Former Marine Corps General: Women in combat long overdue

Martha Raddatz, Richard Coolidge, Sherisse Pham & Jordyn Phelps
Power Players

On the Radar

This past week we saw an extraordinary change in the military lifting the ban on direct combat for women. Former Marine Corps General James Cartwright, a defense consultant for ABC News, lived through a similar sea change in the 1990s, when the military lifted its combat ban for female aviators.

Cartwright recalls the first integrated deployment with female marines to Japan and the Philippines in the early 1980s.

"For all of the hoopla that goes with that, quite frankly they did extremely well," says the retired general. "If you set the conditions, if you set the moral temperature of the organization, you will do just fine."

"Fast forward to when we brought them into the officer ranks as pilots," adds Cartwright. "There were all sorts of speculation -- women couldn't go faster than the speed of sound, they'd break or whatever, I don't know ... But the reality was, in many cases they were better."

Cartwright, who also served as vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, says it all comes down to leadership. But in 1991, then Commandant Robert Barrow came out publicly against women in combat.

"If you want to make a combat unit ineffective, assign women to it," Barrow told the Senate Arms Services Subcommittee.

"We change and we evolve," says Cartwright, who adds that emotional strength is probably more important than physical strength in modern combat units.

"The evolution of seeing this gender integration ... has been overdue, it's been a little bit too slow, but now that we're able to realize it, you know I can only see that we will be better off," says Cartwright. "Because at the end of the day, any time you add diversity to an organization, it's going to be better."

The Marine Corps recently put two young women through the infantry officers course; neither of them completed it. That class of young male marines may now be saying, 'Yea, see, they can't do it,' but to get over that prejudice, Cartwright says leaders have to make sure ground rules are the same for everybody.

"We found that in aviation if you make them special, if you set them aside, if you do things, then you set them up for failure. They've got to be equal," says the former Marine Corps aviator.

To those young female marines, he offered some advice.

"Don't give up," says Cartwright. "If this is your goal and this is your passion, then get yourself back together again."

For more from Ret. Gen. Cartwright, including his response to the alleged problem of arm strength, whether women should be called to serve if there was a draft again, and a memorable story involving a guy, a gal, and the ability to pull Gs to centrifuge, check out this week's On the Radar.