On Being a Journalist and a Citizen

For Tulane University Navy ROTC, 9 February 2007

My name is Erin Solaro, and I’m the author of Women in the Line of Fire.

I’m here today to talk about the issues this book raises for young officer candidates in a military that is going where no military has gone before. That is the open integration of relatively large numbers of women in combat units as volunteer professionals.

But before I get to the meat of this talk, I am going to speak a little about being an embedded journalist, which many of you will probably have to deal with at some point in your careers.

When I went to Iraq and Afghanistan, I was a journalistic orphan: no entourage, no camera crew, no journalistic pushy/gimme attitude (unless I was hungry and they wouldn’t let me into the DFAC). That’s because, at the time, I was also an extremely frustrated secretary with a useless master’s degree who’d decided to get into writing on my own. I’d gotten my own research grants and managed to obtain unpaid accreditation, sight-unseen by the Seattle Post-Intelligencer. I had to arrange every detail myself: passports, shots, plane tickets, insurance, gear, everything. I suspect that as the mainstream media continues to shrink and disintegrate, you will see more journalistic orphans like me: determined to succeed against the odds. Please bear in mind that when you deal with us, we will remember you as our careers progress. A little kindness goes a long, long way. I have met public affairs personnel who have seemed bent upon changing my favorable opinion of the military.

I had two National Guard PAOs, a Captain Eckart and a Sergeant First Class Heusel, tell me to take a taxi from Kabul International to Kabul Compound. I was on the first flight into Kabul after the crash of Kam Air Flight 904, which took off from Herat in a snowstorm. Souls on board 104. All lost. With me were two very drunk civilian deminers, who were almost as horrified by the idea of telling a lone American woman to take a taxi through Kabul as they were of flying in to Kabul (and I would like to say that Ariana, the Afghan national airline, does a superb job with what they have). These deminers and their Afghan driver/translator insisted on making sure I had a place to stay, because Eckart and Heusel were telling me they had no beds available. Of course they did. Four empty ones in the room they finally billeted me in, not counting the young Airman who offered her own bed to me.

But I’ve also met people who found me food and water, and a place to sleep, even in their own racks, or trusted me enough to help me work out my ideas as a writer in a conversation over a meal or a cup of coffee. Some of my most cherished memories involve just talking with soldiers, things that were never intended to appear in print and never have.

So how to deal with us?

In the first place, check us out. Don’t assume we orphans are total ignoramuses—but don’t assume that we know everything we need to know, either. Google your orphan. If she’s published, your chief concern should not be whether you agree with her, but whether or not she knows her subject and writes about it honestly. Objectivity is impossible; knowledge, fairness, and honesty are not. Understand her medium, its limitations and possibilities, and the deadlines it imposes on her. Understand her long-term aspirations. And try to give her a quiet place to write.

Second, get a sense of him personally. Is he physically fit? Is he capable of keeping up with you? If not, make sure he won’t put your people at risk by being a burden. Not all reporting has to be done on patrol—if he doesn’t understand that the odds mount up over time, explain that to him. What are his politics? Here the vital issue is not stance but behavior. Partisan but civilized disagreement between citizens is one thing. But if he is trying to foment sedition and mutiny, or provoke your troops into mistreating or even murdering conquered civilians or enemy prisoners—maybe he’s just a sadist or a traitor, maybe he’s trying to set up a story that would not naturally happen—get him out of there.

Third, understand our constraints. I personally tend to offer to show the PAO my drafts because I would rather mistakes, misquotes, etc., be caught before publication. However, some publications will fire anyone who does that. Also, understand that journalism, especially under field conditions, is an inexact art. We get tired and make mistakes. Editors and copy editors make mistakes, including re-inserting ones we corrected for them. Our stuff gets to the rewrite desk, and they trope in wire reports, other reporters’ writing, edit our work without necessarily allowing us to review it, and, my personal pet peeve, allow copy editors to pick our headlines, usually in accordance with the unwritten rule that a headline has to be catchy, whether it relates to the story or not. After this process, articles can appear under our bylines that we do not recognize. And no, we will never, ever admit that any of this makes for better writing. Often, we want to write in big red letters, “Stet, goddamnit!” Meaning Leave it alone! Finally, if we clear something with a PAO, and then the tape or article creates a problem, we blame the PAO. If you’re that PAO, be big enough to take the heat. We did what we could to avoid that. Yes, this happens to journos. Thankfully not to me. Yet.

Now I am about to say something that violates the Geneva Conventions, but needs to be said because of the nature of the enemy. Journalists share the risks of combat and often appreciate borrowing a uniform (without insignia, of course) for that trip outside the wire with you. Journalists are not combatants. But in Iraq and Afghanistan, I had no intention of ever being taken prisoner and, should it come to that, was ready to fight for my own life and the lives of my compatriots. You might go so far as to issue them sidearms for self-defense, and ensure they fire for familiarization, or at least let them know that, in extremis, weapons will be available. This is the reality of war.

Or, as a very wise and legendary journalist, Arnaud de Borchgrave, once put it, “Sometimes, you have to throw grenades.”

However, you should never tolerate an embedded journo seizing the opportunity to do a little unlicensed hunting. Anyone who does or tries to—get them out of there. And please remember that we are going to be almost useless except for immediate self-defense, even if you give us a little range time.

That said, you might also want to make sure that your journo knows at least a little combat first aid and is willing, in a pinch, to help with the wounded. In Vietnam, Joe Galloway, another legendary journalist and co-author of We Were Soldiers Once . . . and Young or, as he sometimes refers to it nowadays, We Were Soldiers Once . . . and Thin, did just that at the Ia Drang. The Army awarded him the Bronze Star.

Finally, remember that we do not work for you. We have different priorities and perspectives. Even if we agree with you on policy issues and support the troops with all our hearts, even if we’re former military ourselves, we do not work for you.

We are not your subordinates. Nor are we your enemies. We are a vital link between the military and the nation at large. At least, we should be, because as citizens of the same Republic, we share some very vital interests. If an American journo doesn’t feel that way, if he’s there just to advance his career or to play out some private agenda, he shouldn’t be there. And if you don’t feel that, at the end of the day, that what unites us is more important than what divides us, please have the courtesy to help us find another unit.

In that sense, I now turn to Women in the Line of Fire, which has an interesting history that says a great deal about how the times are changing. It is published by a feminist press. The author—myself—is an unapologetic feminist who from the very beginning was assisted by former and retired military men. This includes funding provided for research in Iraq and Afghanistan, no questions asked, 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, a retired Army four star and patriarch of one of our great military families, whose granddaughter was killed in action in Afghanistan. Many, many male combat vets encouraged me, even before I took the project on.

When something like this happens, you know that the culture is changing on the issue of women in the military and in combat, and for the better.

Between September 2001 and November 2006, 160,000 and counting women have deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan. They’re 11% of the deployed troops and 2% of the casualties, an unprecedented proportion. They are 15% of the military over all, and they are engaging in whatever combat takes an interest in them as medics, MPs, intell types or motor t. They are also increasingly attached to the small all-male infantry and special operations units from which they are legally barred. Sometimes they’re specialist troops. Other times they’re needed to search and handle Afghan and Iraqi women and children, but are also expected to fight when necessary. And increasingly, they will be needed as casualty replacements.

This is a database about the performance of servicewomen in deployed situations and engaging in combat as volunteer professionals that is unmatched in the history of the world. But surprisingly, or maybe not so surprisingly, after all the studies that were done on women and their alleged inability to perform as troops, there is a sudden, deafening lack of ongoing studies of their success. We cannot yet predict women’s full military capabilities. We just know they’re somewhere over the horizon. We do know all the disasters that were so gleefully predicted by social conservatives haven’t happened. There have been no significant combat failures due to the presence of women, no discipline breakdowns leading to mass rapes, epidemics of get-me-out-of-here pregnancies, or orgies 24/7. If these things had happened, believe me, they’d have been leaked. And let me add here, regarding such complaints and stories as have surfaced, unsubstantiated accusations from anonymous sources regarding unnamed units and individuals don’t count. As with tales regarding war crimes, those who tell them 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.

As for what we do know:

We know men are learning that women are far stronger and more capable than the military’s physical fitness standards ever led them to believe women could be, and increasingly accepting of servicewomen as professionals.

We know that women are providing more raw combat power than the military ever anticipated or dreamed possible, and the end is not yet in sight.

And 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—i.e., ending all legal and administrative barriers to women’s full equality under arms.

This is where you, as leaders, come in.

What happened in the 70s, 80s, and 90s, must never happen again.

I’ll provide a brief recap of those very bad years.

America back then had issues. The Culture Wars didn’t happen because there were no injustices to be rectified and, because of the Culture Wars, many of those injustices have been. The problem is that the Culture Wars were far nastier than necessary. In many ways, they were modeled on the politics and the protest of the 60s. People, at least politically active people, picked their sides about the Vietnam War and more or less staked out positions on a variety of other issues according to what their buddies had said about Vietnam. The environment, gay rights, women’s rights, civil rights, you name it, almost nothing was immune from this rolling cultural food fight. The issues weren’t just about the issues, they were ways for activists on both sides to get at each other. If you were someone who became politically active because you actually wanted to solve a few problems… well, you were rare. And you probably didn’t last very long.

Around the issue of servicewomen, this food fight played out as follows. Those who, for their own reasons, took up the cause of military women’s struggle for equal human and professional standing were generally on the Left. 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 the women who were an increasing percentage of the military, and often an extremely high-quality part at that. It was not lost on anyone that those servicewomen would have been more likely to volunteer for Vietnam than demonstrate against it. Perhaps more likely to do so than some of the men on the Right who attacked them and who today, along with so many women on the Right, are denying their achievements and thereby stealing their valor.

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 perhaps 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, from moronic sensitivity training to 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 more interested in protecting themselves 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. On 9/11 Osama bin Laden served notice to the politically active feminist organizations that American women have a stake in the survival of our Republic. And it looks really, really bad for men to talk trash about those women who keep the night watch while they sleep in their beds.

When this food fight starts up again, as it will, your job, as leaders—always, but perhaps 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. 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 gentlemen and gentlewomen: 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 or mess with or hurt our sisters, you’re not our brother.”

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 in word and deed.

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.

In short, 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.

So how to make sense of a database that is, in fact, unique in the history of the world?

We return to some hard truths.

The first is about women. No species on this planet could survive if the females were not strong and brave. Humans are no exception. Strength is quite easily built in women if you combine a weight training program with weight standards that are level with men’s—then respect women for being strong. On average, of course, women are smaller than men and carry a little more body fat, but it is reasonable to expect a properly conditioned and fed woman to be about as strong as a man her height and weight, and to have a great deal more stamina. The caveats about weight and nutrition are essential. Until October, the Army held women to weights that, for small women, were more appropriate to jockeys than soldiers. Until the services started raising weight standards for women, most servicewomen had an eating disorder of one sort or another. When the Marine Corps raised women’s standards on the PFT without raising weights, twice as many female Marines had anorexia as had normal eating habits. Strength and stamina simply cannot coexist with an eating disorder.

The rest of these truths are about the military.

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, and it is a very hard truth about war.

I know many men do not choose those 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—had two pernicious results.

First, the exclusion stigmatizes servicewomen as second class and untrustworthy 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. It was crystal clear to anyone who cared to notice 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 put women in a position where they are vulnerable to the enemy’s intentions, then refuse to allow them to choose positions that enable them to take the fight to the enemy.

And now a final hard truth about the military.

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 social and professional equality.

If you will remember these hard truths about war and the military, 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.

Equality does not mean each of us can do anything. But equality also does not mean that women are equal for the good things of civilization, and 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 should be able to count upon each other

No more than women are broodstock, are men cannon fodder. 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 right to participate in the common defense, limited only by our personal abilities, so we have the citizen’s responsibility to provide for that defense, also limited by our abilities—as part of the community to be defended.

The Republic, our Republic should be able to count upon us fulfill that responsibility and exercise that right as citizens together.

Thank you.


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