Hope and Politics

Support our (women) soldiers

The only civilization the United States should cherish is nothing less than that which men and women create together, intellectually and physically, and together defend, as equals in public and private.

By Nancy Jane Moore

So ends Erin Solaro’s landmark book Women in the Line of Fire: What You Should Know About Women in the Military, published in 2006 by Seal Press.

Solaro, who has served in the Army Reserves and spent time with U.S. troops in Iraq and Afghanistan, doesn’t just make a feminist case that women have the right to serve in the military in all capacities, including combat; she also points out that women have become an indispensable part of the armed forces and that the restrictions on combat duty, far from keeping them safer, are putting them at greater risk.

She begins with a concept that first struck me back during the Vietnam War, when the men I knew had to deal with the draft and whether to fight, while women could only look at the subject intellectually: that “equal participation in the common defense” is the “last great barrier to women’s full equality of citizenship.”

Back in the 1970s, I had a serious argument on women in combat with a friend of mine who was a Vietnam veteran. I made the point that I didn’t think women would gain equal rights until we had equal responsibilities to defend the country, and was shocked when he responded — passionately — that women didn’t belong in combat. Ten years later, we revisited the conversation, and he told me that part of his emotional reaction to the idea of women in combat had to do with one simple feeling: If he hadn’t been protecting others — and particularly women — by his service, it was meaningless.

He had given the subject enough thought by then to recognize his emotional reaction as something that had nothing to do with policy decisions on whether women should be in combat. And by that point, I could understand why someone might feel that way — especially someone who served in a war fought for bad reasons like Vietnam. But as someone who has a visceral reaction to the idea that others should take care of me — I hate the very idea — I have always been aware of feeling like a second-class citizen because I wasn’t permitted a role in the country’s defense.

Solaro provides compelling data showing that women are capable of handling combat jobs — and, indeed, are doing them in various makeshift ways — but she goes much farther than providing proof that women can do the job. She faults the armed forces for not doing what they should have done to make sure that women were completely integrated into the military. Citing examples like the notorious Tailhook scandal of the early 1990s, she points out that the military did not take sexual harassment seriously.

In fact, in discussing the various discipline problems raised by those who object to women serving on an equal basis with men, Solaro demonstrates over and over that the bad actors — the harassers, the troublemakers, the manipulators male and female — are a small percentage of our soldiers. No-nonsense enforcement of rules against harassment and other misbehavior would solve most of the problem — and come as a relief to the vast majority who don’t approve of it.

In this and many other ways, Solaro says, the military failed the women it recruited into the service. By limiting their training and their job opportunities, they kept women from gaining their full potential as soldiers and put them at risk in the field, especially in modern combat where the lines of engagement are not so clearly defined.

One example she discusses in depth really resonated with me: The maximum weight for women soldiers is less than that for men soldiers of the same height. For example, in the case of young soldiers who are 5 foot 9 inches tall, men can weigh up to 175 pounds, while women can only reach 154. Even for those over 40, the maximums are 186 for men and 168 for women. As Solaro points out, given that muscle weighs more than fat, women are put at a severe disadvantage for reaching their maximum strength by these artificial limits, which are based on an assumption that all women should weigh less than men, and do not take into account such obvious differences as body type and bone structure.

A recent article in The New York Times about large women basketball players that focused on Courtney Paris, a basketball player at the University of Oklahoma, brought this issue home. According to the website USA Basketball, Paris, who plays center, is 6’3″ and weighs 250 pounds. She also holds a record for most rebounds in a season and was named All-American as a freshman. According to the charts Solaro lists in her book, Paris — who is obviously fit on a demanding physical scale — could only weigh 183 pounds if she were in the military.

Now it’s probably true that the optimum size for a basketball player is larger than for a soldier, but Paris is just an obvious example of the fact that women come in a large variety of shapes and sizes, and many of those sizes are healthy and physically fit.

Solaro also brings up a point that I had never considered, but that I find very perceptive: Up until the 20th Century, the risk of dying in childbirth in the U.S. was incredibly high, and only in the second half of that century did it drop to the low rate we expect today. In earlier times, when childbirth was riskier and the need for most women to reproduce was much more important, it made much more sense to protect women from combat for the survival of the clan — or even the species. However, this is not a factor in the U.S. today.

Solaro also has some harsh words for some of the feminist movement, which she says used women soldiers to fight other kinds of political battles without really respecting or understanding their desire to serve in combat. Certainly there are some feminists who would like to think that women aren’t “violent” and that this is a virtue. I tend to lump those people in with the victim feminists, who have been willing ally themselves with the religious right in a move to outlaw pornography — at the expense of the First Amendment — because they don’t believe women can protect themselves from men.

Despite Solaro’s scathing critique of the barriers facing women in the military, she is, essentially, optimistic. Discrimination against women soldiers is ending not simply because it’s the right thing to do, but because women have become a necessary part of the military and are fighting well. Dealing with the problems she details in this book will free women soldiers from putting up with unnecessary nonsense, and allow them to become the kind of fine troops we need.

And full acceptance of women in all aspects of the military — including fighting on the front lines and making the combat decisions at the highest levels — will knock down the last barriers blocking women from full participation in our society.

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