Women in Combat

Workarounds to the Front
E-mail debates of newsworthy topics.
April 8 2003 4:25 PM

Women in Combat

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Dear Stephanie,

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Speaking as a "tough, bright, feisty [woman]" who served for 12 years in the Air Force and relished the opportunities that service provided me to engage in fairly frequent bare-knuckle competitions of one type or another, I would love to give you the fight for which you so clearly spoil. (Don't you just love what can happen when you de-dangle prepositions?) But I don't see the need for a policy change either, if only because female GIs, if they pay attention to how the military world is structured (and screw 'em if they don't) can already do just about anything they want. See: the cook and supply chicks who kicked butt before holding up just as well as the male POWs—they're all equally terrified and equally susceptible to torture.

Any GI with more than a year in knows that there are an infinite number of ways to get to the front without humping a scoliosis-inducing rucksack. (Successful) GI chicks are smart and sorta positively cynical. They are very aware of their gender-based limitations, both the official and the unofficial ones. Knowing that vocal malcontents have short shelf lives and end up unceremoniously back at Mom's Air Force Base, they accept those limitations and focus on finding workarounds. Note that this is neither equality nor fairness. But it's what there is and, in most cases, it's good and better than what you'd face in the civilian world, especially for those of a non-bureaucratic bent. Yet these female GIs quietly smirk when articles circulate in the Early Bird (a daily compendium of military-related articles) about agitation to put women in combat, knowing that frontal attacks like that will do nothing but wake the sometimes drowsy (but never sleeping) giant of military sexism.

Women find a way to get what they want (or close to it) by mastering the system. Desperate for action and eager to get out of a headquarters assignment, I agitated foreeeeever to be assigned to Intel in Iceland, a NATO tripwire in the '80s. Finally, an assignments chick whispered to me that I was never going to get that without a penis and a pilot's license. I did not file suit. I did not contact NOW. I did what all GIs, who are bred for craftiness in their mothers' wombs, do. I whispered back, "What assignment can I get somewhere near at least the possibility of action?" In other words, I settled. (As a non-pilot male would have. Still, a man can become a pilot, but a woman cannot become a man. And stay on active duty. But I digress.) Six months later, I was Chief of Intelligence in Ankara, Turkey. Not half bad for a community college dropout ghetto girl. Six months after that—the Persian Gulf War. Action.

That's the thing. Women GIs don't agitate to carry rucksacks and become snipers because they already feel like they are personally sticking it to the enemy. That overarching sense of mission and group endeavor supplants the need to have their individual fingers on the trigger. They feel that they are all shooting those guns, they're all dropping bombs on Baghdad. Women don't agitate for combat because the gains they have made and the acceptance they've mostly found imbue their non-combat roles with dignity, honor, and accomplishment. They don't agitate for combat because they know they are willing to enter the fray if required. Even though I had barely tried to master the M-16 (an automatic rifle) all basic and officer trainees were required to spend a day at the firing range with, I still volunteered for the war zone. I was terrified, but I would have gone had hell frozen over and they needed me. (But first, I would have hot-footed it for the base firing range and learned to love that rifle.)

Finally, in the name of all your "friends and acquaintances up and down the rank structure and from every service," how 'bout a little compassion for the has-beens who make up those "few retired female officers who never came very close to combat and have found a second career haunting congressional hearing rooms, and trying to extract maximum drama from military tours that were largely bureaucratic"? I know exactly the type you mean, but Stephanie, do the math. If they're retired, that means they joined up before many cool jobs were open to women or before they might have feasibly switched career fields. Correctly, they feel robbed. They want to matter in a way they were not allowed to before. What they really want is an apology.

Since you couldn't get a rise out of me on the non-issue of women in combat, I know what will. Sorry, Stephanie, the military ain't even half as politically correct as you think. Readers, I refer to Stephanie's articles on this subject and her book The Kinder, Gentler Military. Rhetoric is one thing. Reality is another. How do the tip-of-the-iceberg rape scandals at the Air Force Academy occur in an environment so supposedly feminized and hamstrung by PC-ness? You really want to argue for the scaling back of women in the service altogether, don't you?

Best,
Debra

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