In the Presence of Silence

I gave this speech on Saturday, 20 October, at the Front Line, First Person:  Iraq War Stories conference at the Watson Institute, Brown University.  Being introduced by Catherine Lutz was interesting.  She read the bios of my two co-panelists, Professor Matthew Gutmann, and Colonel (US Army, ret.) Greg Gardner practically verbatim.  Then she got to mine and she rather abruptly skipped the part about my works in progress, which include To Live — as If in Freedom, which profiles six women who dared to become politically active in Nazi Germany, Russia, Afghanistan and the United States. 

It was a very interesting sensation to hear the moderator of my panel almost deliberately reinforce the point of my speech.

In the Presence of Silence  

Hello.  Thank you for inviting me and for coming.  I speak now as a citizen.  Not an activist.  The Republic depends upon what each of us do and do not do.  The citizen knows it and attempts to act accordingly. 

Four years ago, I was a thirty-something Washington, DC secretary with a useless master’s degree and no job prospects in a field that interested me passionately:  writing, both journalistic and literary, about that “bloody crossroads” where war, politics and – most of all – culture meet.  My partner in all things, writer Philip Gold, suggested to me that, even though I had no institutional affiliation or previous experience, I should: 

·        Find grants to go to Iraq and Afghanistan to study American servicewomen. 

·        Get a newspaper to accredit me for embedding purposes. 

·        Embed with combat troops in both countries. 

·        Write like crazy for anybody who would publish me. 

·        Find an agent. 

·        Get a book contract. 

·        Write the book. 

·        Then find a way to make the American people pay attention. 

So I did. And here I am.  Still working on that last one. 

The book is Women in the Line of Fire, to my knowledge the first book on this subject to combine personal experiences, interviews and historical and policy analysis to reach a simple conclusion:  It is time to drop all remaining restrictions on women’s full equality under arms and to begin the orderly integration of women to all combat MOS’s, without quotas or lowering essential standards.  The women have earned it and to do any less is to deny their accomplishment, steal their valor and evade the fact of how desperately the military, which is currently 15 percent female, needs and will need them. 

I have opposed the Iraq war since before it began.  So did Philip, a former Marine whose 2002 opposition got him invited to leave a conservative think tank he’d been with for ten years.  But if any good may come of this misbegotten venture, good at least for America, let it start with this recognition that women’s full equality under arms, an equality increasingly accepted by their male comrades, has been achieved in reality and now must be achieved in law, policy and practice. 

However, the subject of my talk today is neither policy nor military necessity nor even my own experiences over there.  Rather, I should like to spend a few moments talking about the reactions my book has generated, a subject that I think says something about America and what Americans are today. 

My talk is about living in the presence of silence, and what that silence signifies. 

I had some early premonitions that this book would be so different that it would give people trouble.  This trouble began during my agent search, when I encountered a woman who was eager to take me on, provided I “gave her the dirt”everything from Abu Ghraib to sex in the trenches to, presumably, “How I slept my way through the Sunni Triangle.”  When I told her that I was interested in doing a serious book, and frankly had no dirt to give her, I never heard from her again. 

The silence continued at a DC lunch with the executive and media directors of the Coalition for a Realistic Foreign Policy, an early anti-war group with some very serious and thoughtful people in it.  One of the original signatories, I was just back from Iraq and their unwillingness to discuss what I’d found regarding women, or anything else, was palpable.  They were, however, more than happy to tell me which policy expert was appearing on which show, whose op-ed had run where, who was quoted in what magazine. 

The silence got louder when my publisher, Seal Press, after promising that my book would be their fall 2006 lead, resolutely refused to publicize it; refused for months to work with the private publicist I’d hired; and to this day has not released the $300 they’d budgeted for my travel expenses.  Apparently, my conclusions had offended the upper echelons. 

So I took it on the road at my own expense, and through several months of radio and campus speaking, including presentations at West Point, Mount Holyoke and elsewhere, I realized that I was in the presence of four different kinds of silence.     

The first silence is that of those who once proclaimed so confidently, “It’ll never work.”  Those who, like writer Brian Mitchell, once predicted that if women were sent into combat, the Army would become “no more military than the United States Postal Service.”  It hasn’t happened that way.  To date, over 177,000 women have deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan as volunteer professionals, something unprecedented in human history.  None of the disasters Mr. Mitchell et al expected have come to pass.  No significant combat failures due to the presence of women.  No mass breakdowns in discipline.  No orgies 24/7 or epidemics of rape.  No pandemic of “get me out of this” pregnancies.  This is not to say that these things don’t still happen, or that the future does not hold them.  It is to say that the women are serving and fighting well, winning ribbons and medals and badges, whether they go into combat with the small infantry and special operations units from which they are legally barred or whether combat comes to them in the course of their other duties.  When you take this unique data base of American female performance, and combine it with what we’ve learned about female conditioning from Title IX sports and other sources, one conclusion stands out: 

There are no show-stoppers. 

The second silence is those who don’t want it to work, primarily cultural conservatives and the Religious Right.  They dare not demean American servicewomen openly, at least not too openly.  Some, like Elaine Donnelly, president of the Center for Military Readiness and a longtime foe of servicewomen, now content themselves with haggling over the finer points of law and think tank studies, perhaps awaiting the disaster that might kick her back into high gear.  Others on the Right oppose it because women’s equality under arms, along with issues such as gay marriage, deny them their putative place at the center of the moral universe.  They can’t refute it. They just don’t like it. So they ignore it, until such time as it might become a hot-button issue in their campaign to “take back America”for themselves. 

Then there is the military, which institutionally cannot bring itself to admit that everything it thought it knew about womenand menand most especially how they interact—would behave in combat was wrong. 

That said, I would add here that some of my strongest supporters have been male veterans, especially decorated combat veterans.  There are too many to name. I’ll just note that the book’s preface was written by retired Army General Volney Warner, patriarch of one of our great military families, who lost a granddaughter in Afghanistan and whose other granddaughter served in Iraq and returned safely home. 

The third silence is of those who do not wish to consider the larger implications of women’s equality under arms.  Let’s face it.  Much of this culture would still rather have women as victims than as armed defenders of themselves and their country.  Some men dismiss it with a sneer and an insult. I’ve had my share of that, and have learned to give as good as I get, always politely, of course.  But what I find extremely disturbing is the number of women I encounter who seem addicted to their own status as victims.  I tell them that one of the lessons of “GI Jane” is that the virtues of courage, strength, endurance and loyalty are the common human heritage of both sexes.  They fear that.  It makes a claim upon them that they don’t want to consider.  And when I tell them, “Everyone who tells you that you’re weak by nature is your enemy. And no one who tells you to accept or profit from the status of victim is your friend”—they look at me as though I’d proposed bayoneting children. 

But the final silence is, I think, the most disturbing.  It is the silence of a nation that has lost the concept and the practice of citizenship, and chooses not to notice what GI Jane might mean in that regard.  I’m a “civic feminist.”  I hold that, after nearly a half century of proper emphasis on women’s rights and opportunities, it’s time to rediscover feminism’s 19th century roots as the quest for civic equality, equality of responsibility for this country.  I regard women’s full equality under arms as a good in itself, but also as part of a new civic feminism that might have something to offer this country and its citizens of both sexes.  

For we live in a time of dreadful paradox.  We need to regain our citizenship.  But the imperium that rules us wants nothing to do with active, responsible citizens.  They want us passive, self-obsessed, weak, and at the mall.  They want us trivial and content in a decaying Republic.  They do not fear our vices.  They fear that we might respond to the virtues of others and develop our own.

 It’s time to just say goodbye to all that.  But how? Over the past few years, Philip and I have adopted an approach called “Break the Debate.”  Once an issue is defined, once the list of options and positions is closed, it becomes almost impossible to think of other alternatives.  But we must.  Philip did a fine job of “breaking the debate” on military service in his 2006 book, The Coming Draft, proposing alternatives to the standard choices of voluntarism versus draft or so-called universal national service.  My goal for Women in the Line of Fire has been to break the debate on this matter, move it away from hypotheticals and faith-based arguments and outdated studies and experiences and say, simply, “These are the facts on the ground. Let’s deal with them for a change.” 

It is my belief that, if we are ever to recover our country, a first step must be to start thinking differently, to “break the debate” on a lot of issues.  If this book provides a useful example of how-to, it offers, I think, something of value for us all.    

Thank you. 


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