Commentary Magazine

Sex, Lies, and Infantry

In a tender love song from the late 1970’s, Bob Dylan asked, “Can you cook and sew and make flowers grow, do you understand my pain?” The line outraged feminists. To the ensuing barrage of criticism, the somewhat shaken but unrepentant songwriter replied: yes, women should be free to do whatever they liked, but “when a man says he’s looking for a good woman, he isn’t looking for an airline pilot.”

Two decades later, all manner of media are laboring to purge Americans of such benighted attitudes, and all manner of American institutions are breathlessly acquiescing. The title of one of my five-year-old daughter’s favorite bedtime books is Maybe You Should Fly a Jet, and the cover shows a woman—a blonde, glamorous woman—at the controls. Children’s television programs invariably depict female doctors, police, and mechanics; presidents of women’s colleges deplore the fact that one in eight teenage girls still hopes for a career in modeling; and the United States Army encourages women to “be all you can be” by trading cosmetics and cars for camouflage paint and helicopters.

Indeed, one of the central goals of the feminist movement is to establish a fully sexually-integrated military, trained, fit, and ready to engage in combat. To the advocates of this cause, it is an outrage that the United States is not moving at a rapid enough pace in their direction; but the truth is that it has moved very swiftly indeed. Thanks to feminism, and thanks as well to the all-too-explicable silence of the officer corps, a new, strange—and deeply troubled—future has arrived for the American military.



Women have participated in all of America’s wars. In World War II, some 350,000 Wacs, Waves, and nurses saw active service; but they never carried rifles or other arms, and of course their numbers paled beside the millions of male veterans of that war. Only since 1975 has the Pentagon recruited large numbers of women in peacetime. Today, they comprise 14 percent of military personnel, and they perform duties that place them near, at, and, beginning in the 1980’s, across the front line.

Creating a sizable female contingent in the military was hardly President Richard Nixon’s intention when in 1970 he announced a plan to abolish the draft and create an All-Volunteer Force (AVF). The commission which drew up the blueprint for the AVF calculated that higher pay and other material inducements would suffice to attract a high number of (male) soldiers; it did not even discuss the recruitment of women, which at the time was a non-issue. But in the wake of the Vietnam war, with the morale of the military shot, and the youth of the Make-Love-Not-War and Me generations resisting appeals based on patriotism and self-interest alike, male enlistment plummeted. Worse, a good many of those who did sign up were of inferior physical and intellectual quality. To make the AVF succeed, the Defense Department began to accept women, and not merely as auxiliaries but as regular troops serving beside men in all military-occupational specialties save those involving heavy labor or combat.

Having said A, however, the military very quickly came under fierce pressure to say B. On what basis could female soldiers and sailors be barred from “getting their tickets punched” and proving their mettle in those branches of the service that have always represented the fast track to high honors and rank, where aspiring admirals and generals earn their spurs? The Defense Advisory Committee on Women in the Service (DACOWITS), set up in 1951 to help recruit female auxiliaries during the Korean war, became by the 1970’s an assertive lobby on behalf of the full integration of the military by sex. Year after year, its exclusively civilian membership pressured the armed forces and Congress to open a greater range of military-occupational specialties to women, to counter sexual harassment, to reeducate males who objected to the expansion of women’s roles, and—fatefully—to design separate (and unequal) standards of training to ensure that women recruits, no matter how faltering their performance, would not fail.

A key if not the decisive turning point came in 1975, when Congress obliged the service academies—the Army’s at West Point, the Navy’s at Annapolis, and the Air Force’s at Colorado Springs—to admit women and treat them as equals to men. Needless to say, most of the females in the entering classes were physically not as strong as their male counterparts, and were certainly not at home in the boot-camp/college-fraternity environment of the academies. In the early years, these female students either suffered in silence or washed out. But among the male cadets there was simmering resentment, both at the lowering of standards and at the abolition of treasured traditions, all to make a handful of young women feel at home.

The rancor boiled over in 1979, when seniors at West Point openly advertised themselves as “the last class with balls.” The military brass, which lived in fear of DACOWITS, rushed to the barricades bearing a document entitled “Institutional Plans to Overcome Sexism.” Soon all the services were running sensitivity-training programs; rapidly relegated to the past were the hazing and physical challenges that had formerly been employed to instill camaraderie, confidence, and courage in officers-to-be.

The 1980’s, under Presidents Reagan and Bush, saw another turning point. This one resulted not from the steady rise in the percentage of women in the AVF but rather from war. In 1983, American forces invaded Grenada in Operation Urgent Fury; in 1989, they were dispatched to Panama in Operation Just Cause; and finally, in 1991, came the Persian Gulf war. In Grenada and Panama women played a supporting role, but in the war to liberate Kuwait—Operations Desert Shield and Desert Storm—servicewomen were engaged in military action as never before. Fifteen were killed, and one, a truck driver, was captured by the enemy and sexually molested.

Grenada, Panama, and the Persian Gulf gave new energy and new arguments to those pressing to eliminate the barriers against women serving in combat units. For one thing, they claimed, the distinction the Pentagon had attempted to draw between support and combat roles was revealed to be untenable. Support soldiers themselves, after all, came under fire and took casualties. For another thing, women soldiers under fire had displayed both skill and courage. For yet another, the public appeared to take in stride the novelty of female casualties and POW’s. Finally, the spectacular display of American technological prowess in the Persian Gulf undercut the old assertion that success in combat depended largely on the kind of brute physical strength possessed by men.

By 1993, when the Clinton administration arrived in Washington, these arguments had prevailed. Tossing out a cautious report that had been commissioned by President Bush, Clinton’s civilian appointees in the Defense Department ordered the Navy to deploy female sailors on combat ships and the Army to open 35,000 jobs in military-occupation specialties hitherto reserved for men. Although infantry, armor, artillery, combat aviation, and submarines were still off-limits, those pressing for a sexual revolution in the military had won on the key principle. All that remained was a mop-ping-up operation to conquer the last preserves of male thinking and male privilege.



Given how fast and how far women have come in the armed forces, one might think that feminists would be in a celebratory mood. But to judge by a new book by Linda Bird Francke,1 a former “Hers” columnist for the New York Times, they remain just as agitated and angry as ever. The reason for their anger, according to Francke, is clear: from top to bottom, a male-dominated military establishment persists in its repression and persecution of women, and conspires to protect the few remaining male-only units in the name of a “conservative male culture” that cannot come to terms with the presence of women in the ranks.

For those involved in this campaign, Francke writes, the “weapon of choice” is the fact that some female soldiers get pregnant while on active duty and must leave their units at critical times. To Francke, this is a red herring; the Army, she contends, loses fewer days of service to pregnancy than it does to the drug, alcohol, and disciplinary problems that are so rampant among men. Moreover, although it takes two to make a baby, the services act as if pregnancy were a female problem alone, and fail to hold fathers accountable in any way.

But the underlying problem in Francke’s eyes is not pregnancy. It is the retrograde nature of the American military ethos itself, and the “masculine mystique” that guides it. Trainees are taught from the start to despise feminine qualities, and are tagged as “pussies” if they fail to live up to the macho ideal. Sexist “Jody songs” (marching chants) and a “torrent of misogynist and anti-individualist abuse” foster a culture of violence that inevitably leads to harassment and rape. In fact, within such a culture, equal opportunity for women can never be achieved: women, Francke concludes, are engaged in an “unwinnable war.” No matter how they try to fit in, no matter how often they prove their courage in battle, “the dynamic of white male culture” will not permit military men to accept them as equals.

Francke’s show of terminal pessimism is instructive, for in her alternately petulant and haranguing way she has actually begun to put her finger on a central issue. That she does not wish to confront this issue, however, is clear from her one-sided presentation of the facts. Her accounts of female heroism in battle, for example, are only so much embroidery over a severely compromised reality.

Take her extended paean to the combat exploits of Captain Linda Bray, whose military-police unit came under sniper fire while storming a dog kennel in Panama. To Francke, this episode proves that women have what it takes to lead infantry assaults. But a close look at Captain Bray’s accomplishment tells us something else. The butcher’s bill for the firefight against the undefended kennel was six enemy dead, all of them canine. One need not minimize Captain Bray’s bravery under fire to doubt that this episode proves women can or ought to lead infantry assaults as a matter of course. Nor, for that matter, does Francke’s tale of how another female officer, also in Panama, disarmed an assailant by giving him a bonk on the head with her canteen. Would that all our country’s enemies were so easily cowed.

On the other side of the coin, Francke simply shrugs off the extent of the Navy’s unhappy experience with women at sea: during the Persian Gulf war, 10 percent of the female sailors on board the destroyer-tender USS Acadia (a.k.a. the “Love Boat”) had to be removed on account of pregnancy. She dismisses out of hand the wisdom of sending young mothers to fight and die in war. And she never asks whether mixing the sexes in close quarters might in any way be responsible for the kind of trouble we are witnessing in sex scandal after sex scandal and court martial after court martial. Instead of honestly thinking about what these woes mean and whence they arise, Francke insists that the problem rests entirely with the military’s incurably sexist men and the refusal of the Pentagon to accommodate its female soldiers.



In fact, the problem lies elsewhere. Although Francke, along with other feminists, regards the military as just another workplace, the elementary truth is that the United States maintains a military for one purpose and one purpose only: to protect national security. In order to carry out that job, the military prepares for and, if necessary, fights wars. And to ensure that the armed forces can carry out their mission—a mission which demands that soldiers be prepared to risk and to sacrifice their lives—military life is organized according to a rigid hierarchy and a rigid code of discipline.

Is it really necessary to point out the obvious—namely, that when the sexes are put together in close quarters, especially for prolonged intervals or during periods of great tension, courtships, jealousies, and favoritism will arise; hierarchy will disintegrate; codes of conduct will become unenforceable; and fairness and discipline will break down? Although the case of Israel is frequently adduced by proponents of a mixed-sex combat force, in fact the Israeli example proves the opposite. Israel did experiment with such a mixed force in its 1948 war of independence (as did the Soviets, in desperation, in World War II), but combat effectiveness suffered because of the sub-par performance of some of the women and of almost all the men—who were incorrigibly overprotective of the females fighting next to them. The Israelis quickly reverted to segregated training and all-male combat complements. As Edward Luttwak has put it, “The Army can’t do something that eluded the Franciscans. It can’t run a mixed monastery.”

But that is exactly what the Army is attempting to do, with predictable and widely apparent results. Everyone in the military knows that sexual liaisons are detrimental to order and morale. Everyone knows that pregnancies cause extraordinarily high attrition rates in units attempting to key up for battle—and that some servicewoman have courted pregnancy to escape hazardous or inconvenient duty. Everyone knows that to put grizzled sergeants in charge of training nineteen-year-old girls is to invite the former to abuse their authority and the latter to curry favor. And everyone knows that combat units which include women will not perform up to par, whether (as in the Israeli case) because of male overprotectiveness or because of male resentment, or both.



Everyone knows—and yet nobody talks, at least in public. “He who is full of courage and sang-froid before an enemy battery sometimes trembles before a skirt,” Napoleon famously said. And in the Pentagon these days, there is a good deal of trembling. Barbara Pope, Clinton’s Assistant Secretary of the Navy, has asserted authoritatively that “We are in the process of weeding out the white male as norm. We’re about changing the culture.” In such circumstances, to express reservations about sexual integration is, simply, a “career buster.” Even those civilian officials critical of the new policy appear unable to speak their minds. When pressed, here is all Caspar Weinberger, Reagan’s otherwise sharp-tongued Secretary of Defense, could think to say about placing women in harm’s way:

[E]ither I’m too old-fashioned or something else is wrong with me, but I simply feel that that is not the proper utilization [of women]. And I think, again to be perfectly frank about it and spread all of my old-fashioned views before you, I think women are too valuable to be in combat.

Such flaccid resistance makes a curiously fitting match with the reckless and often flagrantly contradictory arguments of feminists like Linda Bird Francke. On the one hand, they say women can be just as strong and aggressive as men and deserve the chance to prove it; on the other hand, they damn a “masculine” culture that cultivates martial characteristics. On the one hand, they argue that gender roles, being nothing more than a social construct, are infinitely malleable; on the other hand, they lament the fact that the “masculine mystique” is “innate” and, in Francke’s words, “can’t go away.” As the social critic Jean Bethke Elshtain has observed, feminists have

not quite known whether to fight men or join them; whether to lament sex differences and deny their importance or to acknowledge and even valorize such differences; whether to condemn all wars outright or to extol women’s contributions to war efforts.

In fact, feminists do all these things at once, which may help account not only for their own confusion but for the confusion they have sown in the ranks of their putative adversaries.

In the meantime, the unasked question in this so-called debate is why most women want to join the armed forces at all. From what we know about the overwhelming majority, the answer has nothing whatsoever to do with the military’s unique mission of fighting wars. Rather, they are attracted to military service because of the decidedly non-military perquisites it offers, including better pay than they could make on the outside, cradle-to-grave government benefits, and education. Most would not volunteer for combat even if they could, and many who are now posted overseas ache for a stable stateside billet.

In other words, the current concentration of women in clerical work, supply, and other rear-echelon jobs is not, as the feminists would have it, the product of a continuing pattern of discrimination in the military but a reflection—with a few prominent exceptions—of the desires of women themselves. Those exceptions—those few women who, for reasons which it is considered bad form to question, want to storm beaches with an M-60 machine gun or bomb Baghdad from a B-2—are what the fever is about. It is for them that the entire defense establishment of the United States is being invited to turn itself upside down and inside out, at a cost in reputation, morale, and, yes, warfighting capacity that no one has begun to estimate.



Writing in the 1940’s in opposition to the ordination of women as priests, C.S. Lewis argued that the issue was not whether females could perform the caring and instructional missions of the clergy as well as or better than men. Rather, the issue was the priesthood itself, which was a burden the Lord had chosen to place upon men. If men had become inadequate to their appointed duty, Lewis wrote, the solution was hardly to call upon those who were not men at all.

Mutatis mutandis, something of the same could be said of our situation today. We arrived at our current military travails for the simple reason that not enough American men could be found to perform a duty that nature has placed on the shoulders of men. If our only solution is to reserve some of the toughest jobs in the military for the fairer sex, then we may soon reach the point where men, as Amelia Earhart predicted in the 1930’s, would rather “vacate the arena [of combat] altogether than share it with women.” C. S. Lewis, speaking not about priests now but about the modern temperament in general, put the case with lyric precision:

We make men without chests and expect of them virtue and enterprise. We laugh at honor and are shocked to find traitors in our midst. We castrate and bid the geldings to be fruitful.

This line of argument, of course, is not likely to appeal to Secretary of Defense William Cohen. He has his flanks to cover; all he can say is, “We are not going to turn back the clock.” But Bob Dylan had a line for him, too. “How many times can a man turn his head, pretending he just doesn’t see?” The answer is blowin’ in the wind.



1 Ground Zero: The Gender Wars in the Military. Simon & Schuster, 304 pp., $25.00.


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