Biology, Equality, and the Common Defense
Given at the United States Military Academy
For the Margaret Corbin Forum
27 March 2007
My name is Erin Solaro. Thank you for inviting me and thank you for being here.
I’m the author of Women in the Line of Fire, to my knowledge the first book to seriously address the experiences of the more than 165,000 women who have deployed to Afghanistan and Iraq since 9/11. I’m here to talk about the issues these women and their experiences raise for you as cadets and future officers of a military going where no military has gone before. That is the open integration of relatively large numbers of women in combat units as volunteer professionals.
By way of introduction, I’d like to tell you a little bit about this book. I am an unapologetic feminist, although my feminism is probably not the feminism you’re used to thinking of. This book was published by Seal, a feminist press, and my editor, Brooke Warner, was terrific. From the very beginning, I was also assisted and encouraged by former and retired military men. Three years ago, I was a Washington, DC secretary with no Beltway or journalism prospects and no institutional affiliation. I was given funding for research in Iraq and Afghanistan, no questions asked or conclusions demanded, by a nationally-known philanthropist who also happens to be a former Army enlisted paratrooper and retired National Guard colonel. The foreword was written by Volney Warner, USMA 1950, a retired Army four-star and patriarch of one of our great military families, whose granddaughter was killed in action in Afghanistan. General Warner’s company commander during the Korean War, Colonel Carl Bernard, ret., a Task Force Smith survivor whose decorations include the Distinguished Service Cross, practically demanded I write this book. Another distinguished retired colonel, Bob Killebrew, whose daughter is a serving major, did a cover blurb along with former Representative Pat Schroeder and feminist icon Phyllis Chesler.
I mention this for three reasons. The first is that it is still possible to do this kind of work without being part of the system, any system. Second, when you are beholden to no one, you can call things as you see them. The third is that when serious and thoughtful feminists reach the same conclusions as serious and thoughtful soldiers, you know the culture is changing.
I plan to address three major issues.
First: What I saw in Iraq in 2004 and Afghanistan in 2005 and all the disasters that haven’t happened where women are concerned.
Second: What the military needs to do to complete the process of achieving women’s full equality under arms, both at unit level and institutionally.
Third: Why women’s full equality under arms is a good thing.
But before I turn to the main themes of this talk, I would like to deal with a subject that has obsessed the US military since women began to be integrated into the regular services in the 1970s. That is pushups and pullups, or more broadly, the PFT as we all know and love it.
Everyone here knows war is not a weight-lifting contest. So this obsession has less to do with that particular illusion than with the illusion that the female body is weak. I’m going to spend some time on this introductory issue because this obsession rather literally embodies a lot of our uncertainties about women in the military and in combat. Uncertainties, I willingly admit, that have something to do with biology, but even more to do with cultural assessments of biology. The two are radically different.
I am a weightlifter and as such, I know a fair bit about the differences between men and women. But as a horsewoman and a former professional dog trainer, I also know humans often impute to biological differences cultural meanings that have little to do with biology. No advanced species on this planet could survive if the females were not aggressive and strong: there is a reason we refer to mares as mareish and bitches as bitchy. We think they shouldn’t be aggressive even though they must be. Amongst chimpanzees, whom we have just learned make weapons, 2/3rds of weapons manufacture and usage is amongst females. Armed hunting is more efficient than unarmed hunting, and the females need to feed not just themselves, but their children. From an evolutionary perspective, it is utterly ridiculous to propose that a species as fragile and needy as humans are—don’t think Man the Hunter but Man the Hunted, as in, Giant Hyena Chow—could have survived if there were very marked differences in ability between males and females.
It is impossible to overemphasize how historically aberrant our aversion to women doing heavy work is. In much of the developing world—just as they did in the developed world before it developed—women do much of the hard work, usually on less and poorer quality food than men doing similar, or even lighter, work—often while pregnant or nursing. Now, this combination of reproductive labor, hard work and malnutrition was often fatal, especially when combined with repeated childbearing and inadequate obstetric care. But that does not mean that those women who succumbed to the regimen, much less those who survived and whose daughters survived, were—or could possibly be, by any remotely accurate definition of the word—weak. More recently, the passage of Title IX in 1972, which mandated gender parity in education, including in athletics, triggered an ongoing revolution in our understanding of female physiology. A revolution that has yet to inform the standards and expectations the military applies to women.
I gave some attention to this issue when researching and writing Women in the Line of Fire. One of the things that I particularly noticed was the Army’s old, pre-October 2006, weight standards for women. I found myself staring at the weight tables, and thinking, for small women I’ve seen numbers like this before… I mentioned that I’m a horsewoman, and I finally realized where I’d seen those similar numbers. Those are the Jockey Club’s scale of weights for flat-racing jockeys, who as a group are not only short but also severely anorexic and dehydrated, a scale of weights that is a century old, and is widely regarded as inhumanely dangerous.
In short, the Army (like the rest of the military) put jockey-sized women in the position of having to do what troops must, while being required to maintain weights far more appropriate to jockeys than soldiers. (For taller women, the weights were scaled up from that inadequate base.) The results should have been predictable. A study by Navy Captain Peggy Anne Fisher McNulty, published in the January 2001 issue of Military Medicine, found that most servicewomen had developed eating disorders in order to cope with these conflicting demands. She found that female Marines, who were expected to keep up with their male peers, were twice as likely to have full-blown anorexia as normal eating habits.
Traditionally, the military’s cultural response to these facts has been to make certain that whatever women did, it was wrong.
Any way we differed from men made us inferior, even if there were no practical consequences.
Even when the practical consequences worked to our advantage, such as our ability to use a higher fraction of our aerobic capacity than men, a fractional difference that expands over time. If we rejected the physical weakness that is part of this society’s definition of “feminine,” by seriously engaging in athletics and weight lifting, we were labeled dykes. If we accepted the military’s judgment of our physical abilities, as reflected by the weight tables and the PFT, we were weak or lazy, or both. If we developed anorexia, we were perfectionists. Any injuries due to unfitness or anorexia were the result, not of those conditions, but of our very womanhood. And if we were heavy because of muscle and bone and biologically appropriate fat reserves, we were fat—regardless of our performance or soundness.
If all the military wants to do is torture servicewomen for being women, it can continue down this road. But if the military wants to solve this problem, it’s not hard. All the military has to do is make it easy for servicewomen to do the right thing, not more difficult: military service itself can be hard enough.
Women’s weights must be level with men’s of the same height and age. In fact, since the female body has a special liking for fat and tends to retain fluid more than men, women should not be “encouraged” to weigh 5% less than their maximum. AR 600-9 says this advice applies equally to men and women, but we all know that’s delusional, the more so because the body fat algorithms, both old and new, underestimate women’s ability to build muscle mass. Women should be encouraged to be at their maximum weight and perhaps even allowed a few pounds over.
Then, properly norm the PFT: level minimums while norming the maximums in favor of women for pullups and pushups and in favor of men for crunches/situps. In other words, demand of men more of what men are good at, demand of women more of what women are good at: this reverses the usually definition of norming. These normed maximums should be based upon differences in the average percentage of body weight carried as upper body muscle in women and the midsection in men, preferably men of the same height as the average woman, as well as the percentage of weight that is supported by the upper body. (This means the gap between men’s and women’s maximums for pushups would be a lot smaller than for pullups.) For the run, this means a slower time based upon the percentage difference between average male and average female stride length and body fat levels—but because women can operate at a higher fraction of their aerobic capacity than men can, a fraction expands with distance, they should have to run about twice as far as men.
A final remark about PFT standards. They’re not operational standards; the PFT measures how well you do on the PFT. Operational standards depend upon the unit and the task. Different units have different operational standards. Those standards should not be normed: the work is the norm, not bodies, either female or male. (If the military took biology as seriously as it says it does, most Coast Guard Rescue Swimmers and quite probably more than a few SEALs would be women, not men.)
In other words, gender-norming the PFT should reflect actual physical fitness according to what each sex biologically does well, rather than cultural beliefs about profound female weakness and effortless male superiority. Cultural beliefs that condone—and condemn women to—the very real tyranny of lower expectations. Then recognize that while size matters, the properly conditioned average woman is far closer in capability to the famous Marine Corps family of Krulaks than to, say, pro NFL players. Lieutenant General Victor “Brute” Krulak of World War Two and Vietnam fame was not a big man. In fact, even by female standards, he was small and slender. As are his two sons, former Commandant Charles Krulak and the legendary Vietnam-era chaplain Victor Krulak, Jr. None of these men were judged by anything but what they personally could or could not do. They were certainly not compared to bigger men and automatically found wanting. It’s time to apply that same standard to women.
Finally, the military, especially the Army and Marine Corps, should encourage women to be strong by virtually requiring women to engage in serious weight training. Strength, including in the upper body, is simple and easy to build in women. Although most women do not experience muscle hypertrophy to the same extent as many men, serious weight training builds muscle mass, bone mass and bone mineral density, and strengthens tendons and ligaments in women, just as in men. All of this increases both weight and capacity while reducing injury rates and physical pain.
Having talked a little about biology, I’d now like to turn to the main themes of Women in the Line of Fire.
The first is what I saw in Iraq, where I was embedded with the Army’s First Brigade Combat Team, First Infantry Division, at Camp Junction City in Anbar Province and 2/4 Marines in Ramadi, as well as in Afghanistan, where I worked out of Bagram Air Field and was embedded with combat troops and with Parwan and Ghanzi Provincial Reconstruction Teams.
As I mentioned, over 165,000 American servicewomen have gone to war as volunteer professionals. Women are now 15% of the military, 11% of the deployed troops and an unprecedented 2% of the casualties. 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 women for the crimes and failures of others. The solution is to nail the perps and their active and passive accessories and collaborators.
I am not saying there have been no significant problems, nor many small problems. Nor am I claiming there never will be, especially given the operational and personnel pressures on the Army and Marines. But if really disastrous things had happened, believe me, they’d have been leaked. And let me add here, regarding the unsubstantiated accusations from anonymous sources that people like Elaine Donnelly publicize, unnamed units and individuals don’t count. As with tales regarding war crimes, those who tell such stories and those who pass them on, have an absolute obligation to have the facts and be ready to share the facts. Nor does “It would end my career to speak out” mean anything, if you’re a person in uniform. Courage is courage. And lies are lies.
So 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 sinc
e 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. And I say this without trivializing the observation of a female captain and combat veteran, now a civilian wife working with military families, who wrote in a recent email: “The silent morale killer is knowing you can have liaisons if you want them. But marriage, a family, a life partner, children? With this operational tempo and, currently, no end in sight?”
To institutionalize the reality of women’s performance, the military needs to ask Congress to repeal the combat exclusion law and drop all remaining restrictions on women’s combat service. We know, or at least can be reasonably certain, that there will come a time when the military and the American people find themselves going through another national debate about women in the military, their place and their roles. It is time the military got out in front of that debate.
This is where you, as future Regular officers, come in.
During the 70s, 80s, and 90s, the issue of servicewomen, their human worth and professional value in the military, was polarized between the civilian Left and Right. Those who, for their own reasons, took up the cause of military women’s struggle for equal human and professional standing were generally feminists on the Left. They regarded the military as the last bastion of toxic machismo, to be brought down by any means necessary, and they rarely missed a chance to trash the military as fundamentally criminal and inherently misogynist. Those who claimed to support the military were generally on the Right and usually lost no opportunity to attack or ignore the women who were an increasing percentage of the military, and often an extremely high-quality part at that.
I would add here for the record that the continued unwillingness of both Left and Right to acknowledge women’s accomplishments constitutes nothing less than stealing their valor. The continuing media and academic emphasis on women’s struggles with the psychological aftermath of war is an ugly, politically-motivated attempt to trade on their pain and reduce them to mere victims, not soldiers paying the inevitable price for their service.
Left and Right, these folks had so much fun at their games that they didn’t notice (or care) about the damage they were causing. A lot of servicewomen paid a very high personal price for wearing the nation’s uniform. I suspect a lot of servicemen who simply wanted to do a good job became disoriented by the screaming and said—and tolerated—some things that now, in the cold light of all those non-existent disasters, they remember with regret, if not outright shame. As for all the stupid, idiotic and unjust things the military did—moronic sensitivity training, micromanaged behavior, witch hunts and hammering guys for doing something dumb while all too often ignoring real cruelty and criminality—those decisions were taken by the military because bureaucrats are often more interested in protecting themselves and their institution than in doing the right thing. This is especially true at the Pentagon, where the First Commandment is, “Thou shalt not antagonize the Congress that votes thy appropriations.”
That’s how it happened. Perhaps it couldn’t have been otherwise. The task now is to move on, and never let this happen again.
So when this food fight starts up again, as it will, your job, as leaders—always, but especially in this time of war—is to make certain it does not spill over into your units and harm the people in them. Your job is also to reduce the harm this food fight does to the military and the nation.
By this, please understand that I am not proposing either political activism or sensitivity training. I am proposing real civility and respect. Men of all ranks and ages know how to behave around women, both personally and professionally. The junior enlisted may be, well, junior enlisted, especially in the infantry, but they’re not stupid, or lazy, or brutes, or criminals. They are professionals: treat them and expect them to act as such. Demand they set the standard. Those who don’t adhere to that standard, don’t because they don’t want to, not because they can’t, or don’t know any better. The only sensitivity training needed is for men—and this should be handled by men with shaved heads, large biceps and combat decorations—saying, “If you disrespect, harass or assault our sisters, you’re not our brother and you have no place amongst us.”
And the task for every man who knows that the time is over when women had to regard harassment and assault as the price of wearing the uniform—and who wants to make sure that day never, ever returns—is to back those “sensitivity trainers” up, morally and legally, formally and informally.
To put it a bit differently: Despite all the rules and regulations, the military is essentially a shame society, not a guilt society. Reputation, honor and respect are everything. For a man to intentionally harm his sisters is a profoundly shameful act that should be regarded as such—and he should be treated accordingly.
Finally, over the last decades, we have seen a phenomenon that can only be described as “fragging by rape”—the use of sexual harassment and assault to drive women out of a unit or a service. No one who does, abets or tolerates this is fit to wear the uniform, let alone serve as an officer.
That said, your responsibility as officers requires more than enforcing civility and the respect soldiers owe each other. You have an obligation to insist people make sense of this database that we now have of professional servicewomen’s performance on deployment and in combat—including Combat Action Badges and Ribbons, Bronze Stars with “V,” and the Silver Star. Including all the soldierly deeds that don’t win medals. And yes, including the physical and psychological price women now pay to win those medals and do those deeds.
We do this by returning to a few ground truths.
I’ve already discussed the truth that women’s physical weakness is much more a matter of culture than biology.
The rest of these ground truths are about the military and war.
Combat is the core of the profession of arms, and exposure to combat an inherent risk of that profession. Thus the military has an absolute right to expect servicewomen to engage in combat, whether they are combat troops or not. Instead, the military continues, in the face of reality, to maintain the institutional pretense that women will not really have to engage in involuntary combat, while refusing to even let women volunteer for combat positions.
This was—and is—immoral.
I know many men do not choose combat positions: from the overwhelming majority of men in the Air Force to a small majority in the Marine Corps. Nevertheless, for those men, it is a choice that stigmatizes neither them as individuals nor their sex as a group who cannot be counted upon in combat.
The combat exclusion policy—now law, and only partially ameliorated by the opening of naval and aviation combat positions to women—has two pernicious results.
First, the exclusion stigmatizes servicewomen as second class and untrustworth
y in a fight. This stigma means the good men can’t trust them and leaves them endlessly vulnerable to disrespect, harassment, and assault by dirtbags and criminals. Second, the law also makes servicewomen far more vulnerable to the enemy’s attention than the enemy is to theirs. This is not a result of today’s non-linear battlefield. In the early 80s, when we were still planning to fight the Soviets in Cold War Europe, servicewomen were clustered in high-value targets such as intelligence units, headquarters, and logistics depots. Anyone who understood Soviet doctrine knew that if the Cold War went hot, servicewomen would die in numbers all out of proportion to their presence in the military. When the military said women were in non-combat positions, they meant that women were excluded from learning how to fight and being able to kill, not from being killed.
Obviously, the military owes no individual any specific position and it cannot promise anyone that they will come home alive. What the military owes to everyone in service is candor about their risks and training that prepares them mentally and physically for those risks, that they may prevail against the enemy.
It is profoundly immoral to force women, because they are women, to be more vulnerable to the enemy than the enemy is to them—much less lie about that reality to them.
And now a final truth.
By now, we know that all pretense aside, the military is increasingly counting upon women to engage in ground combat. At the same time, the military is also institutionally unwilling to go before Congress and the public to say, “You should allow us to admit our sisters to the profession of arms as our equals by dropping all combat restrictions. They have earned their equality, and it is wrong to withhold from them their just due.”
It is profoundly dishonorable for the military to increasingly rely upon women’s willingness to engage and perform in combat, while refusing to acknowledge that they are—and as military personnel should be—engaging in combat, and so deserve human and professional equality.
If you will remember these truths, you will do your troops, your service and your nation great good. For we need good people in the military in these hard, dangerous years to come, and frankly many of them should be women.
I would like, now, to conclude by discussing why the participation of women in combat as volunteer professionals is good for society, regardless of the outcome of the present wars.
Earlier, I mentioned, very briefly, maternal mortality without elaborating on it. Now, I am going to do so.
In modern Afghanistan, about 1 woman in 6 dies in childbirth—when you consider that not all Afghan women become pregnant, the real number amongst child-bearing women may be closer to 1 in 5—and more die of delayed complications. Statistically, a US infantryman had a better chance of surviving World War Two. Afghanistan’s statistics are probably close to the pre-20th century human norm, a norm that profoundly shaped relationships: between men and women, between men, between women, between us and our bodies, between us and the bodies of the other sex. More recently, between 1900 and 1960 alone, I estimate over 840,000 American women died in childbirth, a number that does not include deaths due to delayed complications. By comparison, only about 603,000 Americans, virtually all male, died in combat in major American wars from the Revolution to Korea; include all non-battle deaths and the war total rises to about 1.08 million.
Death in war, then, was an episodic horror; death in childbirth was a constant slaughter of women in what should have been their best years.
Men have no comparable physical vulnerability.
Not until about 1960 do we see children beginning to be borne by (very young) women whose own mothers had a good chance of surviving their own reproductive careers. The senior military leadership who oversaw the beginning of women’s integration into the military was the last generation of men to grow up with the mass death of women. Perhaps some had caused the deaths of their own mothers, or lost them to subsequent births, or saw their sisters die. They certainly grew up and married with the visceral knowledge that they might cause their wives’ deaths in childbirth and that when their children married, their sons-in-law might well kill their own daughters, their own sons might kill their daughters-in-law.
On the one hand, this knowledge imposed a binding moral obligation upon them, that no woman should have to bear the twin risks of combat and childbirth. On the other hand, for the sake of their own sanity, they had to steeply devalue women as human beings, much less as citizens and as soldiers. In our culture, that devaluation usually took the form of an idealization and imputation of weakness utterly divorced from reality. In other cultures, it took—and takes—far more vicious forms.
This is how much of the world still lives. This is how most of the women of the world still live. Whatever you think of the war in Iraq, the Pentagon gets it right: this is going to be a very long war about the kind of world we will all live in. And the women of the developing world, if we take them seriously, could be our natural allies. In Iraq and Afghanistan, I watched them watch GI Jane, armed, modest, competent, accepted as an equal by her brothers. I could see in their eyes that they saw freedom. I don’t mean that they approve of us: I know some of them hate us. I don’t mean that they suddenly want to be soldiers, or for their daughters to be soldiers: although I also know, some do. I mean that now they know they don’t have to live the way they do. And so many of the world’s women and their men do need, in fact, to live differently.
As for Americans, we live now in a society where death in childbirth is so rare that we have been able to wipe the knowledge of its meaning from much of our collective memory, a society in which the human worth of women is now so great that we are almost full citizens.
The formal, acknowledged participation of American women in combat as volunteer professionals will mark the near completion of women’s transition from chattel to citizen. Until very recently, women lived in biological timelessness as chattels, if not outright slaves: we were extremely vulnerable to reproductive death and injury and had little control over our own bodies, especially concerning sex and reproduction. But since the Greeks, the citizen has been a man whose body was his, and so because his body was no one else’s, the city’s defense could be entrusted to him. And he lived with the consequences of his political choices. The feminist assertion that a woman’s body is hers—period—full stop—is often called selfish. In fact, it is a necessary precondition for women to become citizens, to enter into normal historical, political and moral time and trade the high risks of reproductive chattel for the much lower, fundamentally chosen risks of the citizen. The citizen whose body is hers alone, and because it is hers, the nation can be entrusted to her defense.
If this strikes you as a strange thing to say, it is only the logical continuation of the American belief that the Republic must be defended by its citizens, whether professional or citizen soldiers, not mercenaries and slaves. Moreover, for many wars now, military service has been a fast track to citizenship for immigrants, and rightly so.
Now I wish to be explicit. Each of us must live within the limitations of our bodies, our intellects, our emotions. We can will ourselves to surpass and exceed our limits, but equality can only give us the opportunity to develop our wills. Equality is neither our desire to become more than we are nor our efforts to make ourselves so. Equality means only that women are not equal for the good things of civilization while being
exempt from the hard and sometimes dangerous work of preserving it.
Civilization must be defended and equality means that those who benefit from it—should defend it. We women live in a Republic that increasingly recognizes our full civic and human worth. If the Republic goes down, so does our worth as citizens and human beings. Just as we have the citizen’s civic right to participate in the common defense, limited only by our personal abilities, so we have the citizen’s civic responsibility to provide for that defense, also limited only by our abilities—as part of the community to be defended.
The Republic, our Republic should be able to count upon us to fulfill that responsibility and exercise that right as citizens together.