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August 1, 2000

Women at Arms

Lee Bockhorn on The Kinder, Gentler Military: Can America's Gender-Neutral Fighting Force Still Win Wars? by Stephanie Gutmann and Breaking Out: VMI and the Coming of Women by Laura Fairchild Brodie


Stephanie Gutmann.
The Kinder, Gentler Military: Can America’s Gender-Neutral Fighting Force Still Win Wars? .

Laura Fairchild Brodie.
Breaking Out: VMI and the Coming of Women.

During the past decade, America’s self-anointed "New Military" has tried desperately to shed the rampantly sexist image the "Old Military" acquired after the infamous 1991 Tailhook scandal. Thus a March Time magazine profile of Commander Kathleen McGrath, who recently became the first woman to command a Navy combat ship, was the sort of photo-op puff piece New Military types dream about — a requisite paean to female empowerment, with McGrath shown barking orders to young men under her command, and one dutifully relaying current Pentagon spin about the "more inclusive" atmosphere female sailors bring to the "hidebound" military.

But an adjacent sidebar suggests that the truth about the military’s experiment with sexual integration is a bit more complicated. It described changes being made to new warships to accommodate the growing number of female sailors: Bathrooms will now include increased ventilation "due to hair spray," and extra outlets and mirrors "for hair and makeup." And since women have complained that industrial-strength laundry machines on current ships ravage their unmentionables, washers will now include a "gentle cycle." The incongruity of this picture — that of women warriors supposedly just as tough and capable as men, who nevertheless need to worry about primping their hair and protecting their bras and panties — seems to have been overlooked by Time, not to mention the rest of the media, politicians, and even most generals. But it raises a serious question: What are we losing, both in the terms of combat readiness and our understanding of what it means to be male and female, in our drive to create a "gender-neutral" military?

Stephanie Gutmann provides a troubling answer in her courageous new book, The Kinder, Gentler Military. In the 1990s, she writes, "the brass handed over their soldiers to social planners in love with an unworkable (and in many cases undesirable) vision of a politically correct utopia, one in which men and women toil side by side, equally good at the same tasks, interchangeable, and, of course, utterly undistracted by sexual interest." The absurdity of this vision becomes clear when one ignores Pentagon press releases and feminist conferences and sees its implementation in the real world.

Gutmann begins by taking her gimlet eye on a visit to the New Military’s version of boot camp. Once a transformative, tear-’em-down-and-build-’em-back-up experience designed to expose future soldiers to the stresses and strains of combat, boot camp in its new coed guise is now devoted to boosting recruits’ "self-esteem." Past recruits had to earn the title of soldier; now they are "soldiers" from day one. They run "confidence courses" instead of obstacle courses — that is, when they run at all, since they are often trucked to various training sites instead of running or hiking as before. (And no wonder, given the higher incidence of sprained or broken ankles, back problems, and other lower body injuries among female recruits.) Much emphasis is placed on "teamwork," a concept used to camouflage the awkward fact that many jobs that require one or two men, like hauling away a 200 pound wounded comrade or handling a fire hose on a burning ship’s deck, sometimes require twice as many women.

Can’t keep up with your platoon on runs? In the past, your terrifying drill sergeant would have made your life hell. But now that could expose him to charges of "abusing the recruit," so instead recruits are separated into "ability groups." And if things ever get too tough, you can always call a "training time-out." In today’s boot camp, it’s your "effort" that counts, not your performance.

Of course, women aren’t to blame for all this. The military has been as prone as any other institution to today’s therapeutic ethos. But the all-consuming drive towards female integration has exacerbated the problem, and boot camp is only the beginning. Gutmann takes a ride aboard the USS Stennis to witness the "New Navy" in action, and finds a Navy simultaneously distracted and paralyzed by sex. Many male sailors, subjected to endless training on the perils of sexual harassment, are reluctant to speak with or even look at their female shipmates in off-duty situations for fear of harassment charges. On the other hand, much of the rest of the mixed-gender crew spends its free time trying to find places on the ship where they can have clandestine sex. (This has resulted in some ships with pregnancy rates as high as 31 percent.) And when the ship won’t do, there is shore leave. The New Navy has cracked down on sailors visiting their traditional haunts (bars and strip clubs) at port, so crews now make their own fun — as in the case of one group of male and female sailors from the USS Abraham Lincoln, who holed up in a Hong Kong hotel room in 1998 to engage in what the Navy later described as a "group sexual incident" involving "multiple sex acts."

The harm all this does to military readiness is maddeningly obvious. Yet hardly anyone seems to care — not even military commanders who should know better. One reason for this is a false lesson learned from the Gulf War — namely, that technological superiority is the most important asset for winning future wars, and thus the macho qualities that were once considered the essence of military culture, such as physical strength, toughness, and aggressiveness, aren’t necessary anymore. After all, the point has been made, can’t a woman push the button to fire a cruise missile as well as a man?

Gutmann makes short work of this myth. The lesson other nations learned from Iraq’s humiliation is to avoid exposing their forces to annihilation by superior American weaponry and technology. A better model for future wars is not the Gulf, but Somalia — "three-block wars" in which smaller forces opt for guerilla warfare in cities, using civilian populations as cover to negate our advantage in firepower. In this type of war, where victory will depend not primarily on better weapons or greater numbers but on "individual cunning and cohesion of small, elite groups," everyone in our military "must be the real deal."

The Gulf War did illustrate why the dilution of training standards is such a serious matter, even for recruits destined for noncombat positions. It introduced the concept of "360-degree war," in which there is no real "front." (Witness the 13 soldiers in a supply unit supposedly far from the front who were killed in their barracks by a Scud missile.) In this type of conflict, even cooks and supply sergeants must be capable of defending themselves. In a "360-degree war everybody has to be able to do anything," according to Marine Gen. Jim Mattis. He tells Gutmann how one of his supply units in the Gulf, seemingly far from the action, suddenly found itself fending off a surprise Iraqi armored attack. As one drill sergeant tells Gutmann, "Who’s defending your airfield? Your support weenies!" And even much noncombat military work is still rigorous physical activity that requires upper body strength. "In the Gulf War," Gutmann writes, "physical disparities were often glaring: men in many units took over tearing down tents or loading boxes because most of the women simply couldn’t or wouldn’t do these chores as fast."

Besides the practical problems, the double standards introduced by gender integration have had a corrosive effect on morale. An example is "gender-normed" standards on yearly physical tests. A high score on the test can be very helpful at promotion time; unfortunately, the women’s standards are far lower than the men’s, which naturally leads to a great deal of resentment. As a former jag lawyer tells Gutmann, "It’s one of the great paradoxes. . . . On the one hand, we’re going to throw them together saying they’re all the same, and then there are a million little exceptions and rules to keep [women] apart and treat them special."

The rush to place women in combat units devastates unit cohesion, which Gutmann describes as a type of love — "in its deepest, most selfless, Christ-washing-the-feet-of-the-lepers sense" — that enables men to accept the responsibility of placing their lives in each others’ hands. But as Gutmann notes, "male/female love tends to work differently from single-sex group bonding.

. . . It tends to be more selective, to be more exclusive. . . . Men and women are hardwired to ‘cohere,’ all right, but it’s a very different kind of cohesion" — one that involves pairing off, not bonding in a larger unit. It is simply not possible in mixed-sex units to encourage the kind of seamless bonding and group cohesion that combat requires while also avoiding the kind of cohesion that "stimulate[s] jealousies, lovers’ spats, and babies."

The New Military’s feminized atmosphere also weakens one of the core attractions that used to draw a certain type of man to the service — a type that made for outstanding warriors. These men usually came from poor or working-class urban or rural backgrounds, were often raised by single mothers, and lacked any real male role models. The military offered them an attractive way to see the world, find adventure, and experience a kind of discipline and male camaraderie they couldn’t find at home:

"It was once a happy marriage: young men who like to risk their bodies and shoot and blow things up, and a society that was plenty happy to let them do it when it needed to be done. And it served a special kind of social good besides keeping us free. . . . A training ground for many of our best men, it also took in some of the worst and it took that energy roiling around and put it to worthy service."

In other words, the warrior culture of the military once offered a positive model of manliness for many young men whose only other option might have been lives of crime. But this culture did not simply serve to reform a few of society’s bad apples; it also kept our forces ready to fight and win. This warrior spirit is still necessary for victory in the era of smart bombs, as Gutmann eloquently explains: "[W]e cannot have a military unless its first priority is military readiness, and that will mean looking for and keeping warriors. It is likely that most of them will be men. Ultimately, when we are involved again in a real war — not a work-out-the-kinks war against a much weaker force — the law of the jungle will still rule. The fiercer, angrier, most-blood-lusting force will win."

Gender integration is inextricably linked with perhaps the biggest problem now facing the armed forces — recruitment and retention. The conventional wisdom is that this problem is mostly due to the excessive number and duration of recent deployments, and low military pay compared to the opportunities of a sizzling civilian economy. But this explanation is not entirely accurate. A 1998 survey by the Navy Times of sailors planning to leave the Navy found that only 25 percent of officers cited "better opportunities as a civilian"; a far greater number cited reasons like "change in the culture" and "loss of confidence in leadership." The number of army captains leaving the service voluntarily has risen 58 percent in the past decade, and a recent survey of junior army officers revealed a shocking lack of confidence in the senior leadership. Young officers — the "middle management" that is so vital to readiness — are so disgusted with the military’s feckless resistance to the attack on its culture that they are leaving in droves.

"It’s not just about the money," writes one Army captain in an Internet newsletter. (Gutmann found the Internet to be one of the few places disgruntled Old Military types feel free to air their frustrations without fear of sanction.) "People used to stay in because they felt like warriors, making a difference, with commanders they respected, in units they were proud of. Those feelings don’t exist today."

With one telling exception, that is: the Marines. In recent years they have been the only branch to consistently meet recruitment goals, and for good reason. "The Marines continue to sell themselves not as a place to work, but as a thing to be," one Gulf War veteran tells Gutmann. The Corps has wisely stuck by its policy of sex-segregated basic training, which avoids the pitfalls of sexual tension among recruits and allows the males to be pushed as hard as necessary without worrying about what effect that will have on females. Recruits of today who still long for the tough discipline and esprit de corps of the Old Military now often find themselves saying "Semper Fi." An interesting contrast to Gutmann’s disturbing tale is the recent saga of the Virginia Military Institute. vmi defiantly retained its status as the last all-male military college in the United States until July 1996, when the Supreme Court declared it could not continue as a publicly supported, same-sex institution. In court, vmi argued that the presence of women would destroy the traditions and practices that made the school unique: specifically, the "adversative" method of its "ratline" — the verbal harassment, physical exertion, sleep deprivation, and near total lack of privacy to which entering cadets are subjected. After briefly toying with a costly privatization plan that might have ultimately destroyed the school altogether, vmi’s administrators and alumni decided to make the best of a bad situation and accept the court’s ruling.

The concept invoked by the school to describe its new lemons-to-lemonade attitude was "assimilation." The goal was to welcome female cadets into the vmi environment without fundamentally altering the school’s essence. vmi was determined to avoid repeating the mistakes of the service academies (which had allowed the integration of women to degrade their standards and change their culture) as well as the example of another famous southern military school, The Citadel. (Shannon Faulkner, the first female cadet at The Citadel, was so overwhelmed by the hostile response of her male classmates that she dropped out within days.)

To this end, vmi’s administrators, faculty, alumni, and students spent almost a year examining every aspect of vmi life to prepare for the arrival of women in the fall of 1997. In Breaking Out, Laura Fairchild Brodie — a former vmi faculty member, self-described "feminist," wife of the school’s band director, and a member of vmi ’s "assimilation" committee — provides an evenhanded, engrossing account of vmi’s adjustment to coeducation.

To say that planning for "assimilation" was a challenging process would be an understatement. The committee had to consider whether to give women the same buzz-cuts as the men; whether to use the same standards for pull-ups on the school’s fitness test; whether to jettison certain traditional vmi jargon (for instance, vmi cadets reported for misconduct are said to have been "boned"). They even had to consider how the intricate details of the female menstrual cycle would necessitate changes in physical training or vmi’s traditionally open showers.

The early evidence suggests that vmi has weathered the transition well for the most part. Rather than bend over backwards to change the institution to accommodate women, as the U.S. military has done, vmi has done an admirable job of maintaining its tough standards and attracting motivated women who are willing to meet those standards. Yet vmi has also faced many of the same challenges as the military, such as trying to resolve the contradiction of stressing total unit cohesion between genders while simultaneously stressing the dangers of sexual harassment. And though the arrival of women has not brought about the destruction of vmi that its defenders once predicted, many cadets still feel that something important has been lost — some unique quality that motivated 18 year-old boys to forgo four years of the frat-boy life for four years of discipline and sacrifice. As one male cadet told Brodie at the end of the first year of coeducation:

What I think has been lost . . . are the intangibles about the school which, in my opinion, a lot of males were attracted to the Institute for. . . . It was just a feeling of 1,300 brothers. . . . [B]eing all-male, we all had something special in common, a bond among men that was electric, that created that atmosphere. This year I have found that to be undetectable in those same situations. There was, I feel, a notable distraction among the fourth class [first-year cadets] this year, which I attribute directly to the presence of the opposite sex.

. . . And it may be in a very tiny way, but certainly in a very real way [this distraction] has inhibited this class’s ability to fully absorb

. . . what it means to be a vmi cadet, what it means to be a vmi graduate, what it means to be a vmi person.

Aside from its troubling implications for national security, our experiment with a "gender-neutral" military may be more significant as the ultimate test of the flimsy pillars on which feminism stands: The belief that men and women are interchangeable and equally capable of doing every job; that they can always work together — even in the stressful conditions and close proximity of military life — and keep sex "compartmentalized" on the side; that our notions of manliness and femininity are merely malleable "social constructs"; and that (with the help of technology) biology truly is not destiny.

Feminists once argued for equal treatment: Women should have the chance to work in the same jobs, with the same pay and responsibilities as their male colleagues. And for most professions, this isn’t problematic; hardly anyone these days is disturbed by the idea of a female doctor or lawyer. But the military is an altogether different case, for here the feminist project runs up hard against the limits of biology and human nature. Thus it is faced with a tactical choice: To achieve the level of female representation they deem acceptable, feminists have two options. The first is to "feminize" the institution and make it more conducive to women (i.e., by lowering standards), which has been the case with the U.S. military. (This approach correlates nicely with the dovish ideology of most feminists, who have long seen the placement of women into combat roles as a perfect way to dilute the masculine military’s supposedly insatiable lust for war.) The second option is to make women more like men to fit into the male institution, which has mostly been the case at vmi.

Are either of these approaches really tenable? The first option clearly harms military readiness. Gutmann believes it may take an embarrassing military defeat to awaken most Americans to this reality, but once they do awaken it’s hard to believe they will continue to tolerate the feminization of the armed forces. The second approach isn’t much better, since it doesn’t seem likely that many women will find long-term happiness trying to be more like men. But that doesn’t stop the efforts to convince them otherwise. Brodie relates the testimony of many female vmi cadets struggling to reconcile two seemingly contradictory goals — to blend into the predominantly male culture and support the conformity that they acknowledge military life requires, while trying to maintain some sense of femininity. One female cadet, defending the prevailing desire among vmi’s women to be judged under the same fitness standards as the males, said, "This is vmi, where the men are men and so are the women." Another tells Brodie that "I don’t know whether I want to be feminine for the outside world, or whether I want to be tough for vmi. I don’t know which world I need to live up to. . . . There’s no middle, either." Said another: "We have to prove the point that we can be here and be mean. We are not little girly-girlies."

If the experience of the women who appear in these books is any indication, encouraging women to act more like men entails emulating not only the positive aspects of male life, but the coarser ones as well. Gutmann says that many military women feel compelled to cuss and spit along with the boys in order to fit in, and notes that female officers "held up their end quite respectably in the ‘drunkenness, debauchery, and vulgarity’ department" at the old Tailhook conventions. Likewise, Brodie describes how vmi females striving to feel a greater sense of inclusion participate in cadet "pile-ons" and other acts of adolescent male roughhousing — not exactly what the original women’s movement had in mind.

It’s important to remind ourselves that the controversy over women in the military isn’t new at all. Indeed, Plato anticipated the current debate over two millennia ago in the Republic. In Socrates’s perfectly just city, women were to learn the arts of war and fight alongside the men, since justice demanded the distinction between the sexes be considered no different than that between bald men and men with hair. But this utopian city could only exist in speech, for its realization (as Socrates details) would require a radical assault on human nature: the utter destruction of marriage, the home, the privacy and sanctity of the family, and the relations of parent and child, even to the point of tolerating incest.

A costly war on human nature is also what today’s attempt at full integration of women into the military requires, for as these books show, no matter how hard we try to ignore it, human nature finds ways to stubbornly reassert itself. This may explain why the New Military feels the need to desensitize male pilots in pow training to the screams of their female colleagues, lest the natural inclination of honorable men to spare women from suffering be used by their captors to make them talk; or why there is still an ineffable reluctance among most middle-aged male officers to order 20 year-old females into harm’s way; or why male soldiers inevitably still show more concern for a fallen female comrade than a male one; or why, as Gutmann notes, military women aren’t exactly flocking to fill the combat jobs now being opened to them.

Not long ago, our nation shuddered at the sight of dead American troops being dragged through the streets of Mogadishu. Now we seem unfazed by the thought of sending young women off to gruesome death in combat, which suggests that perhaps we have lost the ability to discern the true reasons why we fight any war. For women have always embodied those reasons — from stolen Helen at Troy, to the Betty Grable pinup photos and sensual female images on warplanes in World War II. The willingness of men to fight and die in wars for women (rather than alongside them) is not a paternalistic expression of women’s inferiority, as feminists would have us believe. Rather, it affirms the superiority of the good life which women represent in any decent society — of home and hearth, of children and future generations, of beauty and love. Men have always been the ones to fight, but it was ultimately women who provided the purpose. Now we are blinded to these truths by utopian dreams of a sterile, androgynous future, and the future price of this blindness will almost certainly be measured in American lives lost