Women in Combat

Losing My Fear of Falling on My Face
E-mail debates of newsworthy topics.
April 9 2003 5:03 PM

Women in Combat

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Dear Stephanie,

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At the risk of quibbling (a serious source of demerits in Officers' Training School), I sniffed at the military's PC, pseudo-feminized rhetoric versus the much more complicated reality of gender relations in the military. I have yet to read your book, but I did, however, read a lot about it. I have no doubt that—remarkably, in these days of lazy-ass, pretend-your-latte-buddies-are-legitimate-sources, never-leave-your-office "reporting"—you wore out your journalistic shoe leather on this. You are more than qualified than to be taken seriously on this issue. You're wrong, of course. But not unqualified.

But seriously … I come away from my admittedly abbreviated perusal of your ouevre wondering if you hang too much on basic training. It's the easiest case, isn't it? But Jessica Lynch went through it, right? It's not clear to me what more could we have asked of her.

Take my career. You're right that the Air Force (AFSCs not MOSes) is less physical than some of the other services. (Unless you go pararescue or the like. Those guys are insane.) That's why I chose it. I suspected that I could never rise to the top of an Army or Marine pool so based on bayonets and Bradley fighting vehicles.

But I started out as a Korean cryptologic linguist. I spent two years in training learning another language and how to handle the technology needed to exploit it. Guess what the attrition rate was. Guess who was a Distinguished Graduate and a star on the job. Before that, though, I fell in the water obstacle when I ran the obstacle course (my bad, now it's called the namby-pamby "confidence course") and took nearly the whole 12 weeks to master push-ups at Officer's Training School. Which matters most to you? Do you argue in your book that women, once in combat situations, bring dishonor on themselves and their country? Here's the real question: If, as you say, you were in charge and reduced the number of women in the services, how would you fill the many empty slots that would leave?

But does that mean I support gender-segregated basic training? Sure, why not, though neither is without perils. My basic (in 1980) was female-only. OTS (in 1985) was the most gender-neutral experience of my entire life. Given that, both enlisted and commissioned, I had to lead men (some of whom were not feeling it). I have to think I was better off having lost my fear of falling on my face in front of them. (And they, losing their fear that all women are made of glass.) Once I realized that falling down was no problem as long as you could A) get right back up and at it again and B) laugh at the "clutz" jokes at your expense, I looked at my duties in an entirely new way. I took the corner of a football right in the eye at squadron officers' school. Forever after, everyone clutched their eye and bent over double when they saw me. I just took it in stride. Why? Because I finished the game bleeding and blinded.

Couldn't I have learned that among women only? Dunno. I can't help thinking I would have thought I "had" to go to sick call. I also made a Hail Mary catch that had all the men goggling; I will forever bless the man who took a chance on throwing it to me. He lead, and he got the best out of what he had to work with—that, my friend, is the military's secret weapon. Believing and investing in even the unlikely candidates. I could never have gone for that pass had I not lost my fear of actually trying all the stuff that women in my day (I'm 44) were most definitely encouraged to avoid. (Like football—leads to lesbianism, you know.) But sure, segregation can work, too, if it has to.

I have not reported much on the military; I get my numbers and policy information from folks like you. Just this past December, the Washington Monthly ran an interesting piece called "War Dames" that directly addresses these issues of the female GI's mission creep. According to it, "This new role for female U.S. troops is the product of three different forces. ... [One] is the ongoing enlistment shortage; the military remains reluctant to admit women yet is unable to recruit enough competent men to staff an all-volunteer Army." Note the word "competent," a category all too often applied only to women and minorities, it being assumed with everyone else until disproved. To those who actually have to protect this country, an empty billet is not preferable to a woman who can't do boy push-ups but is otherwise competent. Is that a price we're really prepared to pay in the name of martial purity? That would seem to be throwing out the baby of national security with the bathwater of detested feminism.

If I recall correctly, men, with all their upper body strength and lack of need for frequent showers, were captured along with little Shoshana and Jessica. Also, if you truly fear "open[ing] ourselves up to a Supreme Court ruling which would require a female draft for combat positions," why do you fear it more than the prospect of female exclusion creating a need to draft males? Less societal upheaval?

We're out of space so I'll stop here but I want to mention that I was on active duty when Tailhook happened. Most of the men I served with were as appalled as Patricia Ireland could ever hope to be. As one male (enlisted) officemate put it while perusing a photo of the groping, "That's a officer tit he's grabbing!"

One final piece of red meat: One Googled reviewer quotes you as saying, "if 10 years from now the U.S. gets 'utterly whipped' in a war ...  Americans will know who to blame: presidents Bush and Clinton, as well as the Congress that authorized today's integrated armed forces." Your book only came out in 2000, but does the conduct of women in Operation Iraqi Freedom make you less sure that women in combat portend the end of American national security?

I am soooo far over my space limit. Cut me a break and let me get to women in the combat arms tomorrow, OK?

Hoping there were no hidden insults this time,
Debra

Debra Dickerson is the author of The End of Blackness andAn American Story.

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