Fight like a Girl
The Truth behind How Female Marines Are Trained
Kate Germano with Kelly Kennedy
Prometheus Books, Amherst, New York, 2018, 304 pages
Book Review published on: September 27, 2018
Fight like a Girl is an emotional indictment of the Marine Corps’ female recruit training and handling of gender bias issues up to the highest level. The accuser is retired Lt. Col. Kate Germano, the former commanding officer of the 4th Recruit Training Battalion at Parris Island, South Carolina, the unit where every female enlisted marine in the Corps is trained. The story is relatively simple, and Germano writes in a plain and casual style. But the story is anything but easy, making the read uncomfortable.
By all accounts, Germano was a rising star in the Marine Corps after a successful combat tour and multiple tours on recruiting duty. Posted to 4th Recruit Training Battalion, she quickly realized that the culture was toxic and started to institute stark changes in the way the battalion did business. She also made recruit training outcomes a priority—looking for even the smallest ways to improve the performance of the female recruits under her charge, who had historically underperformed against the male recruits in every category. And, she was successful, almost dramatically so. She was able to reduce lower extremity injury through stretching, rolling, and altering the physical training regimen while increasing the number of women who passed all the mandatory hikes. She brought the rifle qualification scores to the highest they had ever been in the unit, on par with the scores of the male recruit battalions. But then she committed the cardinal—she wrote an article for the Marine Corps Gazette that outlined her successes and challenged the party line in which women were inferior to men in combat jobs.
Key leaders in Germano’s staff were underperforming at best or openly insubordinate and belligerent at worst. She details anecdotes and asides that make military readers cringe, behavior that should be immediately squashed and met with administrative punishment. And then it began to go sideways—she began to hear that senior officers in the Pentagon wanted her out. A battalion commander is normally far below their purview, but Germano was being mentioned by name in senior circles. She was also having trouble with her immediate superior who, by her account, was only interested in the status quo, willing to do anything but rock the boat. After multiple rounds of accusations and investigations, she was ultimately relieved for poor command climate, with the primary evidence being a deeply flawed command climate survey that was heavily criticized in subsequent investigations.
She was out. A casualty of a Marine Corps that was struggling to cope with the forced integration of women into combat roles and had no room for a lieutenant colonel who wanted to tell the Marine Corps that women were neither weak nor fragile as the recently released Gender Integration Study claimed. She argued that women were just never trained or held to the same standard as men. Germano had the data to prove her argument, from recruit training where it is easy to collect accurate data and control variables. Instead of seeing this as an opportunity to improve the quality of training and the performance of recruits, her leadership saw it as a threat to the status quo, and possibly the Marine Corps’ arguments against integration.
Books can arouse different emotions, but I have not been moved to anger since reading Thomas Rick’s passages on Mai Lai. Fight like a Girl brought me there over and over. You feel Germano’s powerlessness, her drive and desire to improve the Corps and fight for her marines, and then you watch the most sinister tendencies of the Marine Corps swallow her whole. It is a warning to principled officers and those who seek change in the Marines—the misogyny and gender bias you thought were banished to the darkest corners of the barracks are still there, latent, and lying in wait for the next provocateur.
A reader could be forgiven for questioning much of the “he said, she said” nature of the book and the personal focus. There are some relatively minor characterizations about things like the Personnel Evaluation System and marine vernacular that critics will seize on. Her voice is neither academic nor detached. She writes with the voice of someone who still feels betrayed by the organization she dedicated twenty years to. She is vulnerable at times—emotional, desperate. This style supports her veracity but will certainly invite criticism from some readers. Two of the chapters written in support of her story were penned by her husband, another Marine Corps officer, but certainly not an impartial voice. But even with these chapters and anecdotes set aside, there are enough facts to build a pattern that does not fit with the values we hold dear and merits a closer examination.
Germano’s book comes on the heels of the Marines United scandal, the #MeToo movement, and continued hazing scandals at Parris Island. These events contextualize her story—she understands herself and the Marine Corps as caught in a national struggle for gender equity and justice not unique to it. The book ends with the beginning of her fight to reclaim her story and fight the official narrative, since publishing the book, Germano has authored dozens of op-eds sharing her story and promoting gender equity in the Marine Corps. One cannot read Fight like a Girl without an understanding of the controversy surrounding it. The story was picked up by the New York Times, San Diego Tribune, Marine Corps Times, and other major newspapers. Germano’s case was even mentioned by name in congressional hearings. Ultimately, it is a book about the costs of changing a culture. This is an important book that tells an important story at the right time. Fight like a Girl will never be required reading; it is a subversive work by a martyred officer, but anyone with the clarity to accept the narrative will benefit from reading Germano’s story.
Book Review written by: 1st Lt. Walker D. Mills, U.S. Marine Corps, London