Web Video: Navy secretary: Gender should not bar women from Marine combat roles

Sep. 23, 2015 AT 11:11 a.m. EDT

The U.S. Army, Air Force and Navy are expected to allow women to serve in all combat roles starting next year. But the Marine Corps commandant has asked that Marines be excluded from the new rule. Secretary of the Navy Ray Mabus joins Gwen Ifill to explain why he feels that gender should not bar servicewomen from Marine combat roles.

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Notice: Transcripts are machine and human generated and lightly edited for accuracy. They may contain errors.

GWEN IFILL: But, first, the battle brewing at the Pentagon over the future of women in America’s armed forces.

Early next year, Defense Secretary Ashton Carter is expected to announce whether previously closed positions to women in the military will open. The Army, Air Force and Navy are expected to allow women to serve in all combat roles.

But Marine Corps Commandant General Joseph Dunford, soon to be chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, has asked that the Marines be excluded from the new rule.

Joining me now to explain why he disagrees with that assessment is Navy Secretary Ray Mabus, who is also the civilian head of the Marine Corps.

Welcome. And thank you for joining us, Secretary Mabus.

RAY MABUS, U.S. Secretary of the Navy: Gwen, thank you.

GWEN IFILL: There is a report that has come out that shows that women in integrated combat units were slower, there were more injuries, they were less accurate at firing weapons. What is your take on that report?

RAY MABUS: Well, first, the commandant and I share the overall goal of making sure we maximize the combat effectiveness of the United States Marines. That’s the first principle.

Second, this study, that Marine study, and had Marines doing very valuable work, and it came out with some great findings, the main one of which was that, before then, there had been no standards set for being in the infantry.

So, this study set those high standards. Before then, it was assumed that if men went through boot camp, they could become Marine infantry. Turned out that the specific jobs in the infantry, which the study went through, deconstructed all the jobs, here’s what you need to do to be a success in this, to do the job.

But then the Marines took averages from the study. It wasn’t the individuals. They set the high standards. But then they looked across averages. And the Marines have never been about average. The Marines are about exceptionalism.

And what my view is, set high standards. Make sure those standards have something to do with the job. And then whoever meets those standards, gender is not crucial. If you can meet the standards, you should be able to serve.

GWEN IFILL: Should those standards include other ways in which these studies show that women excel, for instance, lower incidence of mental health problems?

RAY MABUS: Well, I think that the standards themselves, in terms of what you have to do, because if you’re a Marine in combat, in infantry combat, you want to know that the Marine on either side of you has met the same high standards.

And that’s what this study has brought forth, that here are now the standards to be a Marine in Marine infantry. But once you do that, the notion of somehow saying, even if you meet the standards, you can’t serve because of your gender, that doesn’t follow to me.

GWEN IFILL: General Dunford aside, you know there has been some pretty vigorous pushback from Marines about whether this is a good idea or not.

Do you — is this a legitimate concern on the parts of these Marines, or is this a — speak to the culture of the Marine Corps itself?

RAY MABUS: Well, I think the Marines — and I have talked to thousands of Marines out around the world in my now more than six years in this job.

The Marines that I have talked to, the one concern they have is that standards not be lowered, is that they know, if they go into combat, that people have met these high standards. Now, before this, there were surprising number of men who couldn’t do the infantry job just because they had come through boot camp.

And so now those Marines are going to have the certainty that the Marines on either side of them have met those standards. And that shouldn’t depend on gender.

GWEN IFILL: But what do you say to those in the Corps who say this will prove to be a challenge to the alchemy, the chemistry of the Corps, also unit cohesion?

RAY MABUS: Well, number one, that’s not one of the arguments that the Marines have made in terms of whether an exemption should be given.

But, number two, I have seen the Marines enough. Once they’re given a task, they move out. They execute. They do it better than anybody. And there were similar concerns, Gwen, at the repeal of don’t ask, don’t tell. There was all sorts of concerns out, as people talked about it, that if you allowed gay service members in, that it would harm the unit cohesion.

And there were similar concerns, you know, in the late ’40s, when the Marines integrated. And each time, the Marines have shown that, once a decision was made, once the decision was made to make sure that, whether it was African-Americans, whether it was gay service members or now women, whatever decision Secretary Carter finally makes, integrated into their force, that they’re really good at making it right.

GWEN IFILL: One more concern that has been expressed, which is that this is an example of politically correct social engineering.

RAY MABUS: Well, the thing that I want to point out is, these are Marine standards. These are standards that the Marines set up.

And if somebody can meet Marine standards, they should be able to be a Marine.

GWEN IFILL: No matter the gender.

RAY MABUS: No matter the gender.

And I think that’s almost the opposite of political correctness. That’s setting a very high standard, but saying, we have set the standard.

GWEN IFILL: How unusual is it for this kind of disagreement to be aired so publicly?

RAY MABUS: Well, the one thing I want to make certain that is understood, General Dunford and I have a tremendous respect for each other. We have a tremendous working relationship. I admire and respect him just without — without cease.

And he’s going to be a great chairman. And the president and the secretary of defense are very fortunate that they will have him to give them advice. We give each other our very candid opinions.

And, sometimes — sometimes, they diverge, but the underlying notion that we want to maintain and maximize the effectiveness and the combat effective of the United States Marine Corps, we’re absolutely together on.

GWEN IFILL: And, as you mentioned, the final decision rests with the defense secretary, Ashton Carter, between now and January 1. Is that correct?

RAY MABUS: That’s correct.

The services put their recommendations in by October 1. And, you know, the Navy, I will point out that the SEALS are not asking for an exception here.

GWEN IFILL: So, if there can be women Navy SEALs, there can be women Marines, you’re saying, in combat roles.

RAY MABUS: Again, set the standards. Do not deviate. And then whoever meets those standards, they ought to get to perform the job.

GWEN IFILL: Secretary of the Navy Ray Mabus, thank you.

RAY MABUS: Appreciate it, Gwen.


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