Statistics, women, and the Common Defense

On my Seattle PI blog, I recently heard from a man I usually ignore. Think Well-See Clearly wrote, “The facts are, even when counting childbirth as a very important (feminist thinking notwithstanding) form of our nation’s work, women make up only 13 percent of work (birthing included) related deaths.

“The facts are, although women are qualified for about 85 percent of military positions, female enlistments make up a mere 15 percent of our armed forces, and fill but a scant, disproportionate 2 percent of the body bags coming home from Iraq.

“Compared to the pine-box basement, the so-called ‘glass ceiling’ is looking like a pretty good deal in life.”

Having done a fair bit of very basic statistical work for Women in the Line of Fire, as well as a thesis on casualties and combat effectiveness, I can’t help but bite on this.

I deal extensively with maternal mortality in chapter 4 of my book, which estimates 840,429 maternal deaths in America just between 1900 and 1960, vs. 602,451 battle deaths, overwhelmingly of male troops between the Revolutionary and Korean Wars (or 1,079 245 deaths if you add disease/non-battle deaths to combat deaths). Death in war for men was an episodic tragedy, death in childbirth for women, a constant bloodletting of women in their most economically and intellectually productive years.

In 1920, the year the XIX Amendment was ratified, approximately 1 in 40 women died in childbirth. This is a world in which it must have seemed normal and natural—if not right—for men, because they were so often the agents of women’s deaths and injuries in childbed, to kill women and utterly unnatural—even when it was not petty treason—for women to kill men, even when they have had more than sufficient provocation. It was also a world that much of the US Army’s senior leadership that oversaw the integration of women in to the military was born into. No man who was a man could ask a woman to bear the twin risks of childbirth and combat, while women’s vulnerability to reproductive death and injury, combined with cultural traditions of women eating fewer calories, especially fat and protein, and not seriously participating in athletics made women seem far weaker than they actually are. Not until 1960 do we begin to see the first children born to mothers (young mothers) whose own mothers gave birth to them with a reasonable chance (99%) of surviving their childbearing years. (Now, about 15 out of 100,000 women die in childbirth). The young men of that age cohort only began to enter the service academies in 1978, along with the second class of women: they are just beginning to pick up stars. And the military has only just begun to absorb the lessons of women’s athletics.

These issues affected the military occupational specialties (MOS) open to women and where they were assigned. The current law is that women are not to be assigned to direct ground combat units (infantry, armor, artillery, special operations) below brigade level. In fact, they’re attached to those units in small but increasing numbers. But even when they are attached to, say, a Navy SEAL team for a long-range mission—yes, this happens, I’ve interviewed women who’ve done it—they do not run the same risks as the men on the team because they haven’t had nearly the training.

Casualties are not evenly distributed across services, let alone between them. Historically, the infantry does most of the fighting, has the worst living conditions, is the arm that is least liked by the people in it, and suffers the most casualties, especially at rifle company level. Last fall, the marine Corps gave me their fatal casualties broken out by MOS: 67.4% of those casualties were infantrymen of one sort or another (basic rifleman, mortarman, machine gunner etc.). This percentage is likely not to have changed much since then. Of the Marine Corp’s officer ranks, 11.2% are from the infantry career field, as are 18.9% of the enlisted ranks.

In short, even in the Marine Corps, most male Marines are not infantrymen and do not share an infantryman’s disproportionate risks, regardless of what the Marine Corps says about every Marine being a rifleman. And they do mean rifleman: as an institution, that service is just beginning to address the idea that this needs to apply to women. The Army has gone much further down that road, and in fact, Marines have often attached female soldiers, rather than Marines, to their infantry units when they need them. Yes, I’ve interviewed these women, too.

So this means two things. The first is that by law female troops are more vulnerable to the enemy’s attentions than the enemy is to theirs. (This is not a result of the modern “non-linear” battlefield: it would have been sickeningly true had we ever fought the Soviets in Cold War Europe because women were so concentrated in high-value targets such as intelligence units, logistics depots, and headquarters.) The second thing, the dirty little secret of many servicemen, is that risk is not evenly distributed. And this is a volunteer military. Yes, women are 15% of the military over all. Assignment policies and laws mean that they are only 11% of the troops deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan. But the Air Force and Navy have the most women, and casualties amongst those services have so far been relatively light, although the personnel situation is so bad that both services are lending people to the Army and Marine Corps. (Shades of the Germans in 1944-45!) And women are excluded, by law, from the infantry career field, which as always bears the rough portion of this war. (Even when they are attached to infantry and special operations units, they don’t bear the major risks of combat because they simply haven’t had the training.)

The fact is that American women have a stake in the survival of this Republic, and a responsibility to provide for that survival. But it is one thing to say, as I have written, that if you accept the stake we women have in America, the Faces of the Fallen on the Washington Post website should shock your conscience—they do mine—because so many of them are men. It’s another thing to virtually demand, as the writer of “Looking Through the Glass Ceiling” does, that women should die and be wounded for other women to be taken seriously, while pretending that as an individual man, he should share in the seriousness of what other men have done. Trading on other people’s pain is ugly. Trading upon their courage isn’t any prettier.


One thought on “Statistics, women, and the Common Defense”

  1. Thanks for your comment on my review of Philip Gold’s book “The Coming Draft”. I went ahead and ordered a copy on of your book and will post a review after I get it on my blog.

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