The Kinder, Gentler Military: Can America’s Gender-Neutral Fighting Force Still Win Wars?
by Stephanie Gutmann
Scribner. 283 pp. $25.00
In a recent piece of news analysis, the New York Times undertook to explain to its readers why President Clinton’s “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy toward gays in the military was not working—as compared to what the Times pronounced the “successful” integration of both minorities and women. Thus did the paper casually reinforce a conventional wisdom of the 1990’s: that resistance to women in the military is as groundless, and as wicked, as the racism that barred blacks from serving in generations past.
In a certain sense, this belief may seem quite plausible. Women, who now constitute some 15 percent of military personnel, have participated actively in the Gulf war and subsequent interventions from Haiti and Somalia to Kosovo, and the armed forces have not fallen apart in consequence. While all the branches (except for the marines) have experienced difficulties in recruiting and retention, many of the truly cancerous problems of morale with which they were plagued at the end of the Vietnam period have been eliminated. A number of studies, including a 1997 survey by Rand and others done in connection with the U.S. Senate’s Kassebaum commission, have suggested that sexual integration has had no deleterious effects on either operations or fighting spirit.
Stephanie Gutmann’s new book, The Kinder, Gentler Military, debunks this received wisdom through first-rate reporting on the reality of the contemporary military. There is, as it turns out, a simple reason why academic studies and official commissions cannot get at the truth in this area: in the wake of the 1991 Tail-hook scandal, which ended the careers of many navy officers who were found to have been insufficiently vigilant in rooting out sexual harassment, the military has become one of the most politically correct of all American institutions. In conducting the research for this book, Gutmann, a freelance journalist, was herself dogged by a variety of public-affairs officers determined to prevent a word of criticism from passing the lips of active-duty servicemen or servicewomen. To move beyond this “all-is-well-with-the-grain-harvest” sloganeering, she resorted to interviewing active-duty personnel off the record, talked to retired military men and women with no careers at stake, and visited scores of Internet bulletin boards. The result is a troubling indictment of what we have let happen to our armed forces in the name of sexual equality.
There are, according to Gutmann, at least three major problems with integrating women into the armed forces, and together they render this enterprise very different from integrating black men. The first has to do with physical ability: the bell curve describing the normal distribution of attributes like endurance and upper-body strength in women overlaps but is far from identical to that for men. Although soldiering, like everything else, has entered the information age, physical strength remains far more important than in most civilian workplaces. Many female recruits simply cannot lift the tent pole of a standard-issue army tent, and men end up having to cover for their failures.
The second problem concerns unit cohesion. Mention the term “male bonding” to a group of educated women and they will smirk derisively, but any soldier knows that unit cohesion is built around precisely the kind of mutual trust and support this concept entails. Of course, there is such a thing as female bonding, too. The problem arises from the ineluctable fact that healthy male and female twenty-year-olds have a strong natural sexual attraction to each other; the resulting interplay and competition in mixed-sex units are deadly to group cohesion. Gutmann quotes an officer who commanded one such unit during the Gulf war:
I was absolutely astounded at all the little cliques that were formed, i.e., these two girls liked these two guys and they hung around together, but didn’t like these other people . . . it was like a damn high school! I remember pulling up to a perimeter—not ours—at night, and there were three soldiers “guarding” the perimeter. They did not even notice me until I walked up to them, because the two guys both had their attentions fixed on a cute little female private.
The problem of unit cohesion can be solved, but only by sexual re-segregation. This is what the marines have insisted on, and what the Kassebaum commission recommended (though only for training purposes). But sexual segregation does not sit well with those promoting complete gender equality in the armed forces, since female units will of necessity be smaller and, in all likelihood, more peripheral than their male counterparts to the military’s central missions.
The third problem arises from the overall softening of discipline and training that has been coincident with the introduction of women into the military. Today, obstacle courses are labeled “confidence courses,” and drill instructors are warned not to humiliate their recruits or otherwise damage their self-esteem. While women are not necessarily responsible for bringing about this change, which reflects the pervasively therapeutic ethos of contemporary America, their presence has greatly accelerated the trend. Since, for example, pregnancy and childbirth are now treated in law as temporary disabilities that can no more be permitted to derail a woman’s career than a broken leg, the army is required to maintain family- and child-friendly policies, and commanders are charged with ensuring that their troops have adequate child-care plans during deployments. It is, obviously, very difficult to promote or sustain a warrior culture in a fighting force that has to accommodate the interests of nursing mothers.
To be sure, there are those who contend that all these problems can be overcome, and who point to the Gulf war as proof that women can serve beside men in combat conditions. But the 1991 conflict was not a fair test: while the fighting was real enough, women were not yet serving in serious combat roles, and the media exaggerated their performance out of a desire for positive stories about “GI Jane.” Until we fight a war that looks more like Vietnam or Korea, there is no way of knowing empirically what effects the shift to an “ungendered” military will have on combat effectiveness.
But the short-term consequences, Gutmann argues persuasively, are bad enough, including in the area of recruitment. The military was one of the few American institutions in which, to put it bluntly, it was still legitimate to talk about ripping the lungs out of another human being. Absent the male-bonding rituals and warrior culture that seem so absurd to outsiders, the armed forces have become just another workplace, with worse hours and lower pay than the civilian competition.
To Gutmann, this change in military culture is what accounts for the dismal rates of recruiting and retention in the 1990’s: men are just no longer interested. The exception that proves the rule is the marines, who have bowed the least to political correctness—and who have been the most successful at meeting their manpower goals.
This is an intriguing hypothesis, if also difficult to prove. There are, after all, many deterrents to joining the military today, beginning with the enticements of a vibrant civilian economy and extending to the fact that the various peacekeeping operations in which America is now engaged entail unusually long overseas deployments, away from family and friends. On many bases, moreover, housing is not much better than it was in the 1950’s. In addition, the military has been downsizing, which limits the chances of a long career. Finally, even without women, we would still be moving toward a more “compassionate” military, and therefore one less appealing to men.
At the end of her book, Gutmann raises a larger question: whether women really want to serve in combat in the first place. While there are female triathletes and skyjumpers, far fewer women than men show interest in such risky, competitive activities. And now that many combat specialties are in fact open to women, the services are finding that such slots cannot attract volunteers. As a female officer of my acquaintance has explained, most enlisted women would simply prefer not to have to lug around 80-pound packs, or undergo basic training alongside men.
What all this suggests is that the project of sexual integration in the military has been driven neither by any deep consideration of the country’s war-fighting needs nor by any true regard for the interests of the women in whose name it has been undertaken. Its major proponents, rather, are female officers afraid their promotions will be blocked if they cannot show they have commanded units and members of Congress and the media who see the military as an important symbol in the gender wars. It is a bizarre testimony to the wealth, power, and security of the United States at the turn of the millennium that we have allowed the interests of so tiny a segment of the population to dictate such a reckless, wholesale experimentation with one of the country’s largest and most critical institutions.