Many Americans have expressed shock over the recent Marine Corps scandal involving the now-defunct Marines United private Facebook group, which had reportedly been sharing nude photos of female Marines. As a female Air Force veteran with 12 years of service, including three tours of Afghanistan, I can’t say that the group’s shameless behavior surprised me very much.
However, I do share most people’s revulsion; the women in the photos were victimized as soon as the group obtained the images. But boys will be boys, right? And this is just the type of thing that happens when you introduce women into a male-dominated environment, right?
Wrong—on so many levels.
To dismiss this or any such behavior as boys being boys is insulting to the incredible caliber of men with whom I have served. Yes, this includes 18-year-old, testosterone-driven youngsters. Men have the capacity to control their behavior. We must expect them to do so. We must demand that they do so. Insinuating that they are out-of-control slaves to their hormones begs the question of whether or not we should trust them with the life-and-death arena of war in the first place.
More importantly, this scandal is not the result of women infiltrating combat ranks, as some have suggested. This specifically targeted fellow Marines, and that tells me that these men felt the need to dehumanize and degrade specific women. It’s important to point out that many Marines did not engage in this behavior. This relatively small group of men (comprising just over 1% of the Marine Corps) and their fragile grasp on their own sense of masculinity and strength crumbles when faced with a woman who can do their job as well as or better than they can.
As a veteran, what genuinely concerns me is the culture that surrounds this behavior: that veterans don’t call each other out for it; that we turn a blind eye, because if we don’t engage in the behavior, then we aren’t guilty of it. Nothing could be further from the truth. Those who knew about this site (and other such behavior) and who do not do everything in their power to put an end to it are creating the environment in which this type of thing will thrive. Men and women alike who allow it are absolutely complicit in the fallout.
In my combat tours, I have been forward deployed to tiny operating bases where I was often the only woman. I have seen discrimination of all types, but I have also seen valiant men and women stand up to that discrimination. I have seen women integrated into units in a way that ensures the best person fills the job, unit cohesion remains strong, and standards remain high.
But I’ve also seen women thrown into all-male units without having trained, sweat, deployed, and lived with them—a recipe for disaster in a combat zone. What gives me hope is that the Marine Corps leadership understands that all too well. I am cautiously optimistic when I read statements like the official one initially released by Marine Corps Sergeant Major Ronald Green: “Stand up, speak out, and be a voice of change for the better. Hold those who misstep accountable. We need to realize that silence is consent. Do not be silent. It is your duty to protect one another, not just for the Marine Corps, but for humanity.”
If they are truly committed to ending the culture of ignoring this destructive behavior, then I fully expect to see the Marine Corps leadership do all they can to instill a sense of equality and acceptance of women in previously closed positions. Set one standard, make it high (but not arbitrarily so), and make that high standard consistent with the job requirements of the position (as the law calls for). Only then will we slowly start to see an end to this culture of entitled miscreants sowing the seeds of discord that dismantle unit cohesion in the name of a misconception of masculinity.
The epitome of a man is someone who protects those weaker than him, raises up those as competent as him, is not threatened when someone outshines him, and stands up and risks alienation when he sees an injustice. The boys involved in this scandal are not men, but the journalist who broke the story is a shining example of one. Those who would threaten him are cowards, and those who stand with him are heroes. There is no place for this in an institution as noble as the U.S. Marine Corps, and my ardent hope for my sister service is that they are able to excise this cancer as soon as possible and get back to the business of building warriors—male and female alike.
Mary Jennings Hegar is an Air Force veteran and author of Shoot Like a Girl.