There’s something I’ve noticed, when I do publicity for Women in the Line of Fire.
I hear from guys whose attitude is, women can’t possibly do this. I tell them, well, they are. And I hear from misogynists who positively want to see more women coming home maimed and in body bags. (These men claim neither service, nor loss of male friends, in a war that has at its heart a conflict as to whether women are humans and citizens, or chattel. Such a personal history would not excuse their rants, but it would explain them. And none of these men ever sign their names.)
And then I hear from women who tell me that there are differences between men and women. Usually, they don’t specify these differences, which is a good thing, because they almost always mistake the consequences of profound socialization based upon biological differences for those differences themselves. And it can be positively embarrassing when they do specify what those differences are: I had one woman tell me that in her experience, most women menstruated. She got very upset when I told her that had been my experience, too. She didn’t think servicewomen should have to menstruate in the jungle—I didn’t ask her if she thought the civilian women who live in jungles shouldn’t menstruate while they’re there—and she thought that for women to be strong and have stamina was to turn them into men.
But many far more rational women do not want to hear about what servicewomen are doing, or that it is time to drop the combat exclusion laws. Which is so interesting, because as late as 10 September 2001, it was regarded as great fun by many women to bait the military—I’ll call these women the feminista, to distinguish them from serious and honorable feminists—about servicewomen’s human and professional standing. A sizable minority of servicewomen endured harassment and abuse, sometimes including rape and murder, as the price of serving their country, while institutionally, the military was shamefully indifferent to the crimes committed against them. As an institution, the military seemed to regard the brutalization of women as a necessary side effect of building strong men, and plenty of predators and their collaborators took advantage of this belief. But the feminista were not determined to force the military to take servicewomen seriously because the military is an important institution, and American women are citizens, with a serious stake in that institution and the survival of the Republic that it defends. (Those who who worked to this serious and honorable end, like former Congresswoman Pat Schroeder, were very much in the minority.) Rather, they saw the military as the last bastion of machismo, to be smashed by any means necessary, and servicewomen were their tools for doing it.
Then a funny thing happened. We have been on a collision course with militant fundamentalist Islam since 1979, when student radicals seized the American embassy in Tehran. While there are many, many other issues involved, from the fact that oil is worth fighting for, to the absolute failure of most Arab countries to develop modern, functioning societies, to Iran’s slow resurrection as a great power within the boundaries of the old Persian Empire, the most important issue that is least talked about is the status of women: are women full human beings and citizens, or are they sexual and reproductive chattel? On 9/11, we were attacked by militant Islamic radicals, and nearly three thousand Americans slaughtered; about a third of them were women. And while there were women amongst the first responders, and women enlisted to avenge the dead and in some cases to help liberate their own countries of birth, most of those women who had badgered the military to deal honorably and honestly with servicewomen have largely fallen silent. They are certainly not willing to discuss servicewomen’s growing accomplishments in combat, and their growing acceptance by servicemen as humans and professionals of equal worth and dignity.
The accomplishments of servicewomen, and the accomplishments of servicemen and women together, seem to be profoundly threatening to many women. I have come to believe that to embrace these accomplishments is to accept women’s undeniably biological capacity for strength and stamina, courage and aggression. That capacity seems to profoundly threaten some women, perhaps many.
Yet it is not in a woman’s interest to be weak or vulnerable. No one who has a vested interest in our weakness and vulnerability is our friend. And anyone who tells us it is in our interests to be weak and vulnerable is an enemy. But I see women embrace weakness over and over again, even on such a mundane level as the gym, where many women choose all the limitations, risks and pain of weakness over the rigorous pleasures of a serious exercise program. On the most basic biological level, they deny the craving of their bodies for strength and stamina: most are extremely careful to never increase their strength, expand their range of motion, or improve their cardiovascular capacity. I do not know why so many women would choose, say, a hip fracture (which in older women is often life-threatening) or the spinal fractures that accumulate into a dowager’s hump, or the heart attacks and senility that are badly aggravated by lack of cardiovascular exercise, over the transient soreness that comes with working into a serious exercise program. But every time I go to the gym, I watch women do just that.
If you embrace your own physical weakness, with all its terrible implications for your personal health, the idea of bearing arms must be terribly threatening. Accoringly, I have come to think many women are afraid of hearing that women make good soldiers because to accept that is to accept that the Republic—our Republic, the Republic of which American women are citizens—has a right to count upon us for its defense. It is also to accept that we have a real stake in the survival of the Republic. To say this is not to say, the Iraq war is a good idea, or that the government should have a blank check on us in the form of a draft. But the Republic depends upon us, its citizens, for its survival: that’s fact, not theory. And while it is not perfect, while we have issues to be resolved and problems to be fixed, this is a Republic that increasingly recognizes the full civic worth and human dignity of women. And any American woman who would not trade places for anything with even the most pampered Arab or African woman knows it—regardless of what she says.
Our lives as human beings and citizens, with rights, who live underneath the law and not by anyone’s leave, to borrow from Kipling, rather than as sexual and reproductive chattel—no matter how “humane” or “enlightened” our fathers and husbands may be, no matter how much genuine love there may be between individuals who manage to make a separate peace with each other—are worth defending. By that, I mean fighting, and I don’t mean being killed in some kind of doomed last ditch personal defense, I mean worth killing for in an organized, disciplined (which is to say military) manner.
This is our Republic, and our military. These are our institutions. They are not there to simply be used until they are used up: if we want them to be able to function to enforce our rights amd defend us when we cannot defend ourselves, we have to contribute to their survival in the very dangerous years to come. If the Republic goes down for lack of people to care for it, cherish it, and yes, protect it and defend it, it will not be because men have failed to do so, and men have failed to join the military, it will be because women have also failed to do these things.
And if the Republic goes down, we go down with it.
The only Republic Americans should live in is one that women create, cherish, and define together with men as public and private equals, and together as equals protect and defend.