The retired Marine colonel has command presence: an eye-lock look, a strong voice and body language that leaves no doubt. All the things you would expect.
Except the name — Marianne.
Marianne Waldrop of Carlsbad is as squared-away and “semper fi” as her father, who was a Marine infantry officer, a career guy who did his duty at the Inchon landing in Korea and in Vietnam twice.
But because she was born a girl, she knows the dynamics of being an officer of that persuasion. She considers the Corps a good career for women — rewarding opportunities, adventure, education. Every recruiting promise can be realized. However, a fork in the road for a female careerist can be the arched swords of the matrimonial aisle. The attrition rate for married women is huge.
In the meantime, there’s another point to make: Women have never been shy in the use of arms to defend what they believe in. Evidence of that is abundantly provided in our own history. Warriors who charged a frontier cabin would sometimes be rudely greeted by a woman in bonnet and gingham dress pointing a cocked musket squarely at their vitals.
But more about Waldrop. She’s 50, retired since 2011 after 24 years of active duty. As an ROTC graduate from the University of North Carolina, she finished the training programs that all Marine officers must complete.
She is in the final steps of receiving a Ph.D. from the University of San Diego in leadership studies. Her dissertation is about the leadership qualities of eight female Marine generals. She is also a veterans’ companion volunteer at Seasons Hospice.
Waldrop’s career was spent in intelligence in places such as Iraq, Saudi Arabia and the Horn of Africa. She was part of Desert Storm in 1991. Much of her duty was conducted in places from where the trip home could be feet-first.
“In Iraq or Afghanistan, the entire country is a combat zone. You can get killed on any street corner. The bad guys look just like the shop workers.”
Waldrop is a passionate Corps booster. She says, “I love Marines. I think Marines are brave. I think they are, in many cases, fearless. I think we have egos that like to be one of the select. I think we like challenges, and I think it takes a special person to choose the Corps. We’re very proud people. Real Marines are not just doing it to go get an education. We are ‘No better friend, no worst enemy.’”
Waldrop is a “gung-ho gyrene” (to quote John Wayne’s script in “Sands of Iwo Jima”). The Marine Corps hymn will play at her memorial service, guaranteed.
As a student of leadership, Waldrop has watched changing attitudes in the Corps over the years. The gradual acceptance of gays in the ranks was a dramatic change and caused heartburn for some traditionalists.
She tells of a conference on the subject among colonels and their staffs that happened at a time when gays serving openly in the Corps was being debated. One crusty colonel said the men in the barracks would kill gays if their sexuality became known. Waldrop says she turned to a young enlisted man in attendance.
“I said, ‘Lance Cpl. Smith, do you know gay men right now that live in your barracks?’
“I said, ‘Is this a secret in the barracks?’
“‘So it’s happening already?’
“‘And did somebody murder them?’
“‘No, ma’am, they didn’t.’”
Given her willingness to turn sacred cows into hamburger, it’s mildly surprising to see her go all traditional on the diversity debate du jour. She argues against opening direct-combat jobs to women, which she calls “being behind a trigger.”
She ties the ongoing controversy to a lawsuit filed in 2010 by five female military members seeking combat opportunities. She says the issue has spooked politicized higher brass, and what they now mainly want is to make it go away and please President Barack Obama, who supports the women’s demands.
Waldrop believes small numbers of women being isolated among many men in close quarters would intensify the risk of sexual assault, that existing under combat conditions of great stress, fear and erratic emotions would put women at great risk of rape and sexual assault.
Psychiatrist Judith Lewis Herman twined the traumas of combat and rape in “Trauma and Recovery”: “Combat and rape (are) forms of organized social violence, (and) are (phenomena) of early adult life. The average age of the Vietnam combat soldier was 19. ... Half of all (rape) victims are 20 or younger. Rape and combat might thus be considered complementary initiation into the coercive violence of adult society.”
Waldrop says, “We currently have what some call an epidemic of sexual assault in the Marine Corps. Many of those instances occur in garrison, a controlled environment. The genesis of sexual assault, if not contributed to by alcohol, is power. Somebody wants to exert power over another. If you want to talk about abuse of power, let’s talk about putting a woman in an all-male organization if those men resent it and are resistant. ... These are younger guys in remote, isolated situations.”
She also thinks that strong leadership, a suggested panacea, would be effective only to a point. She describes a scenario of young men and women being in intensely emotional situations, going out and drinking with each other, then sleeping in a single room with maybe 10 guys and three girls.
“All the seminars and safety guidelines (are fine), but if you’re not going to be out there watching and monitoring, leadership can only do so much.
“Sexual assault happens because of power dynamics. I can’t imagine a greater power differential than putting women in an all-male, ground-combat job. That’s what they use. They use the penis as a sword.”
Waldrop also thinks some advocates of women in combat are in denial about the physical obstacles of joining those ranks. She refers to the recent Marine experiment to welcome female volunteers to undergo the infantry officers’ training course. Twenty-seven female lieutenants volunteered.
She says they were motivated women in good shape, but none made it past day three. The training regimen was not even for special forces, but what infantry officers must routinely go through. She believes that exposing women to these rigors raises the risk of serious injury to an unacceptable level.
“The issue I think we forget is that some of these women, coming out of school, think they want to go be this combat-arms Marine. It’s unique, never been done before. They want to be pioneers. They want to break the barrier on behalf of all women.
“I think those women truly don’t understand that there are going to be options after their first four years that may very well affect their fitness level for an (ongoing) combat-arms career.”
Waldrop creates a hypothetical Marine.
“She’s 22 and in the best shape ever, let’s suppose. Her first tour goes great. However, they don’t make people do combat arms their entire career. They actually pull them out and put them into a desk job (for a time).
“Now, she’s 26 and settled into her desk job. She may now be married or in a relationship. She may have children. Now, however, she’s called back into combat-arms duty, because that’s her profession. Now, she has to get back to that level of condition of a 22-year-old. For men, that might be easier. But for women who are making relationship choices, child choices, family choices, do they have the incentive to want to continue that?
“I say this all the time in conversation. ‘More power to you, honey, but I also want to see the administration of how they are going to integrate you into those units. Just because you can doesn’t mean you should.
“Are we that short of men that we have to ask women to pursue those jobs? The units that they’re talking about putting women in are already mission-capable. Probably more so than if they had to accept women.”
I ask: It’s considered settled human nature that women are more empathetic and men more aggressive. Are women willing to go out and kill people and break things? Up close and personal?
“We’re not looking at an average woman. The average woman is not wanting a combat job. It’s the aberration we’re speaking of. That whacked-out one-half percent of my gender who are thinking about it.”
How do you respond to the claim that closing combat jobs to women limits career opportunities?
She jumps on the question. “I don’t understand somebody feeling unvalued in the military if they couldn’t do a combat job. I don’t understand that. You can get promoted being a logistics officer. You can get promoted being a military policewoman. You can get promoted being an administrator. You can get promoted doing a lot of things.
“I can understand how a man might feel pressure to (seek combat arms) either by culture or by tradition, but a woman doesn’t have that pressure.”
Pop musician Emilie Autumn, who is as contemporary as a smartphone, says, “I refuse to give up my femininity. ... I’m not going to shave my head and become all buff and all that to be able to say, ‘Now I’m powerful.’ ... We are power. You don’t have to change anything to be strong.”
If women join the infantry, there will be some changes. First to go will be the name “grunt.”
Fred Dickey’s home page is freddickey.net
His email is firstname.lastname@example.org