Women in Combat

Put the Boot Back in Boot Camp
E-mail debates of newsworthy topics.
April 9 2003 1:34 PM

Women in Combat

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Dear Debra,

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Gosh, I thought my post was just kinda chatty and conversational. OK, you're right; I do like to wrassle a bit. And so do you: taking a swipe at my book! Implying that it's just "rhetoric" not "reality" …

The gloves are off, honey.

My book was based on direct reporting, collected (with my eyeballs) in long-term, live-in-the-field situations. Because of my physical resemblance to the people I covered, I was often able to wander unminded into situations journalists don't usually see. The book is augmented by candid accounts from the hundreds of GIs from the four services whom I know, met, or have corresponded with over the years. Reality, not rhetoric.

So, when it comes to your thrown gauntlet about my really wanting to "argue for the scaling back of women in the service altogether"—yeah, based on what I saw, if I was in charge, I would institute reforms that would probably reduce the number of women in the services eventually. I'd reinstate gender-segregated boot camp. That would make basic training tougher for everyone, so my reforms would probably cut quite a few men as well. But they'd reduce the female proportion of the services only because those numbers were swelled in the '90s when recruiters, following directions from Congress, did everything short of go after women with butterfly nets to get them in.

When former Marine C.J. Chivers (yes, the C.J. who now galumphs around war zones for the New York Times) was briefly assigned to a recruiting office, he found that "the attitude [about female applicants] was 'Get 'em on the plane.' If there were any problems, boot camp could sort it out."

But Congress was terribly afraid of the "sorting out" process. It would reduce the numbers. (Congress' goal was 50/50 sex ratios by 2000.) And the very concept of saying bye-bye to some less-qualified women, of choosing, was verboten. So the boot camp that thousands of men and women entered was watered-down, cuddly-wuddly, and about as challenging (and as much like war) as a church picnic. Even so, women enlisteds got injured during boot camp and dropped out in numbers far greater then men. Then they'd leave the services far earlier than men. Congress never got the gender parity it desired.

You may have been insulated from this phenomenon a bit, Debra, because you were in the Air Force, which has the most female-friendly MOSes (less emphasis on hefting, dragging, pushing, and etc.) and thus the four services' highest proportion of women.

But it's interesting you mentioned Pvt. Lynch and her "kicking of butt." One thing her experience illustrates is that the Marines are right with their "every man [must be] a rifleman" philosophy. In a 360 degree war, everyone, down to a cook, can be called on to defend his or her company. That means we've got to make boot camp as challenging as it was pre-Bill Clinton and his Nice Brigade. And the only way to do that, Debra, is to end gender-integrated training. You just can't train the boys to their max without killing the girls. What do you think?

I love your portrait of the righteous GI chick, the woman whose "overarching sense of mission and group endeavor supplants the need to have their individual fingers on the trigger." The voices of those women fill my book and it is precisely those women, enlisteds and officers who are most offended by the get-the-numbers/gender-integration-at-any-cost people.

These women came in because they love the military as it is—in all its macho, rough, rude glory. They are not interested in having a bunch of librarians who've never heard a dirty joke excising "the sexist culture" on their behalf. (Many, for instance, were outraged at the Tailhook witch hunt and the way it swept up their "brothers.")

And their first allegiance is to military readiness—so that the military may effectively serve the country. Thus they recognize that their commanders (who on the whole they respect a great deal) should be able to assign them where they can make the biggest contribution; 99.9 percent of the time that means to an MOS that's not gonna call for the aggressiveness and upper-body strength of a 19-year-old boy.

By the way, you never make clear what you think about opening "direct combat" positions to women. Have you made up your mind on this? (I won't blame you if you don't have an opinion 'cause frankly I swing back and forth on this question.)

Best,
Stephanie

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