Policy & Strategy

Mattis: Military leaders must be prepared to deal with sexual relationships as women integrate into combat roles

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Former Defense Secretary James Mattis stressed during an event Tuesday that military leadership must be equipped to deal with integrating women into rifle platoons, particularly if male and female soldiers form sexual relationships. 

The retired four-star Marine Corps general said he is not against women in combat but stressed that leaders must be given the right tools to address the challenges it may bring, stating that the decisions should not fall on young platoon leaders.

{mosads}“As we look at this issue, we have to look at young people coming to age. It is not fair to say to the young sergeant lieutenant, ‘You’ve got young people falling in love in your unit, sort it out,’ ” Mattis said Tuesday during a discussion hosted by the Council on Foreign Relations.

“How do we protect this experiment? I am not against the issue intrinsically, but we had better not just say, ‘Here sergeant, you figure it out, it is your problem.’ No, no, it is society’s problem,” he added.

Mattis said that “respect for their sexuality should be part of that,” particularly as the soldiers are pushed to the brink of sanity in combat. 

“I think we need to be darn careful going to where the veneer of civilization is peeled off you in combat. At times you are just fighting to keep from going insane, or losing your ethics and morality,” he continued. “In that environment, you are going to put young men and women, at a time when they grow very fond of one another, and respect for their sexuality should be part of that decision.”

Furthermore, Mattis compared the move to the different U.S. Olympic teams, stating that both men and women compete but they are split up as a result of differences in strength between the two genders.

“I’ve written enough next to kin letters to say we don’t want to write next to kin letters to parents, to young 22-year old … widows to say, ‘well we tried something that more than likely the Olympic Committee won’t do,’ which is to have only one athletic team go to represent from each country,” Mattis said. 

“We have a male and a female team because there are different aspects to male and female athleticism. We would never accept saying we are not going to have female teams in the Olympics, nor should we,” he said.

Mattis, who resigned from his Cabinet position in December, previously straddled this policy question that came into play in 2015 when then-Secretary of Defense Ash Carter opened all roles in the military to women.

In 2014, Mattis openly questioned integrating women into infantry roles, but during his confirmation hearing he clarified he had “no plan to oppose women in any aspect.”

“This is an area we’re going to have to resolve as a nation,” Mattis said during a speech at the Virginia Military Institute last September.

“And the military has got to have officers who look at this with a great deal of objectivity, and at the same time, remember our natural inclination to have this open to all. But we cannot do something that militarily doesn’t make sense,” he continued.

At that time, Mattis also said the sample size of women in the infantry was too small to know for certain whether their involvement in such roles was a success.

“This is a policy I inherited, and so far the cadre is so small we have no data on it. We’re hoping to get data soon,” he said. “Clearly the jury is out on it, but what we’re trying to do is give it every opportunity to succeed if it can.”

Mattis, who resigned in December citing irreconcilable differences in a letter to the president, left the administration after Trump disregarded the advice from U.S. officials and allies alike on his plan to withdraw troops from Syria.

Mattis and other officials reportedly cautioned him against the move, warning that the terror group ISIS remained strong despite the president’s claims to the contrary.

Ellen Mitchell contributed.

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