What Do We Do With Our Freedom?

What Do We Do with Our Freedom?


Erin Solaro

Delivered at Winthrop University for the John C. West Forum

2 March 2010


Thank you for having me and thank you for coming here to listen to me speak. 

My name is Erin Solaro, author of Women in the Line of Fire:  What You Should Know about Women in the Military (Seal Press, 2006), a book I went to Iraq and Afghanistan to write.  In both countries I was embedded with combat troops as a stringer accredited to the Seattle Post-Intelligencer and on research grants from a nationally-known philanthropist who gave me total freedom to tell it like it is.  I am also the author of The Doves:  A Novel of Russia and America, Book One:  The Warriors, which I have just published as an e-book through my own new press, High Banner Publications.  I started High Banner Publications because one person too many looked at The Doves and told me, “It’s great, now dumb it down.”  Today, intellectual integrity requires not dumbing anything down, regardless of your point of view, and I hope to publish authors who feel the same about their work, who respect their work and—just as important—respect their readers.

I’m here to talk a little today about what US servicewomen are doing in Iraq and Afghanistan, two fronts of what some people call the War on Terror, but what is really what my husband, writer Philip Gold, has called The Wars of the Ways.  These are the struggles of those who would embrace the 21st century against those who want out.  How do we safeguard the promise and human potential of modernity from those who prefer to take us back to some Dark Age of their own making, evil people who often find themselves in alliance with desperate people: the billions of us surviving on a dollar or two a day, who often and sadly are forced to live by the motto, “When you’ve got nothing, you’ve got nothing to lose.”

Ultimately, the Wars of the Ways are about four questions.  Who is a human being?  What does it mean to be human?  What does it mean to be more fully human?  And who will decide? 

I’m going to suggest to you that the matter of US servicewomen and, by extension, the condition of American women, is a part of the Wars of the Ways:  an important part whose importance few of us realize or care to think about.  So we’ll begin with the facts on the ground, proceed to some more general observations, then conclude with a question:

If what I’m about to say is true…

I’ll finish the question at the end.

Here’s the reality.  For many years now, women have constituted around 15 percent of the total force.  Between 9/11 and December 2009, over 235,000 servicewomen, or approximately 11.5% of the deployed force, have served in Iraq and Afghanistan.  It may not sound like much, but the numbers tell only part of the story.

Over the past couple decades, various combat MOS’s, Military Occupational Specialties, have been opened to women.  Since the early 1990s, female aviators have been legally allowed to pilot and crew combat aircraft, except in special operations units, and female sailors have legally gone to sea in combat specialties on Navy surface vessels.  They are still barred from serving on submarines, although the Navy is now considering ending that exclusion, something, be it noted, they’re considering without any feminist political pressure.

Of course, long before public law was changed to allow women to openly perform these missions, they were performing them covertly, “infiltrating” in ones and twos and more, often with the tacit and sometimes not-so-tacit support of many servicemen.  What we are seeing now is the enormous infiltration of women into ground combat specialties, particularly in the infantry and special operations, from which they are still legally barred.

This is work, we were told, that virtually no women could do.  And if by some miracle they could, their male comrades, we were told, were such testosterone-saturated monsters that they simply could not deal with women as human and professional equals.  When they weren’t raping or having consensual sex with the women, we were told, men would be throwing away their lives to protect them from the enemy—a logic that might be summarized as “They’re our women, only we’re allowed to do what we want with them.”  As for the women, we were told, the only ones who wouldn’t be selling sex, trading sex for favors, or using pregnancy to get out of everything from combat duty to deployments to physical fitness tests, would be lesbians and they weren’t fit to serve because…well, because we said so.

In short, any heterosexual woman who was simply a good soldier was a freak, and if she was married or had children, she ought to be home with them.

Worst of all, we were told, any sexual integration would inevitably lead to abysmal combat performance.  One writer of the 1990s, bemoaning our “kinder, gentler military,” went so far as to suggest that, were the Army to go “co-ed,” it would become no more dangerous than the Postal Service.

It didn’t happen that way.

None of the disasters so gleefully predicted by uniformed opponents of integration and the cultural conservatives before 9/11 have come to pass.  There have been no significant combat failures due to the presence of servicewomen, nor have there been those eagerly anticipated epidemics of rape and get-me-out-of-here pregnancies. Yes, these things happen.  Not everyone is brave all the time and the military has serious institutional problems dealing with sexual harassment, assault, and pregnancy issues.  But they remain individual problems and crimes, not causes of widespread unit break-downs.  And these things occur because failures in leadership have permitted a conducive environment to develop.  Criminology and common sense tell us that tolerating small abuses inevitably leads to worse.  So it is on city streets.  So it is in the military.

I would add something here.  If there had been such patterns of breakdown, you can be sure that the cultural conservatives would be trumpeting them long and loud.  They haven’t.  Rather often, they claim it’s happening but that no one’s speaking out because of fear of harming their careers or other forms of individual and institutional retribution.  If so, then our military, the officer corps especially, might be deemed bereft of moral courage.  Also, regarding such tales as do surface, usually anonymously and without corroborating details—names, units, places, dates—these stories are worth no more than accusations of war crimes that turn out to be just something somebody heard somewhere, embellished and passed on.    

Now, how does the participation of women in ground combat operations actually work?

First, Military Police is an MOS open to women.  MP units are sometimes used as de facto light infantry and even routine work such as running traffic check points can turn into combat in an instant.  Elsewhere, what is happening is that individual female soldiers and Marines, “Lionesses,” as they have come to be called, are attached to infantry battalions and companies, and armor and artillery serving as infantry.  They are attached to Special Forces “A” teams and Navy SEALs.  Sometimes they are attached as entire Lioness platoons who train with the Marines they support before deployment.  Sometimes these women are needed as soldiers who are women, to search, question and control Iraqi and Afghan women.  More commonly, they are needed simply as soldiers.  They are needed as intelligence specialists and medics, gunners and drivers, refuelers and communicators, and the thousand and one other military jobs that take soldiers and Marines into harm’s way. 

The historical record since 9/11 indicates the following:

We now have a database on the capabilities of volunteer female professionals fighting expeditionary wars such as never existed in human history.  In this regard, the oft-invoked experiences of the Russians in World War II and the Israelis through the 1973 Yom Kippur War are interesting and instructive but less and less relevant.  American women are now winning Army Combat Action Badges and Navy/Marine Combat Action Ribbons, the Silver Star, Purple Hearts, and a host of lesser medals.  They are also killing and being killed, wounding and being wounded.  Moreover, it is not just that women are displaying levels of strength, courage, and aggression that we were once told were impossible, or possible only when fighting desperately for individual and national survival.  It is that US servicewomen are doing it as professionals, with the increasing acceptance and respect of their male peers.  This, we were told, was impossible for men.  Impossible culturally.  Impossible socially.  And most of all, impossible biologically.

In brief, non-acceptance based upon thoughtlessness and prejudice is slowly yielding to acceptance based upon rationality and real-world experience.  It’s not gone.  I doubt it will ever entirely disappear because the criminals and the predators, the bullies and the jerks will always exist and any opportunity to exercise their brutalities and idiocies will do.  But it’s going away.  And not just among a new generation, accustomed to equality and tolerance since birth.  I once witnessed one legendary old stallion of the special operations community publicly rebuke another for his language, along with the many men who tolerated that language.  “Admiral, I love you and I respect you, but the use of locker room language so many of us reflexively use whenever the issue of servicewomen arises is one day going to shame us all very greatly.”

And there’s also something among the older veterans I’ve come to think of as the “Grandfather Factor.”  As in:  “I still don’t like the idea of women in combat, but nobody better ever tell my granddaughter she can’t do something because she’s a girl.”   

However, once again, legality lags behind reality.  The current legal status of servicewomen reflects the old, profoundly unrealistic view of women’s inferiority.  A little history might be useful here.

The assumption of women’s inferiority and endless disruptive potential meant that servicewomen were segregated into separate auxiliaries, such as the Women’s Army Corps, until the draft ended in 1973, when they began to be integrated into the regular services.  The 1970s/1980s reality was that they were too high-quality not to be used in lieu of all the good men who were not volunteering.  After some ugly scandals and bruising political battles in the early 1990s, women were legally allowed to fly in combat aviation so long as it was not in a special operations capacity, and serve on combat ships.  Women are still not allowed to be assigned to ground combat units—infantry, armor, artillery—below brigade level for the Army and regiment for the Marine Corps, units of several thousand people each.  Nor may female troops be legally collocated with such units.  For example, legally, a brigade’s medical or transportation company with female troops is not supposed to live down the street from the all-male combat battalions they support.  Of course, they do.

In reality, the law against assignment is violated all the time by a mechanism called “attachment,” which is a perfectly legitimate means of augmenting a particular unit for a particular mission.  However, when you have individual women or all-female platoons attached for most or all of a deployment to all-male infantry battalions to do infantry work for which they may not be adequately trained because they’re not supposed to be there, “attachment” has been stretched beyond all legitimacy.

On its face, the combat exclusion rule is meant to protect women from the risks of being used in direct combat as combat troops, as if America wages war in an environment where we set the rules and the enemy has no option save to follow them.  Also as if America has been unwilling to target women and children.  Some 600,000 German civilians were killed by the combined British-US strategic bombing campaigns, about 120,000 of whom were children, and nearly 400,000 of whom were women.  The US strategic bombing campaign of 1945 against Japan burnt out 60 percent of the country’s sixty largest cities before the atomic bombs were dropped.  It made a lot of sense to American planners to be killing skilled workers, many of whom, they knew, would be women.  Saying that the Japanese and the Germans brought it upon themselves does not erase this fact or its significance.  The meaning and truth of the combat exclusion rule means only no servicewomen in combat for the purposes of killing the enemy, not for being killed by the enemy.

 And this rhetoric, disconnected from history and reality, is what has passed—and to a significant extent still does—for logic from the “pro-military” cultural Right.  These people are more than happy to uphold military service, including the draft, as a defining marker of citizenship and patriotism, but only for “their kind.”  Their current approach is to acknowledge, briefly and grudgingly, women’s patriotism and competence, then demand that it stop because it’s still illegal.  The unspoken premise:  Women must be withdrawn from combat precisely because they can hack it and the men accept them.  This is not merely ridiculous.  It also steals their valor.

 As for the viscerally anti-military Left, and especially its organized feminist component, for decades these used servicewomen as a stick with which to beat the military.  Organized feminism regarded the military as the last bastion of toxic machismo, to be brought down by any means necessary.  The ordeals of servicewomen, many of whom accepted sexual harassment and assault as part of the price of serving their country in uniform, became feminist weapons against the very institution those women lived in and often loved.  The accomplishments of servicewomen, especially the trail blazers, were flaunted as proof of feminist triumphs, which only added to the resentment of good men who couldn’t or didn’t understand that all the new micro-management of behavior, moronic sensitivity training and the rest, were inflicted upon them by a military bureaucracy more concerned with playing political games than with combat effectiveness, let alone with justice for the troops. 

Missing from the feminist assault was any conception of the military as the honorable profession of arms.   And when servicewomen ceased to be useful as poster girls and as victims, organized feminism dropped them.  You can even date the end of their interest.  It happened on September 11th, 2001—when things got real.

 You won’t find NOW hosting a lot of receptions for women who win combat medals.

That’s the ground truth.  Next, I would like to talk a little about the socio-cultural context of US servicewomen, starting with something that is tangential but also very closely related.

“Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.” 

“Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” is dead.  For political reasons, which is a nice way of saying moral and intellectual cowardice in Washington, DC, administering the coup de grâce will be harder, uglier, more painful and take longer than necessary.  But that coup de grâce will be administered.  The reason is simple.  There is no longer, if indeed there ever was, any rational justification for any ban based on sexual orientation.  Gentlemanly and gentlewomanly conduct go a long way toward making mutual tolerance possible.  Improper sexual behavior should be dealt with according to a simple principle:  One set of rules for all, equally, strictly and fairly enforced.  As for those who don’t like or approve of human beings who are not strictly heterosexual, as the Marine Corps put it so well during the years of racial tension:  “We don’t care what you think.  But we’re sure going to control your behavior.”  And let’s admit it.  Speech is behavior. 

Those who might not enlist or re-enlist because of the open presence of gay men and lesbian women—those who would let the possibility of contact with gay Americans trump their patriotism and determine their career choices—them we can do without.  Especially given the complex and culturally-sensitive nature of the wars we’re fighting.

Now, back to the subject at hand.

Ending “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” directly affects only a small number of service members, disproportionately female, given its use against servicewomen who reject everything from “unwanted”—another polite way of saying rude, even threatening—male advances to rape.  The greater issue is ending the combat exclusion rule and opening all positions and military occupational specialties to women, establishing rational, not the current “dumbed-down” or proposed idiotic “one-size-fits-all” standards of fitness and performance, and treating women both as individuals and military professionals equal to men.  That affects everyone, because the image and the reality of women in combat as volunteer professionals violates some very old and deep cultural images of what it means to be a man or a woman.  It contradicts the ideals of the male body as hard and strong and the female body as weak and yielding, of men as violent aggressors and women as passive victims…or beings simply too pure to do such things, let alone do them well. 

Until very recently in human history, the male role was to fight for your polity and support your family.  Now, this was hardly all it was advertised to be, for either women or men.  But these were roles men and women were expected to at least pretend to nod to, as a kind of civic courtesy.

The male role of sole or even primary wage earner has largely vanished, for it generally takes two to support a family.  In truth, it always did; it was just that the tradition of unpaid female domestic labor obscured that truth.  That leaves us with the male role of the warrior, but that too is fading.  Samuel Johnson famously noted that every man thinks more poorly of himself for not having been a soldier.  Perhaps, though not poorly enough to send millions of young men to the recruiters.  But something deeper may be involved.  The ancient Greeks had a saying, terrible in the literal truth that it expressed.  “For men war, for women the marriage bed.”  Why terrible?  Because discussing, or even acknowledging, the terrible cost to women of the marriage bed remains, even in America today, taboo.

I’m talking here about the massacre, the routine, century-after-century massacre, of women in childbirth.  I say again:  Even here in America, the subject is taboo.  I know.  Every time I’ve discussed it, speaking or blogging or whatever, people either turn away or do their best to not understand what I’m saying.  So let me be clear.  This subject is taboo because when we look at it clearly, we begin to understand what it means for both halves of our species.  It also means that much of the received wisdom and prejudice of millennia past no longer applies, while the future becomes whatever we have the wisdom or the folly to make it.

To put it simply:  The essence of the marriage bed is not just that women are supposed to be “nurturing” wives and mothers.  It is that, until very recently, doing so killed or maimed them while they were young.  We easily acknowledge the horrors of infant and child mortality; we even sentimentalize it.  But the deaths of millions of women…maybe Stalin said it best.  One death is a tragedy, a million, a statistic.  Of course, Stalin was talking about war and political crimes.  We’re talking about what was, until very recently, a universal and normal fact of human life.  In most of the world, including parts of American society, it still is.  When it comes to preventing maternal mortality in the developed world, America is far from Number One. 

To put American maternal mortality into a military context, between 1900 and 1940, approximately 762,000 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, these totaled 637,272.  Since American participation in World War II began in 1941, those losses are not figured into this calculation.  The official numbers may understate the pre-1940 losses.  The Pentagon’s figure for the Revolutionary War may be low by about 21,000 to 22,000, according to other research, and does not include an estimated 26,000 to 31,000 Confederate prisoner-of-war deaths.  Nor does it include Army losses from what are euphemistically known as the Indian Wars.

Still, the basic fact remains.  Maternal deaths from 1900 to 1940 alone far exceed the numbers of those who died in all American wars until 1940.

The conclusion is inescapable.  For most of American history, from the first Virginia landings until well into the twentieth century, childbirth was more dangerous than military service, even in the infantry.  The very few years when military service was more dangerous than childbirth are concentrated in spasms of conventional war that, as always, directly affected only a minority, the combat troops.  Meanwhile women died and were maimed by the hundreds and thousands every day, a routine massacre that everyone accepted as natural and unavoidable…and some decreed divine punishment.

This was the norm did for all of human history, until what was an eye blink ago in evolutionary time.  Only by the 1940s did medical science assemble the package of techniques and tools—antiseptics, anaesthetics, blood transfusions, anti-hemorrhagics, antibiotics, safe Caesareans—that ended the slaughter.  Science and technology proved themselves, once again, not unmixed blessings, and we’re only now starting to recover the wisdom of some of the practices medical science replaced.  But the point is, for the first time, women had reason to believe that they would be around to aspire to more than the marriage bed or the nursery.

Do I exaggerate the decimation?  No.  When researching Women in the Line of Fire, I discovered that, statistically, a modern Afghan woman is more likely to die in childbirth than a US World War II infantryman was to die in combat or of wounds.  Statistical comparisons of this nature may not mean all that much.  But the fact that they can be made, speaks eloquently.

Do I exaggerate the impact of the decimation?  Let me answer a question with a question.  If you were a decent American male of, say 1800 or 1900 or even 1940, how would you feel about women?  How would you handle the fact that your love might kill your wife, or another man’s love kill your sister or daughter?  Did your father’s love for your mother kill her?  Did your mother die having you?

And what did it mean for men to know deep down that their love is the cause of so much death and suffering?

Beyond the emotional, another question inevitably arises.  How much time and money would any sane society, especially a male-dominated society, spend educating such creatures, let alone depend upon them for accomplishment and leadership?  It was both far more bearable and far more practical to ignore their true natures and potential and decree them both precious and expendable, too weak and transient to live as equals but strong and noble enough to suffer and die.

And what rational, let alone decent man or society, even faintly articulating the risks that women faced, would ask them to take on the additional burden of war? 

However, beginning in the 1940s, women in the developed world started to leave behind the realm of biological timelessness and the tragedy of human reproductive biology.  Women were freed, not so much from childbearing as from death in childbearing and all the meanings those deaths had for the civic and human equality of women.  As we were freed from death in childbearing at, as it were—there is no polite way to say this, only a euphemistic one—the hands of men, women began to enter historical and political time.  Inevitably,  we began to question the morality of previous eras.  Sadly, this questioning too often yielded easy, dumbed-down, all-purpose answers such as “Men are the oppressors.”  Sadly also, feminism’s utterly proper struggle for equality of rights and of opportunities too often degenerated into mindless hissy-fitting and the sterile, trivial, offensive, dumbed-down ethos of “Me Me Me.” 

Still, women have entered historical and political time, that is to say, into fully human time and as long as the apparatus of protection from death in childbirth (which includes contraception and abortion) remains, there’s no going back.  It falls therefore to work out a morality appropriate to our situation.  For our entry into fully human time marks the beginning of a profound shift in meanings:  of what it means to be a man or a woman, of the male and female body, of sex itself.  It means, inevitably, a shift in the meaning of the words “citizen” and “woman.”  The citizen, which is to say someone who is responsible for the polity, has until recently never been a woman.  For until this century, the words “women” and “citizen” have been mutually exclusive. 

Women did not own property in their own right.  They did not vote.  They did not do jury service.  In marriage, their bodies were not—and to a significant extent still are not—their own or entitled to full legal protection.  And they did not bear arms in the common defense, whether in the police or the militia that was the precursor of today’s National Guard or the federal forces.  How could someone whose body was not hers, and was not hers because she was likely to die because of sex with a man, the man who would survive her to carry on, be so entrusted?

In this sense, the appearance of women as volunteer professional soldiers engaged in combat operations is emblematic of our transition from chattel with some human and legal rights to citizens, albeit still imperfectly recognized as such. 

For many people, that is a frightening thought.  Not all of them are men.  Some, maybe most, are women.  Far from all of these women consider themselves social conservatives.  Some of the most vituperative attacks I’ve experienced come from women who call themselves feminists.  I’m a radical feminist in the literal meaning of the word radical:  going to the root.  I believe that American feminism, after half a century of necessary concentration on equality of rights and opportunity, must now return to its 19th century and earlier roots (bless you, Abigail Adams) as the quest for full equality of responsibility for this civilization.

Now, why should that offend so many feminists?  One reason is, of course, that it’s easier to criticize than to participate.  Would that someone would offer a new version of Theodore Roosevelt’s famous speech, this time called “The Woman in the Arena.”  But more importantly, so much of modern feminism refuses to accept four simple facts:

First, this civilization is in trouble.  Big trouble.

Second, whatever you think of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan (I opposed Iraq from before the start and oppose the Afghan war now), this trouble has an ineluctable and profound military component.

Third, if the Republic goes down, women go down with it.

And finally, participation in the common defense as a citizen, participation in the Wars of the Ways as a defender of civilization, means putting yourself on the line as a citizen who has both the responsibility and the right to do so.

And that’s the essence of civic feminism:  a feminism that says that women are equal not just for the good things of civilization, but also for the hard things, whether that is defending our lives and liberty, or the lives and liberty of others, whether that is contributing to civilization as a writer or an engineer or a farmer, or defending civilization, including as a soldier.

And that, I believe is the larger meaning of women’s full equality under arms.  It is one answer to the question:  In the age now upon us, the Age of the Wars of the Ways, what shall we do with our freedom?

So…what shall we do with our freedom?

Thank you.


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