Filed under: Iraq — Ray Kimball @ 6:21 am
The second in an occasional series of book reviews on current topics of interest to soldiers and veterans – with a reply from the author!
In the current fight, the issue of women in combat is notable more for the absence of attention than anything else. Given all the uproar and gnashing of teeth over the subject during the past three decades, you would expect there to be a lot more commotion about the fact that an estimated 160,000 women have rotated through combat theaters in the last five years. Women coming home in body bags was supposed to be the straw that broke the camel’s back for the American public – yet I challenge you to name the names of three women who have died in combat since 9/11. The much-predicted catastrophes that were supposed to accompany women’s service in a combat zone have thus far failed to materialize. All the more reason that Erin Solaro’s book, Women in the Line of Fire: What You Should Know about Women in the Military, is so perfectly timed to arrive at this moment in our history. Her research is iconoclastic; her recommendations are provocative; her reasoning and support is airtight. If it gets the attention it deserves, Solaro’s book should be the final push needed to complete what one of her predecessors described as “an unfinished revolution.”
Solaro’s book covers so much ground that it’s hard to know where to start. You will ride along with women in Iraq and Afghanistan as they get attached (and yes, the word choice is important – check the hyperlink) to Army and Marine infantry units doing the dirty work of house-to-house searches in a difficult, dangerous environment. You will share the author’s experiences as she views the relationships between military men and women, and compares and contrasts them to the various societies she passes through – and finds those societies severely lacking by comparison. You will get a compressed overview of the half-measures and missteps that have comprised the military’s attempts to integrate women into the All-Volunteer force over the past thirty-five years. And you will most definitely find yourself provoked and challenges by many of her conclusions and recommendations. Central to all of her work and conclusions is one simple concept: women’s exclusion from military service was based on a historically high rate of maternal mortality that put women at greater risk of death than many front-line infantrymen. Because that level of maternal mortality no longer exists in our society, we no longer have any compelling reasons to bar women from what is both their duty and right: to take their place on the ramparts next to their brothers-in-arms in defending the Republic.
Solaro’s work is meticulously researched, passionately written, and devastatingly logical. The true strength of her work lies in her discussion of present-day roles and responsibilities of women on the battlefield, and how the current crop of regulations governing both battlefield assignments and physical standards are utterly failing them, The author points out just how essential women are in the modern battlefield, filled as it is with civilians and chock-full of uncertainty. The actions of the “Lionesses” and others like them are crucial to the success of COIN operations in sensitive areas, and so it is all the more disgraceful that they have not gotten the attention they deserve. Solaro makes it clear that these women don’t see themselves as particularly special or unique – they simply see themselves as soldiers doing a tough job that someone else would have to do otherwise. Solaro’s work is even more incisive when it comes to the height/weight and physical fitness standards currently expected of women. She makes a brutally accurate comparison in showing how the military weight standards for smaller women are identical to those of jockeys (yes, you read that right – last time I checked, no one was asking jockeys to wear body armor and dodge IEDs). Her call to make the raw height-weight standards identical for men and women is a good, common-sense solution to the problem. Her adjustment of physical fitness standards also makes a great deal of sense – as she puts it, “we should be asking much more of both men and women in areas that they’re good at.” Far from lowering standards, Solaro actually calls for women to run twice as far as men to show an equivalent level of fitness.
The only flaws in this book deal with practicality, as well as a somewhat tortured recent narrative. Solaro calls for a decreased body fat standard for women in conjunction with the increased height/weight standards noted above. While well-intentioned, Solaro’s proposed change could actually end up putting more women on a weight control program, due to a little-known provision in both the former and current versions of the Army weight control regulation that allows commanders to make a “special evaluation [for] determination of body fat” for any soldier who does not meet standards of personal appearance. To make this reform complete, this unnecessary and humiliating provision should be struck out as well. Solaro’s proposal for a measure of upper-body strength similarly runs into practical problems:
“Maxing the push-ups should be normed in favor of women based on the actual difference of the percentage of body weight carried as upper body musculature between the average fit female soldier or Marine and the average fit male of the same height…that difference should then be multiplied by the actual percentage of total body weight supported by the upper body in pull-ups (100%) and push-ups (60%).”
All I could imagine as I read this was running an APFT at 0630 with 100 half-asleep soldiers trying to figure out their targets for their max push-ups. There has to be a simpler means than this. Finally, Solaro’s discussion of the 2005 Hunter/McHugh amendment, in which she castigates the Army for fighting defensively rather than offensively against this-ill considered piece of legislation, ignores one crucial fact: the entire issue was precipitated a few months earlier by an Army brief that advocated the repeal of the combat exclusion policy as “the way forward.” Several officers vocally supported this position until the President made his 12 January 2005 pronouncement that there would be no women in combat – at that point, with no support from either the executive or legislative branch, the Army’s “defensive” posture is somewhat understandable.
Solaro’s book deserves to read widely by both military officers and anyone with an abiding interest in the common defense. Ideally, this book should be placed on the Army Chief of Staff’s reading list, where it can have the maximum impact. Prepare to be challenged, provoked and enraged – but ultimately, prepare to look at this issue with a set of fresh eyes.
Erin Solaro replies:
“Mr. Kimball is right about there being an easier way to calculate how much men and women should do on the APFT that doesn’t involve a bunch of sleepy troops having to do complex equations.
“I should have made it clear that standards for pushups, pullups, etc., should be derived through measurement and testing by the US Army’s Research Institute of Environmental Medicine (USARIEM). Also that ‘fit’ for women means being able to do the ‘male’ minimum in pushups, pullups (for the Marine Corps) for the upper body. And just as they are now, the revised numbers of repetitions and run times would be printed on the PFT card. No guesswork or calculators needed.
“As for weight and body fat, it’s not just the height/weight tables for women are broken. The Army’s body fat algorithms underestimate women’s ability to build muscle mass. After this book was published, I tried to validate those algorithms and found-without giving too much away-they’re as broken as the weight standards. The old (pre-October 2006) algorithms told me I lost 6.1, and the new (post-October 2006) ones, 6.4 pounds of muscle-even though I have actually gained muscle mass, especially in my upper body. Considering that the average male, who is somewhat taller and heavier than I am, has about 61 pounds of skeletal muscle mass, these algorithms underestimate my muscle mass by *at least* 10%.
“For me, this is an academic exercise. For female soldiers, many (most?) of whom are more muscular than I am, the fact that the female standards-on the PFT, for weight, and body fat-are *totally* broken means personal and professional humiliation, as well as eating disorders and unsafe attempts to lose weight that they really need. For example, sweating off 5 pounds in the sauna in order to make sure you not only make weight, but are under it, just before doing a PFT is not a good way to improve performance on the PFT.
“I stand by my belief that the body fat standards for women should be lowered to about 5% more than men in their age group, in combination with leveling women’s weights-as I note in the book, using the old standards, a 17-21 year old female soldier of 61 inches was allowed to weigh a maximum of 120 pounds and carry a maximum of 30% fat, for 36 pounds fat. Allowing this soldier to weigh 136 pounds, like her male peer of the same height and age, while reducing her body fat max to 25%, means she’s allowed 34 pounds fat, but 16 more pounds of bone, muscle, and water. However, reducing women’s allowed body fat percentage requires reworking the body fat algorithms to reflect women’s ability to build and maintain muscle, not only in the upper body, but also in the hips. The wide female pelvis isn’t just for babies, but also for physical power as well.
“Regarding your comment about military appearance, I have come to believe that Army regulations should, at last, take the step that should have been taken in 1978, when the Women’s Army Corps was disbanded. This is to formally note that the male body is not the standard for the female body, and that the military is engaged in actually learning from women what may reasonably be expected in women about weight, strength and stamina, muscle and bone development, and fat deposition. Therefore that whenever a woman performs well on the PFT (240 and up, especially with revised standards), but either her weight or body fat is out of bounds, the standards are inaccurate for her. That the military wants women solid with bone and flexible with muscle, well-fed and well-hydrated, and with a biologically appropriate reserve of fat, especially in the thigh and hip region. And that when the numbers do not reflect the reality of a female soldier’s muscular body and good physical performance, the unit commander *must* accept that the standards are wrong for the soldier and not torture her by putting her on weight control. Finally, that in cases like this, the soldier and her commander should send all relevant data to USARIEM in order to provide feedback on the adequacy of the standards governing women’s bodies.
“I apologize for the tortured prose. I have found it consistently difficult to write gracefully about this subject, and speaking gracefully about it can be even more difficult. As for the length, I think it is fair to say that like you, I believe the Army must stop putting female soldiers in the position of being *forced* to be weak, then disdained for their weakness. So I hope you will accept this less as an argument than as an evolution of my thinking.”