Into Time: Women and the Profession of Arms

This essay is adapted from the edited chapter, “Women and the Profession of Arms” in One of the Guys: Women as Aggressors and Torturers (Seal, 2007). I don’t know who picks the titles of books and articles, but my experience has been that the author rarely has any input. A good editor (and I have had good ones) is worth her/his weight in gold and then some, but very often, it seems like those who have to do with titles just move words around to justify their salaries. The whole theme of this essay is women’s transition from biological timelessness into the normal historical, political, and moral time men have always lived in, and that was precisely the clause that was cut from the title.

In the midst of a highly questionable war, the United States has done something unprecedented in world history that is also extremely positive. It’s time to notice.

Between September 2001 and January 2007, the United States sent over 163,000 women to war as volunteer professional soldiers (and sailors, Marines, and Airmen). Approximately 2 percent of the dead and wounded are women, a historic high in percentage, if not numbers. Women formally serve in all roles and positions other than as direct ground combat troops: special operations, infantry or armored troops, and in most field artillery positions. Informally, they serve in the most demanding of those roles, infantry and special operations troops.

Women served in the American Civil War not only as civilian nurses and spies subject to summary execution, but also surreptitiously as combat troops, though they were usually expelled if their gender was discovered. American women served during World War II as auxiliaries. Yugoslav and Soviet women served as regular combat troops, with Soviet female snipers earning particular distinction. Women fought in Israel’s War of Independence; and though subsequently excluded from combat positions and units, women are now trickling back into those positions. And women have always served as members of the militia and as guerrillas, fighting in defense of their hearths and homes.

But present-day American servicewomen are serving as genuine volunteers, and not as auxiliaries. As professionals, they are increasingly participating in combat, the central function of the profession of arms. As women increased from 1.6 percent of armed forces in 1973 to 15 percent in 2005 (Lory Manning, Captain, USN, ret., Women in the Military: Where They Stand, 5th ed. [Washington D.C.: Women’s Research and Education Institute, 2005], 10), the Right issued dire predictions of what would happen when women were allowed to engage in the profession of arms. They foresaw waves of pregnancies as women tried to get out of arduous duty, orgies 24/7 because most men had no higher priority than sex, and combat failures galore because women couldn’t fight. Moreover, even if women themselves weren’t dispensing their favors, even if they were physically and mentally capable of combat, the guys wouldn’t be able to handle women as peers.

In the summer of 2004, I went to Iraq to observe the role of American servicewomen. I was embedded with the First Brigade Combat Team of the First Infantry Division at Camp Junction City, near Ramadi, one of the flash-point cities of the Sunni Triangle, and with 2nd Battalion, 4th Marines inside Ramadi itself. In the early spring of 2005, I went to Afghanistan, embedded chiefly with Parwan Provincial Reconstruction Team (PRT) at Bagram Air Field and Ghazni PRT at Ghazni Forward Operating Base.

When I left for Iraq, Private First Class Jessica Lynch had been eclipsed in the media by the “mean girls” of Abu Ghraib. This near-total focus on disaster and scandal meant that the media has collectively missed a profound change in the status of servicewomen, a change that has its own cultural implications.

Before 9/11, speculation about how women would perform in combat as volunteer professionals was just that, speculation, although positive speculation derived from the actual combat performance of women in other cultures defending their families and homes, while negative speculation ignored their performance. We now have a virtually definitive database of American women as volunteer professional soldiers in expeditionary combat with men. No, they are not engaging in trench warfare or D-Day-style beach assaults, but they are increasingly engaging in the kind of combat the US military does now. All the brothers are not virtuous and rational, and all the sisters are not brave and strong, but so many are, so much of the time, that their performance has silenced most rational debate about the right of American women to bear arms without restrictions, as their brothers may.

The men who had rational concerns about women’s strength and stamina, concerns caused by the military’s very different physical fitness standards for women compared with those for men, have been reassured by large numbers of women performing far better in the field than the standards indicated were possible. Likewise, concerns about how women would handle combat stress have been greatly reduced since women started attaching to all-male combat units (Army and Marine infantry, artillery and armored units serving as infantry, Army Rangers and Special Forces, and Navy SEALs) to search Afghan and Iraqi women. These women are hardly glorified baby sitters: they are expected to share in whatever combat comes along. And their role has expanded far beyond that. I knew of female soldiers serving in Iowa National Guard infantry platoons, and other female soldiers who had spent so much time working with 2/4 Marines when that battalion had taken the highest casualties in the Corps that the Marines wanted them to live and work with them full time as regular infantry. And that was just what I personally saw.

We were told that the participation of American women with American men in combat would require immense, almost violent social engineering. Yet their involvement has happened easily, almost naturally. Why, then, was there such resistance to opening the military, much less combat, to women? Why did it take so long for America to even begin a rational discussion of the right and responsibility of women to participate in our common defense, long held to be an important and inherent part of citizenship?

There are two answers. The easy one is that mainstream contemporary American feminism devalued military service in particular and citizenship in general. Feminists argued that the military was naturally misogynist, homophobic, and heterosexist because it was majority male by demographic and masculine by ethos, while women were naturally peaceful and shared interests transcending national boundaries.

But there is a more complex answer, and it has to do with biology as tragedy, not destiny.

Before women could become members of the profession of arms—not auxiliaries in whom war had taken an interest or de facto conscripts choosing between dying armed and clothed, or unarmed and naked—they had to stop dying in childbirth. To enter the profession of arms, as American women are doing in fact, and may soon do in law, is to step out of biology, out of the prism of gender through which they are currently viewed.

Like women, men face and negotiate limitations imposed upon their will and their intellect by their bodies. But for women, biology is not about height, weight, muscle mass, aerobic capacity, or even pregnancy, it is about the risk of death in childbed. Until very recently (in the developed world, in the developing world it still does), the risks posed to women’s lives by their capacity to give birth usually negated every single one of a woman’s abilities, be they physical or mental. High maternal mortality rates made it economically unwise to invest expensive education and training in a daughter who would be dead soon after menarche, and emotionally insane for men to believe women shared their same human worth—especially fathers their daughters, and husbands their wives.

My book, Women in the Line of Fire, devoted extensive space to statistics on maternal mortality in Chapter 4, “Afghanistan and the Tragedy of Biology.” For a full explanation of how this number is derived, I would refer interested readers to that book: herein, I will confine myself to repeating the bottom line. Approximately 840,429 women died in childbirth between 1900 and 1960. Women who died of complications after childbirth or were simply terribly injured during reproductive events are not included. I have not even attempted to estimate the number of women who died in the seventeenth through nineteenth centuries, when access to food, sanitation, and obstetric care were even more limited than they were in 1900s.

It was in 1963 in her seminal book, The Feminine Mystique, that Betty Freidan voiced the simmering discontent of American women with the small lives they were expected to lead. Freidan wrote about the poor quality of women’s lives and her work resonated with women and men in a way the early suffragists struggle to give women political rights a century earlier did not. In 1848, suffragists held the first women’s rights convention at Seneca Falls; it took another seventy-two years to ratify the Nineteenth Amendment giving women the right to vote—to make the laws they were governed by. By 2005—only forty-two years after The Feminine Mystique was published—women’s legal and social standing, their educational and employment opportunities, and relations between the sexes had been altered almost beyond recognition, almost entirely for the better, and with shockingly little resistance—despite the defeat of the Equal Rights Amendment.

What happened between 1848 and 1963 was less that American women ceased to bear children: the mythical average woman bore less than half a child more in 1915 than she did in 1960, although the chances of her pregnancy culminating in a child who survived infancy increased sharply during those forty-six years. What happened between 1848 and 1963 was that American women ceased to die wholesale in childbirth. In 1848, political rights were an unimaginable luxury for most American women; by 1960, they began to aspire not only to equal human worth, but the status of full citizens.

In 1920, the year the Nineteenth Amendment was ratified, the average American woman had a 2.44 percent risk of maternal mortality: more than one woman in forty died in childbirth, a rate comparable to that of the average South Asian woman in 2000. By 1940, the year of America’s first peacetime draft, the average American woman’s risk of maternal mortality had dropped to .91 percent, below the risk of that of the average Middle Eastern and North African woman in 2000. By 1945, during World War II, which saw both food rationing and an enormous influx of doctors into the armed services, American maternal mortality had been cut to .54 percent, and all but the most fragile of women could expect to survive her reproductive career. By 1955, the average woman’s lifetime risk of maternal mortality was .18 percent, and 1960 saw a tapering off of childbearing by the older women who’d begun to have children under that sword, while young women who did not grow up under it began to have children.

It was now obvious to real people, if not the experts, that it was no longer economic folly to educate most women for more than domestic duties. It was also clear that housekeeping and child rearing did not and could not consume the full energies and intellects of most women, and that was is cruel to act as if they do.  As men ceased to be the routine agents of the deaths of their wives, and as fathers ceased to give their daughters in marriage to the men who were likely to kill them—as the amount of suffering and the incidence of death even men who were entirely considerate of the lives and health of their wives and female lovers could not help but inflict upon them vastly decreased—the human worth of women relative to men increased and emotional relationships between the sexes changed.

This is why the aftermath of the Civil War did not see American women, ostensibly citizens, recognized as citizens for little more than paying taxes and conferring citizenship upon their children, especially sons. Yet in the early 1960s, a revitalized and widespread feminist movement swiftly developed even before the widespread use of safe hormonal contraception and despite the ultimate failure to ratify the Equal Rights Amendment in 1982. By the early 1980s, the first generation of young people ever to be born to parents whose lives and relationships were not formed by the unconscious knowledge that the mother might die or be crippled in childbed and that the father would be both the agent of that death and the sole support for their children, began to come of age.

Putting American maternal mortality into a military context, consider that between 1900 and 1940, approximately 762,613 American women died in childbirth. According to the Pentagon’s figures for total American war deaths (i.e., both combat and noncombat losses) between the American Revolution and the end of World War I (24 years of war spanning 143 years) totaled 637,272. (Since American participation in World War II began in 1941, those losses are not figured into this calculation.) Even considering that the Pentagon’s figure for Revolutionary War losses is low by about 21,000 to 22,000, and that I have included Confederate battle and nonbattle deaths, but not the estimated 26,000 to 31,000 Confederate prisoner-of-war deaths, maternal deaths from 1900 to 1940 alone far exceed the numbers of those who died in American wars until 1940. (Howard H. Peckham, ed., The Toll of Independence: Engagements and Battle Casualties of the American Revolution [University of Chicago Press, 1974], 130–31. Battle casualties total 6824, estimated as low by as many as a thousand, while 10,000 are estimated to have died in camp due to disease, exposure, and of wounds, and 8500 are estimated to have died as prisoners, for a total of 25,324 American fatalities during the Revolution. The Pentagon’s much lower statistics are based on the inadequate and incomplete official records of the time. You may find the Pentagon’s figures on-line at the Statistical Information Analysis Division.)

The conclusion is inescapable. For most of American history, from the first Virginia landings until deep into the twentieth century, childbirth was more dangerous than military service, even in the infantry. The very few years when military service, especially in the infantry, was more dangerous than childbirth are concentrated: the great losses of the Civil War that deranged the demographic balance; the shock of World War I, where for the first time battle deaths of most major powers exceeded non-battle deaths; and for that matter, the utter failure of European and Asian civilization during World War II. And it is the very shock of these hugely concentrated battle deaths that proves the point. They were an aberration. The steady bloodletting of more than ten thousand women who died each year in childbirth was the norm, for all of American history until 1940. For much of the world today, it still is.

To a significant extent, the sociocultural meaning of maternal mortality obliterated women’s individuality except at the most surface level of dress, hairstyle, and taste in domestic furnishings. American—world—history is filled with men who survived combat to lead distinguished public lives. Vulnerability to death in combat was a function of politics, not biology, especially not reproductive biology, let alone caused by the other sex. Death in combat was an aberration, whereas maternal mortality was a natural constant, natural for women to suffer and natural for men to impose. You have to look long and hard to find women who survived not merely the tragedy of human reproductive biology but also the judgments it imposed upon female worth.

Since these maternal deaths occurred year in and year out, in peace and in war, they must have stood like the very judgment of the gods against the equal human worth of women. As the Judeo-Christian god says: “I will greatly multiply thy pain and thy travail; in pain thou shalt bring forth children; and thy desire shall be to thy husband, and he shall rule over thee.” (Genesis, 3:16, the 1917 public domain translation by the Jewish Publication Society.) No wonder so many men felt so strongly that it was their duty to protect women at the same time so many of them also believed deeply in the inferiority of women. During World War II, the Korean War, and the Vietnam War, it was commonly believed that combat service was a duty American men owed to their wives, and mothers, and daughters; from this perspective, that looks an awful lot like a sustained cultural attempt to redeem a blood debt with blood.

When we discuss women’s traditional exclusion from and growing participation in what are known as the direct ground combat arms, we are dealing with two major issues.

The first is that of combat, of dying and killing and suffering. Under no circumstances does the risk to fire fighters or law enforcement officers compare to the risk of soldiers in the direct ground combat arms. Sixty years after its end, World War II still claims a powerful hold on the institutional memory of the US military, especially the Army. During World War II, the United States Army could and did burn through its basic tactical unit, the infantry battalion, an organization of approximately 900 men, in a matter of days, leaving virtually all the original soldiers dead or wounded, and their replacements dead or wounded shortly afterwards. This was not because the US Army was lavish with the lives of its soldiers; indeed, compared to other major combatants, it was practically parsimonious. It was simply the nature of that war.

The greatest need for troops is virtually always in the infantry at the rifle company level, where living conditions are harshest. In the 1990s, the military was willing to open aerial but not ground combat specialties to women because, despite the very high casualty rates combat aircrews suffered during World War II, living conditions even at austere air bases are always better than those in foxholes. As one old soldier shyly told me, it’s hard enough to spend the winter in a cold, wet foxhole without your period: he’d lived that way in Europe during the hard winter of 1944. Female aviators, as commissioned and warrant officers, were thought to have a much clearer idea of what they were getting themselves into than did most junior enlisted women.

The second issue is that of geography: since the Civil War, the United States has had the geographic luxury of being able to play away games. It is one thing for women to take up arms as members of a militia, to defend their nation against imminent invasion. It is another to use women as volunteers, such as highly trained and motivated aviators or special operations troops, something else again as volunteer combat troops in expeditionary warfare. And many men are deeply unsettled by the idea of drafting women for combat as regular infantry in expeditionary wars.

General William Westmoreland famously held a press conference to announce that “Maybe you could find one woman in 10,000 who could lead in combat, but she would be a freak, and we’re not running the military academy for freaks.” He also said that “no man with gumption wants a woman to fight his battles.”(“Women at West Point? ‘Silly’ to Westmoreland,” the New York Times, May 31, 1976; cited by Maj Sandra L. Bateman, “‘The Right Stuff’ Has No Gender,” Aerospace Power Journal, Winter 1987-88.) There are plenty of men now and even then, who would never describe a woman able to lead in combat as a freak, but who do agree that that they don’t want women to fight their battles for them. If they wear or have worn a uniform and feel that way, they do not necessarily believe that women are not citizens fully entitled to participate in the life of the Republic, or believe that women have no political stake in the life of their polity or culture, that their only stake is their biological survival. There are men who parse the issue this finely: they respect female participation in other realms of the military and of combat. But they feel that most direct ground combat, especially in expeditionary warfare, particularly by draftees, ought to remain a male domain. The carefully limited beliefs of such men reflect a dimly articulated, but genuine, and only recently outmoded, moral balance.

And that is that women, who as a matter of biology had no choice but to risk and often lose their lives and health in giving life, should not also have to risk life and limb to defend their children, hearths, and homes when men were available to do so. When we think of men as natural killers, and therefore best suited to combat, it is because only until 1940, their victims were likely to be not their enemies, but their wives, women whom they often genuinely loved. One way—perhaps the only way—a man could salvage his self-respect after risking or even costing his partner her life in childbirth was to hazard his life in hunting and war, to provide for and defend her and their children.

Only sixty-seven years have passed since 1940: men still live, who were born to women who risked their lives to bear them. They are no longer the senior leadership of the US Army, but they are a significant part of its institutional memory. The military is less isolated from the larger civilian society than many civilians think, but it is also an institution that cannot choose its senior and mid-level management from outside. Thus, it is also an institution that has preserved anachronistic sexual attitudes because they encapsulate the need of men to regain their self-respect by choosing to risk death after having been the common, sometimes even near-certain, cause of female deaths in childbed. General Peter J. Schoomaker, the former Chief of Staff of the United States Army, was born in 1946. His life was not uninfluenced by that demographic fact and the cultural attitudes towards women that it engendered; his parents almost certainly knew of women who didn’t make it through a pregnancy, and those deaths would have occurred in a time of steeply declining maternal mortality rates. Graduates of West Point’s class of 1980, the first to include women, have just begun to be promoted to general officer rank. They will be among the first general officers whose entire lives have been shaped by the possibility of equality for women; not merely the possibility of equal opportunity, service in the combat arms aside, but the possibility of equal human worth.

In May 2006, ARMY Magazine, the journal of the Association of the U.S. Army, published a fascinating article by General Frederick J. Kroesen (retired), a combat infantryman and veteran of World War II, Korea, and Vietnam. In other words, he was born into a generation when sons were expected to redeem the blood their mothers shed giving them life by defending them in war. Kroesen writes the following:

The awarding of a Silver Star to a female soldier for her performance under fire should be a significant factor in the continuing argument about women’s role in combat. Her performance earned a well-deserved recognition, but it also calls attention to the fact that other women routinely are earning Combat Action Badges for their solid professional performances under fire. Their actions and reactions ought to remove concerns about…their reliability under fire and their dedication to and accomplishment of their missions.

My own recommendation is that the Defense Department should issue a ruling requiring the services to identify every MOS that demands physical qualifications that every soldier assigned must demonstrate. … Applying consistent requirements will not discriminate between male and female; it will instead eliminate those whose assignments unnecessarily burden or endanger other members of their squads or sections.

Such a rule should eliminate charges of discrimination, prejudice or male chauvinism…

Such a rule will not satisfy the arguments and concerns of those of us who believe men are the warriors who protect our civilization, women are the nurturers who guarantee the future and the twain should not be committed to the combat task. … But it seems that America has, by commission or omission, ignored or accepted or endorsed the role now being played out in today’s wars and any revisions of the role will have to await a future assessment of rights and wrongs.

Despite his clear ambivalence, General Kroesen wrote that article, he chose to keep faith with female soldiers. 

In private correspondence, it was another retired four-star general, himself an infantry veteran of Korea and Vietnam, who called my attention to General Kroesen’s article. The background of our correspondence was the Korean War and the General’s service in a rifle company that sometimes suffered more than one hundred casualties, dead and wounded alike, each day. The General wrote me that combat is not just about dying, but also about killing; that he thought it is the role of women to give life, not take it, so he thought that men are better at close- range killing than women, and that he did not want women to fight his battles for him. The General also wrote with a proud pleasure of the courage and expertise of servicewomen, of a woman’s civic right and responsibility to enter the military; of the need for the military to revise standards to reflect their actual capabilities; and that he also hoped my work would change his opinion that men are better than women at close-range killing.

I cannot do that for him, for the simple reason that we are only beginning to see women participate in the profession of arms as professionals, i.e., as subject to and engaging in combat, and there is a dearth of research on women engaging in serious, sustained military aggression. Everything we have seen from Iraq, however, indicates that while women may not be as prone to dominance posturing as young males, they engage in military aggression about as well as men do. What emotional price they will pay depends not only on neurobiological differences between men and women, but on how easy we make it for women to come to terms with the fact that they have killed. When people break down in combat, it is not because they love violence, it is because killing intincts your soul, so that your dead enemy’s soul enters into you, even when you have in no way killed dishonorably, much less engaged in murder.

What I can say to the General, and by extension to men like General Kroesen, is this. That until very recently, there has been a timeless quality to women’s lives. Across cultures, women have generally labored inside the household, and when we worked outside, we have usually done labor that had a domestic analogue. Even when men did the same work—cooking, sewing, and bookkeeping—their wages have been higher and their work has had a higher status. They might well be the sole support of many children and a crippled wife. And, until recently, as the parent most likely to see the children to adulthood, the man was head of the house: he, not his wife, was a citizen. In Anglo-Saxon culture, a wife was a feme couvert, a woman whose status was covered by her husband; she owed him responsibilities, not the state, and her rights were those he permitted her, while the state guaranteed her few rights against his wishes.

In 1920, American women began to become citizens in their own right, not merely for purposes of paying taxes and transmitting citizenship to their children, particularly sons. Over the next four generations, as the maternal death rate collapsed, the human status of women relative to men soared. American women’s growing status as citizens, collapsing maternal death rates, and increased human worth make the increasing participation of American women as regular soldiers in offensive combat operations abroad a normal and morally necessary part of our political evolution as citizens. So also will be the end the formal exclusion of women from the ground combat arms and their customary, cultural (not legal) exemption from any future draft. Very high, involuntary reproductive risk is slowly being replaced by much lower, fundamentally chosen political and military risk.

But this is also part of women’s human evolution. Pregnancy will always be painful, demanding, and dangerous, but women are now able to control their fertility and survive their reproductive careers. Women’s reproductive biology no longer stands like the judgment of the very gods against the human worth of women, no longer defines and limits and diminishes women as it never has men. It has never been childbirth that bound women to both children and animals, but death: high maternal mortality rates meant that death was present between a woman and her man, shared their bed with them, was present in sex and omnipotent in delivery. Collapsed rates of maternal mortality change the very context of sex and the meaning of gender, making man no longer so natural-born a killer that he even kills his mate in their bed. Just as the moral risks and physical burdens of the common defense must now be shared by women, the giving of life in sex and pregnancy becomes male as well as female.

America is not seeing the coarsening of its women, who should give life, because the men who should take life in the defense of the Republic and their families have become weak cowards. Rather, we have lived to see the women of our polity step fully out of the tragic meaning of reproductive biology and into the normal passage of historical and political time, into the fullness of human worth and moral judgment.


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