President-elect Donald Trump’s pick to lead the Pentagon has repeatedly spoken out against allowing women to serve in military combat jobs, a contrast to new policies ordered by outgoing Defense Secretary Ashton Carter.
It’s unclear what position Retired Marine Gen. James Mattis would take on women in combat if he’s confirmed as secretary of defense. But Mattis’ public comments on the issue indicate that he could move to reverse a major change in military policy put in place by the Obama administration.
Since Trump nominated Mattis last week, the former Marine four-star general has received praise from both sides of the aisle. Backers have cited his no-nonsense attitude, Sun Tzu-like aphorisms, and required reading lists for Marines under his command as reasons for their support.
But far less attention has been paid to his position on women in combat.
In an appearance at the Marines’ Memorial Club in San Francisco last year, Mattis received a question about opening combat roles to women. In line with his bookworm reputation, Mattis’ answer was replete with references to the Old Testament and Greek mythology.
He argued that if women are allowed in combat units, the mission will be compromised by “eros,” or sexual desire.
“If you go back to the Bible, King David sends one of his officers off to fight so he could go to bed with his wife. I mean, it’s right in the Bible. We’ve had numerous cases that we put healthy young men and women together, and we expect them to act like little saints,” Mattis said.
He also drew an analogy between allowing women in combat and making Stanford University’s football team 50 percent female, a notion he dismissed as laughable.
“We take football more seriously than national defense,” he said.
In the same speech, Mattis said women should not be in combat, because if they were, he said, the nation’s enemies wouldn’t fear “America’s awesome determination to defend herself.” He said the physical standards for combat jobs would become more lax, and women would not have privacy for their “bodily functions.”
At the same time, Mattis said he was taking the non-inclusive stance “somewhat reluctantly because I like having anything open to anybody.”
Mattis also expressed opposition to combat integration at a Senate Armed Services Committee hearing in January 2015.
In remarks that never included the word “women,” Mattis lauded “progressive instincts” that motivate bucking “rules, traditions, and standards.” But he recommended “reason over impulse” when considering the policy to allow women in combat.
Despite Mattis’ public comments on the issue, some military experts said it’s unlikely he would reverse the policy if he takes over at the Pentagon.
“I don’t think Mattis will reverse the order,” said retired Col. Mary Reinwald, who edits Leatherneck Magazine, which is focused on the Marine Corps community. “I, and most senior marines I’ve talked to, believe he will simply allow the system to ‘self correct,’” by keeping tough physical training standards in place that many women can’t meet.
“The opportunity to serve in the combat arms will still be there, but few [women] will take it,” Reinwald said. “I think he’ll recognize that it’s a fight he doesn’t have to engage in when the outcome is almost guaranteed anyway.”
Mattis served more than 40 years in the United States Marine Corps, the only military branch to request an exception to the Defense Department’s order to allow women in combat jobs.
Mattis is subject to Senate confirmation before taking his post as secretary of defense. The Senate must also grant him a waiver, because the law requires defense secretaries to be retired from the military for at least seven years. Mattis retired three years ago.
Daniel Sagalyn contributed reporting.