Women in Combat

Gulf War II: One Big (and Successful) Recruiting Film
E-mail debates of newsworthy topics.
April 10 2003 1:08 PM

Women in Combat

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Dear Debra,

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That reviewer was pretty Googled alright. As Eric Zorn, a columnist for the Chicago Tribune, once put it, "[T]he Internet is a bathroom wall. … Anyone can write anything on [it]." As my book makes clear throughout, I am not in the least "against" a gender-integrated force. But I'm for a force that's tough enough to get the job done.

Yes, the guys in Pfc. Lynch's unit got their asses taken captive, too. Perhaps no soldiers, no matter how well-trained, could have resisted whatever force was arrayed against them. But the point I'm making is that given the 360-degree desert and urban war, physical standards for everybody—cooks, supply clerks, gas pumpers—have to be brought up to the infantry-ready standard of olden days. (And I don't think I'm making too much of boot camp. Many of the kids we've been seeing in Iraq are like 19 years old—boot camp is the only experience they've got.)

In days gone by—it's difficult to fix the decline exactly—the sergeant would laugh at you if you couldn't get over the obstacle-course wall. Now the obstacle course has been renamed "the Confidence Course," and in coed camp, kids are allowed to stop and strategize: "Let's see. If John gets down on all fours, and Jane stands on his back, Betty can climb up on John and Jane can grab Betty's butt and push till she goes over the wall. …" (I'm not kidding!)

Those standards were softened in the support ranks in large part because the services had to get and keep more women, so it figures if we toughen the standards again, more women than previously—not Pfc. Jessica, apparently—would wash out. (Softened standards also eventually encouraged softer men to get and stay in.) But, Debra, that does not mean that we would have empty billets or a shortage of enlistees.

First of all, I'm with Donald Rumsfeld: The Army needs to get leaner and meaner, so I think we can ignore the generals who have been twitting about needing more people and not knowing how to get them. They're nothing but classic bureaucrats protecting their fiefdoms.

This concern about people shortages started in the mid-'90s when all the services (except for the Marines) began having a hell of a time making their "recruiting missions." The problem was made more ominous by polls of high-school students that showed a much diminished and very low "propensity to enlist."

The services had many responses; one was a campaign to improve "quality of life." Laptops for everybody! Frozen yogurt machines and classier gym equipment on the aircraft carriers! This helped somewhat: It stabilized the numbers, but "propensity to enlist" figures stayed in the toilet. Having squandered their most effective recruiting message—something on the order of "Be a soldier, or be a pussy"—it was obvious that the Army and Navy would have to keep throwing money and goodies at the kids, and we certainly wouldn't be able to afford to do that forever. The central problem behind the "recruitment crisis" of the '90s was that Bill Clinton's "feckless, photo-op foreign policy," as John McCain famously called it, plopped our troops down all over the world with no clear mission, highly confusing ("Shoot"; "No, don't shoot"; "Well, sometimes shoot but only if …") rules of engagement, and nothing much to do. Units like the 82nd Airborne were reduced to guarding Kosovar nursery-school playgrounds and delivering diapers to Croatian mums. (I'm not talking about the Air Force, 'cause everybody knows it has some unfathomable intellectual culture unto itself–a culture in which officers don't get their tits grabbed, apparently.)

Those days are over, baby! Young Americans have just been exposed to what amounts to one huge recruiting film—more exciting, more heart-warming, more sexy than anything poor old Young and Rubicam (the Army's former ad agency) could make. I'm not quite sure what young women are going to make of "Operation Iraqi Freedom" (since we know that women in general are not attracted to the combat part). But once the young men of America see that joining the military can mean driving an M-1 vehicle that goes 50 mph while blasting everything in its way and setting off huge billowing explosions and charging around with your mates in recently occupied palaces, enlistment is gonna jump.

I predict that our enlistment problems are solved, for now anyway, and that adding higher standards—giving the services even more luster than they have just earned—is only gonna help.

In short, I still see no practical reason to open combat arms to women. Maybe there's a moral case, maybe there's a fairness case, but most of the time, when it comes to the military, we have to keep our minds on the practical. Practically speaking, there's no desire among women to join combat units and no need for them to do so.

Now I'm over my space limit. This has been a lot of fun! I hope to argue with you again soon.

All the best,
Steph

Stephanie Gutmann is a writer living in New York and the author of The Kinder, Gentler Military.

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