Women in the Line of Fire: What You Should Know About Women in the Military. By Erin Solaro. Emeryville, Calif.: Seal Press, 2006. 409 pages. $15.95 (paper). Reviewed by Richard Halloran, onetime lieutenant of airborne infantry and a former military correspondent for The New York Times.
When the volunteer force was struggling to stand up 30 years ago, it was confronted with three fundamental questions of personnel. Until then, the military services had been mostly white in their leadership, single in the young officer and enlisted ranks, and predominantly male. Now the services enlisted and retained a large number of black and other minority Americans, had to contend with young married officers and enlisted people, and brought in many young women. In sum, it might have been called the BMW revolution.
Over the years, the armed forces have done perhaps the best job in America of integrating minorities into the mainstream of institutional life. In the mid-1980s, two master sergeants, one black, the other white, sat side by side in an office at Fort Sill, Oklahoma, home of the field artillery. Asked about racial issues, one master sergeant (I don’t remember which one) said: “Man, we solved that problem a long time ago.” The other nodded in vigorous assent.
Similarly, the services have added institutional programs to informal support systems that have long been operative to look after young families while members are deployed. Commanders know that individuals will not be effective on patrol in Iraq if they are worried about the family back home. Most commanders have bought into the adage that soldiers are enlisted but families are re-enlisted.
Women, too, have made great progress in the military services since they arrived in large numbers in the 1970s and 1980s. But to Erin Solaro, an avowed feminist, military historian, and journalist embedded with combat units in Iraq and Afghanistan, that progress will not be complete until all restrictions on women serving in combat have been removed. “I believe we are at the end point of American women’s struggle for citizenship, a struggle that predates the Civil War and that is, in fact, almost as old as the Republic,” Solaro writes. “I think we are on the threshold of the only civilization that a free people should cherish: one that men and women create and defend together, as public and private equals.”
She asserts that “final changes” must be achieved so that the participation of women in all phases of military service is “de jure as well as de facto.” The author writes that her experience in Iraq and Afghanistan “convinced me that women are now firmly part of the American military, in all its aspects, and that it’s time to drop all remaining combat exclusion policies and procedures as a matter of military necessity and of equality of obligation in citizenship.” About that particular war, Solaro declares: “From the outset I believed, and still believe, that we are fighting a war with militant Islamic fundamentalism, and that the outcome of such a war is important not just to American men, but also to American women. Therefore, logically, women should be part of the military, even if the opening campaign in Iraq has proven ill-advised and poorly executed.”
The question of women in combat revolves around at least a half-dozen issues:
• Men discriminating against women. Solaro spends more ink on this issue than any other. “A person who is categorically excluded from combat, whether a male ‘nondeployable’ or a woman, is a second class member of the most hierarchical organization in the United States,” she contends as she gathers arguments reaching back to the American Revolution to prove her point.
• Physical ability. Solaro seeks to demolish this argument by contending that the difference between men and women “is predicated upon and aggravated by the military’s antiquated cultural assumptions about appropriate weights and body-fat levels for physically active women.”
• Mental capacity. This contention for the most part has gone away as women have proven that they are capable of doing many military jobs. A chief master sergeant at Langley Air Force Base said that, given a choice between a man and a woman who seemed equally qualified to work on “black boxes,” he would choose the woman because she was more deft and patient for painstaking tasks.
• Sexual tensions hindering unit cohesion. This is perhaps the most vehemently argued position of men who oppose assigning women to combat units. Solaro derides their arguments as looking “to the past instead of to a future defined by a civilian society ever more open to women’s potential and advancement.”
• Chivalry. Solaro acknowledges this trait as “a binding moral obligation upon men to protect women” but contends that “it too often devalued women into weak and transient creatures.” A chief petty officer aboard a destroyer in San Diego said he would not hesitate to slam down a hatch on men below to save his ship. “But if I knew there were women down there, I don’t think I could do it.”
• Primeval instinct. Solaro recognizes that “there is a deeply rooted, very powerful belief that women are not supposed to be risked in war because most women either have or will have children.” But she brushes that belief aside as the prattling of old men, statistics showing that “childbirth was more dangerous than military service, even in the infantry.”
In the end, Solaro’s book is a valuable contribution to the running debate over women as warriors. She is fairly convincing in arguments about discrimination, physical ability, and mental capacity. She is less persuasive in her contentions on sexual tensions, chivalry, and the primeval instincts about the role of women in the preservation of the human race.