. Joni Ernst (R-Iowa), a member of the committee and a combat veteran of the Iraq War, supported the change with the caveat about standards. When asked whether she’s looking for something specific from Mattis on the issue, she demurred.

“I just look forward to having a great conversation with him about it on Thursday during the hearing,” she said.

Tags Claire McCaskill Donald Trump Elizabeth Warren Jeanne Shaheen John McCain Kirsten Gillibrand

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