The Woman Soldier: American Servicewomen: Our Army, Our Wars

Delivered at “Educating Women for a World in Crisis” conference at Newcomb College Institute, Tulane University, 9 February 2007

Good afternoon. My name is Erin Solaro. I’m the author of Women in the Line of Fire. Thank you for inviting me and thank you for coming.

Ever since this book came out last September, I’ve been fortunate to be able to do a good bit of radio, public speaking and blogging. I’ve discovered one thing. Women in Combat is a subject no one wants to talk about. The Left doesn’t want to discuss it because it’s part of a tragic and unnecessary war, and because of an attitude toward the military that might be described as—indifferent, at best. The Right, the religious and cultural Right especially, doesn’t want to discuss it because equality is no part of their agenda, and because it interferes with their attempt to “take back America” and return themselves to what they consider their rightful position at the center of the universe. The media aren’t interested unless there’s scandal or they can trade on somebody’s pain. And the Pentagon doesn’t want you to know how dependent the services—which are 15% female—especially the Army, have become on women because that means they’d have to change a lot of long-standing rules and habits and attitudes.

Nobody wants to talk about it.

Let’s talk about it.

Today, I should like to do three things. First, talk a little about how this book came to be. Second, sketch for you what the Army calls “ground truth,” in this case the experience of over 160,000 women who have gone to war since 9/11 as volunteer professionals. This is unprecedented in the history of the world, and it gives us a data base that not only disproves a lot of hoary myths and prejudices, but shows us—once again—that a lot of stuff we thought we knew about women, just ain’t so.

Third, and perhaps most importantly, I’d like to ask you to look beyond the war itself to what the advent of “GI Jane” sharing the burden of combat in Iraq and Afghanistan means for American feminism and for America generally. I’ve found that this is a connection that takes many people way out of their comfort zones; I recognize that it goes against the deeply held beliefs of some of the people in this room. But it’s a connection that has to be made if we’re to end these pointless wars we keep getting ourselves into.

First, then, how this book came to be.

Three years ago, I was a Washington, DC secretary with a useless master’s degree and no career prospects. I wasn’t marketable in the national security field. No Ph.D. No significant military experience. No connections. Wrong gender. Nor had I much chance of getting into journalism as a thirty-something with no journalism degree, no prior experience or publishing record. So I decided to get proactive and take on a subject that had engaged me since my college days as a radically feminist Army ROTC cadet: women in the military and, more specifically, women’s full equality under arms.

Working entirely without institutional affiliation or support, I was able to get research grants to go to Iraq and Afghanistan, with no restrictions placed on what I might do or write. The Seattle Post-Intelligencer accredited me sight-unseen as an unpaid stringer. I arranged my own embedding, made my own travel plans, schlepped my own gear. I spent a month in Iraq in 2004, embedded with the First Brigade Combat Team of the Army’s First Infantry Division in Anbar Province and with Second Battalion, Fourth Marines in Ramadi. In Afghanistan in 2005, I worked out of Bagram Air Field near Kabul and was with combat units and Provincial Reconstruction Teams in Parwan and Ghazni Provinces.

I plan on going back to Iraq later this year.

Two wars in six months turned out to be the easy part. I went through five literary agents before I found the right one. These included a pathological liar, a pathological perfectionist, two who refused to do anything and one who just wanted “the dirt,” as in, “How I slept my way through the Sunni Triangle.” I thought about concocting some lurid tales, but backed off when I realized that she would love it and probably get me a seven figure contract.

The book got sold and got written. It’s published by Seal, a feminist press. Volney Warner, a retired Army four-star General who lost a granddaughter in combat in Afghanistan did the preface. Bob Killebrew, a well-known retired Army colonel turned TV analyst. and former Congresswoman Pat Schroeder did blurbs. When a feminist press brings out books like this, with prefaces by generals, and Bob Killebrew and Pat Schroeder appear on the same back cover, you know that the times they are a’changin’.

But not fast enough.

That’s how the book came about, and I would add here that through it all I had the encouragement and support of many, many male combat veterans. I also discovered what I’ve come to think of as the “Grandfather Factor.” Older men who tell me that, while they still have great difficulty with the idea of women in combat, nobody’s going to tell their granddaughter she can’t do something because she’s a girl. And that they respect the young women who are engaging in it now.

Now for the ground truth.

As I mentioned, over 160,000 American servicewomen have gone to war as volunteer professionals. Perhaps the most striking aspect of this is what hasn’t happened: none of the disasters so gleefully predicted by opponents of women in the military and of women’s equality generally. No significant combat failures due to the presence of women. No epidemics of rape or what I call “get me out of here” pregnancies. No massive breakdowns in discipline, no orgies 24/7. Where bad things have occurred—and there are still some monstrous things—they generally happen in units that have larger and more fundamental problems of leadership and discipline. Every unit has its ten percent of jerks and worse. In good units, they don’t dare get out of line; if they do, they’re dealt with quickly and firmly. In bad units, they set the tone. In such units, women suffer, and are suffering now. But the solution is to not to remove or punish them for the crimes and failures of others. The solution is to nail the perps and their active and passive accessories and collaborators.

No, you can’t prove all these disasters that haven’t happened. But it’s safe to assume that, if there had been such disasters, somebody would have leaked it by now, especially given the cultural tenor of this administration and its remaining supporters. Further, such allegations of breakdowns as have surfaced are almost entirely from anonymous sources who rarely seem to get specific. Regarding these, I can only say, without names, dates, units and places, and without the accusers having the courage to come forth openly…sorry, not good enough.

As to what has happened: We now have women in combat routinely. Sometimes combat comes to them, in the course of their other duties. But more and more, women are going out with small infantry and special operations units from which they are still legally barred. In Iraq and Afghanistan I went on raids and patrols with women who were there to search and handle Iraqi and Afghan women and children, but who were expected to fight if necessary, and who did. In Afghanistan, I interviewed women who’d done long missions with Navy SEALs and Army Special Forces. Women are now earning medals and combat ribbons and badges, including Sgt. Leigh Anne Hester, who won the first Silver Star awarded to a woman since World War II.

Even more importantly, in Iraq and Afghanistan I saw a new generation of soldiers, accustomed to equality since birth, making up the rules as they went along and making it work. I found that what you lose in privacy, you gain in modesty. I found that men and women with marriages or serious relationships back home would band together in “misery loves company” affinity groups to keep each other faithful. I found male soldiers quietly guarding the women in their units against outside predators. I found the men accepting the women on the only basis that really matters among soldiers: Can you trust this person to carry her share of the load? Most of all, can you trust her when, as it was known in past wars, it’s time to “enter the world of hurt.”

More and more, they can. Equality works, not least of all because men and women want more from each other than sex. It is time for the Congress to repeal all remaining restrictions on women’s service. It is time for the military institution to catch up with its young people by providing equal opportunity and combat training for women, and to implement and require what we’re slowly discovering about the female body: It is much stronger than we thought it could only a few years ago.

What is needed now is not more inane sensitivity training or ludicrous regulations or idiotic micromanagement of behavior. All that is needed is for the men who serve with these women, the guys with shaved heads and large biceps and lots of ribbons, to say loud and clear, “Anyone who disrespects or hurts our sisters is not our brother and has no place among us.”

And then for the institution to back them up, formally and informally, morally and legally. No American servicewoman should ever have to believe, as so many did in decades past, that harassment and assault are part of the price she must pay for wearing her nation’s uniform. And American servicemen should know that those who condone the mistreatment of servicewomen as part of that price are personally insulting and slandering them and their brothers.

That’s the ground truth, and I’ll be happy to answer questions later about the specifics of the laws and policies and what we’ve learned about women’s physical training and conditioning. But now I want to speak about the implications of “GI Jane” for American feminism and for the nation as a whole.

Here I speak as a lifelong feminist, and also as one of this war’s earliest opponents, who holds feminism in some ways accountable for the nation’s failure to develop a politically effective movement against this war. Let’s face facts on this. As far back as 2002, the serious opposition to the Iraq war came primarily from the Right, and especially from those with military backgrounds who knew what folly this would be. The Democrats did not take Congress last November because of the Left. They took it despite the Left, courtesy of millions of decent conservative-to-moderate-to-liberal Americans who voted their disgust. However, in terms of any kind of movement that lets us express our opposition with any kind of rationality and dignity—four years into this war, we still have nowhere to go.

Why not?

My partner in all things is Philip Gold, a former Marine who in 2002 became one of the nation’s first conservatives to oppose the war and who got invited to leave his think tank as a result. I’d urge you all to read his 2004 book, Take Back the Right and his new book, The Coming Draft, his contribution to stopping that inevitable next piece of insanity. Philip’s a Baby Boomer. I’m an Xer. We’ve had a lot of talks about, well, about what went wrong back then, and how so much of it is still so sadly with us.

The Culture Wars of the last few decades were necessary and on balance did a lot of good. America had issues that had to be faced, especially regarding women. The problem was in how they got faced, and in the toll that certain tactics and rhetoric exacted and continues to exact, to the point where feminism and the Left in general can no longer even speak to, let alone attract those vital millions.

American feminism began as a quest for civic equality that evolved into the quest for equality of opportunity and a set of individual rights to control our own bodies and lives. This was necessary and proper. But now it’s time for what I call a new civic feminism that emphasizes women’s full equality of responsibility for this Republic, including its defense and physical security. From the sixties on, feminism has been primarily an opposition and an advocacy movement. It is time now, while not neglecting the necessary advocacy that remains to be done, to take full and equal responsibility for our nation. And this is less a matter of women voting or running for or holding office, than of reconceiving ourselves as citizens with a stake in the future of our nation.

A first step is for feminism to reconceive its relationship to the military.

In the sixties, feminism aligned itself far too uncritically with the anti-Vietnam protest movement, which Philip has aptly described as, in far too many ways, a carnival superimposed upon a tragedy. From the seventies through the nineties, feminism regarded the military as the last bastion of toxic machismo, to be brought down by any means necessary. The virulence of that assault provoked in the military a cowardly and destructive response. Instead of implementing an orderly transition to full equality and dealing with the recalcitrant swiftly and with finality, they engaged in classic bureaucratic game-playing, especially to keep the Congress happy. Sensitivity training and anonymous accusation hotlines and idiotic rules and witch hunts and all manner of games, including the pernicious lowering of standards. Who got hurt? The good women who served and the good men who were ready to accept them.

Perhaps it couldn’t have been otherwise. But it should have been otherwise after Osama bin Laden served notice on us that we as feminists and as women have a stake in the survival of the Republic as citizens. It is no longer possible to hide behind the notion that our interest as women is always and forever in peace at any price, or that we are the natural peacemakers and the gender incapable of atrocity. It is no longer possible to pretend that as feminists and as women citizens we have no stake in the Army that George Bush has squandered. It’s often said that one reason there’s no mass protest movement is because there’s no draft and the children of the upper orders aren’t serving. True enough. But it’s also true that feminism’s prior antipathy to and ongoing disdain for the military plays a part.

It may not be your son or daughter over there, or the children of anyone you know, or someone you love. But it’s our Army and we’d like it back. Perhaps a civic feminism that accepts the military as an integral part of society, in which women are full equals, and which women—feminist women, women citizens—should be part of, would help the nation take better care of it.

Which brings me to the subject of protest.

I opposed this war from before the beginning, as did Philip, because we could count troops and costs, and because we could read a map. We opposed it because we knew you can’t force people to be free and should not try to turn the world into 6 billion good little American knock-offs. But we had nowhere to go. We were among the original signatories of the Coalition for a Realistic Foreign Policy, an early DC-based group of academics and policy people. We left when we realized that it had become an op-ed placement and interview-booking service, not a serious force. But we could find no home anywhere else because what protest there was, and has been of late, is still far too much of a carnival superimposed on a tragedy. It is a style of protest that, whatever gratifications it provides its practitioners, alienates many, many more. What we need, desperately, is a protest movement that speaks to citizens as citizens, calmly and with reason and respect.

Can it be that so much of what passes for protest today, protest in the manner of decades past, in fact plays into the hands of the administration and its ever-eager-for-more neocon warmongers? It’s not easy to suggest that people such as Cindy Sheehan and Jane Fonda and others are serving as Karl Rove’s “useful idiots,” making themselves and their style and behavior the issue and thereby deflecting time and energy from the hard work of ending this war and preventing the next one. It is certainly not too much to suggest that Karl Rove’s worst nightmare is a million modestly-attired, well-behaved serious citizens on the Mall, and millions more around the country, all saying:

“You have wrecked Iraq and we want it to stop. You have wrecked our Army and we want it back. You have impoverished our nation in a delusional war.”

A war we are going to be paying on for a long time to come, and as any economist will tell you, the true cost of anything is all the opportunities foregone.

A new civic feminism, I believe, could help show the way. For American women. For American men. And it could be a civic feminism we’d be proud to offer the women of the world.

A couple years ago, the media carried a spate of reports of how servicewomen were being used to search Iraqi and Afghan women. We congratulated ourselves on our cultural sensitivity. What the reports didn’t mention was the impact that the sight of “GI Jane,” armed, modest, competent, working with her brothers, might have on Islamic women. That it might be, for many of them, their first sight of freedom and of what their lives could be.

I’ve seen their reactions. I’ve looked into their eyes. I don’t suggest that they suddenly wanted to be soldiers, or wanted their daughters to be soldiers. I don’t imply that they even wanted us in their countries. Perhaps some of them hated us. But they had seen something so utterly different from their own lived experience that, one way or another, they had to confront it.

I hate this war. But if any good is to come of it, perhaps it might include a new birth of feminism that emphasizes women’s full equality of responsibility, including of equality under arms, in order to ensure those arms are never again so tragically and so stupidly employed.

Thank you.

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