Seattle Times

“Women in the Line of Fire”: Common-sense look at women in arms

By Steve Weinberg, The Seattle Times, Friday, September 15, 2006

“Women in the Line of Fire: What You Should Know About Women in the Military”
by Erin Solaro
Seal, 411 pp., $15.95

Erin Solaro, a Mercer Island writer, wanted to fight in a war for the U.S. military. So she joined the Reserve Officers Training Corps, usually known better by its acronym ROTC, while a student. She became an Army officer, convinced that in whatever war came next, “servicewomen would serve in direct ground combat.”

Then her plans went awry. In 1987, she married an active-duty Marine captain, entered the Army Reserves, and found herself far from combat. “The cold war was ending; the demand for second lieutenants was waning. After some desultory reserve duty, commissioning, and six months of training as an ordnance officer, I abandoned my Army career to become a full-time military wife.”

A decade later, her marriage disintegrating, Solaro decided to fulfill her interest in military service while also studying the role of women in the armed services. She earned a master’s degree in military history, then tried to share with military decision-makers what she had learned.
Solaro’s research, she believed, cast serious doubt on the conventional wisdom that emotional bonding in a military unit connected directly to combat effectiveness. The importance of that finding: For much of its history, military leaders had excluded African Americans, women and homosexuals from combat units on the grounds that such outsiders would disrupt cohesion.

Not necessarily so, Solaro concluded: “The cohesion produced by social homogeneity was no match for the cohesion produced by hard training and shared perils. I also revalidated another common-sense notion — that cohesion is not the same as combat effectiveness, and indeed can undercut it. Supposedly ‘cohesive’ units can also kill their officers, mutiny, evade combat and surrender as groups.”

Solaro found resistance to her research findings. So she decided to spread the word by writing a book, and by traveling to combat zones as a journalist to observe the relatively limited but growing number of military women on the front lines. As a freelance writer with accreditation from the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, Solaro visited Iraq and Afghanistan during 2004.

As a result, “Women in the Line of Fire” is an unusual mélange of a book: part explication of scholarly research; part daily journalism based on the Iraq and Afghanistan experiences; part feminist tract; part love letter to her significant other, Philip Gold, a former Marine who is also a Mercer Island author.

It is unlikely that readers will learn as much about women in the military from any other easily accessible source. Chapter-by-chapter, the findings seem fresh and the work is fascinating. However, the book’s overall organization is hectic at best, and its repetition of both theory and facts tiresome. Solaro needed a far more demanding editor.

So, my suggestion: Read the book a chapter at a time, putting it aside for a day or more between chapters. The intellectual rewards will be significant.

Solaro, for example, is quite the teacher when it comes to separating myth from reality. Although women now engage in combat, the military plays semantic games, she says, to cover up that fact. Officially, no woman is actually “assigned” to a ground combat unit. Instead, military jargon states the women are “attached” to a particular unit.

“These distinctions,” she writes, “which used to mean a great deal, are in the process of becoming meaningless. Importantly, they have never meant anything to the enemy. They’re simply part of a political game and a legalistic facade that is no more than a divisive social distinction between female and male soldiers and Marines.”

Steve Weinberg is a director of the National Book Critics Circle.

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