What made you decide to write about women in the military?
The military is 15% women and there is no draft. I knew that that meant the ground combat restrictions on women would fall in reality, if not in policy. And the tone of the previous debate had really harmed servicewomen, the military, and the nation.
Why did you leave what sounds like a fairly comfortable job in DC to go to Iraq to do it?
I knew I had to go to war to write about how men and women were serving in war together. And I’ll point out that Elaine Donnelly, whom everyone quotes on maintaining the combat exclusion, has gone to neither Iraq nor Afghanistan.
What are women doing, and allowed to do, in combat?
Women are legally barred from being assigned to direct ground combat units (armor, artillery, infantry and special operations) below brigade level, as well as colocating with them when they are engaged in combat operations. They are barred from all armor and infantry specialties (jobs) and most artillery specialties. In reality, women are attached to (not assigned) to small infantry and special operations units for missions that can last several weeks as combatants and as technical specialists, such as medics or maintenance personnel, and units with women live right beside all-male combat units. Then, of course, there are the female medics, MPs, drivers, and all the rest who, alongside their brothers, face any combat the enemy inflicts upon them.
You say the combat restrictions on women should be dropped. But how many women really want to serve in combat?
Like the men, a minority of women want to serve in combat or a combat arm, although my experience is that women are more comfortable doing it than saying they want to do it. There is still a cultural disconnect between being a woman and a soldier, much less a combat soldier, that can make it very hard for women to own up to the fact that they are good combat soldiers. Until very recently, a servicewoman who wanted to participate in the core of her profession, which is combat, was told not only that she couldn’t, but that she was wrong to want to do so, even when men of equivalent or lesser quality were told they should be combat troops. The bottom line is that these women are professional soldiers, and they understand combat is something professional soldiers do, whether they like it or not.
How do the men feel about this?
Thre’s a generational difference because younger men have generally grown up with women as equals and friends, while the older men usually haven’t; male combat soldiers tend to be more positive about this than male non-combat soldiers. Combat soldiers have largely chosen to run the risks of combat. Men who have chosen not to be combat soldiers, or who have been told they’re not good enough to be combat soldiers, have to face the fact that there are women willing to run those risks, and who are probably better soldiers by any standard. The combat soldiers tend to have rational concerns about practical matters, and if there’s not a problem, they don’t have a problem; the non-combat soldiers tend to worry about losing unearned professional and social superiority over female soldiers.
Why should the ground combat exclusion law be ended?
The law hurts servicewomen because it makes them second-class professionals: unlike the men, they cannot pick their risks and challenges for themselves, while it allows the services to pretend that they will not expect these women to engage in any combat that comes the way of non-combat soldiers of both sexes. It hurts servicemen because it means that many women do not take seriously the threat and reality of combat the way many men do. And it hurts the Army and the Marine Corps because it prevents both services from fully utilizing all their personnel (there are about 11,000 women in the Marine Corps, and 72,000 women in the Army). Hypocrisy on this scale about a matter of this importance is profoundly corrosive.
I’m getting the impression that the combat exclusion was never really…real.
It was real in that it made servicewomen second-class, endlessly vulnerable to everything from condescencion and disrespect to the harassment and abuse, including rape and murder, that flourish wherever some people are more equal than others. It was also real in that women were often excluded from serious training for ground combat. Servicewomen were always expected to be killed and maimed in any combat that was brought to them by enemy soldiers, as defense planners knew would happen in Cold War Europe. But the regulations had loopholes in them and those regulations were waivered and loopholes exploited whenever women were actually needed to participate in combat.
So the combat exclusion only…harmed servicewomen?
Correct. And when they became more than just a few menials, it also hurt the military institution because it hurt the people in it. We now know enough about American servicewomen’s performance in combat to say that the combat exclusion rule was entirely harmful, both to servicewomen and the larger military.
And this is true even though women are not as strong as men?
Yes. The real issue is that women are required to be lighter than men of the same height, and discouraged from serious strength training. This is starting to change, thanks to the fitness and exercise revolution, but the military has never integrated the lessons from women’s athletics into their weight and physical fitness regulations. And the military has never even judged slender men of any height, no matter how short they are, by the fact that they are weaker than most other men and quite a few women, only by what they can do.
I’m starting to understand why ending the combat exclusion might be a good thing for servicewomen, but won’t this mean that women can be drafted?
Women can be drafted now. There was serious talk about drafting women nurses during World War II, when American women were far less than equal to men, and nurses ran real risks. There was also talk of drafting single women for non-combat service, rather than married men and fathers for combat service, and forcing the single guys out of non-combat slots into combat slots. A lot of the guys hated servicewomen for “freeing a man to fight” and slandered them quite viciously to keep other women out. They knew the more women, the higher their odds of seeing combat and becoming a casualty.
I didn’t know that, and it sheds a different light on the issue. But what about that Marine, General Barrow, who said that there was something terrible about old men sending young women to die?
No one ever followed up by asking Commandant Barrow if old men sending young men to die was any less terrible. If they had, we might have had to have a serious national conversation about this whole issue back in the 1980s, instead of two decades of screaming. His words have come up twice in conversations I’ve had with older men on this subject, and I did ask that question. The first time, I truly thought the man, an older, very experienced defense professional, would start crying; the second time, the man, who was losing soldiers in Iraq, did cry. I don’t feel the need to ask the question a third time.
Wow. I’m thinking about that and struggling with my emotions now. So why does it seem worse for a woman to be killed in war than a man?
Just between 1900 and 1940, when an American woman’s lifetime risk of dying in childbirth dipped below 1%, approximately 762,000 American women died in childbirth, and that figure doesn’t include deaths due to delayed complications; in comparison, about 637,000 Americans, mostly men, died of all causes in all major American wars through World War I. Women’s reproductive deaths, which are usually slow and horribly painful, were the foundation of male-female relationships throughout the world and for all of human history until within living memory, and then only in the developed world. Women’s reproductive vulnerability caused both a profound devaluation of women’s human, let alone civic worth, as well as the powerfully moral belief that it was wrong for women to have to risk death in war as well as death in childbed.
Your theory makes a lot of sense. Did these older men you talked to understand the implications of maternal mortality?
They lived it. I learned to be very, very careful when I mentioned this issue to them. I’ve heard older men gasp, then fall completely silent after I say “maternal mortality.” I’ve seen other men look like I’ve beaten them, or should. And I have had men literally turn tail and bolt when I said those words. I always wonder how many women they knew, who didn’t make it. For soldiers and Marines of a certain generation, the risk of combat was a blood debt they owed to their mothers, their wives, and their sons owed to their sisters and the daughters of their freinds.
We don’t talk about that.
Of course not. It’s ugly. What could be uglier than even the most loving and responsible husband killing his wife by giving her a child that she wanted?
When nothing you can do can save her…is this why we also think men are natural killers and women aren’t?
I think so.
What do you say to a woman who asks, Can’t we just draft men and let them fight for us?
Can’t we just let men vote for us and control our bodies and paychecks, too? Equality of rights means equality of responsibilities, and civilization does not exist for our use. We have to preserve it, maintain it, add to it, and defend it, or it won’t be there to shelter us. And as women, we have a huge stake in preserving civilization. While childbearing should be entered into out of love for our mates and the children they give us, not as a means of contributing to the common defense.
And if a woman asks again, What about the draft?
I would say, we decide the draft on its merits for any given war, and unless we are facing a war of national survival, I am opposed to a draft. Participation in the common defense is the right and responsibility of every citizen, in fact inheres in the status of citizen itself. But just as that right doesn’t mean I can say, I want to be a fighter pilot, where’s my aircraft?, it also doesn’t mean that the responsibility is a blank check for the federal government to write on the body of the Republic’s sons and daughters.
And the government…including the Pentagon…works for us…We, the People?
Exactly. But for that, you gotta talk to my partner, Philip Gold , who has written a book, The Coming Draft: The Crisis in Our Military and Why Selective Service Is Wrong for America.