Saturday, June 07, 2008

Romanticized Notions of Warfare and the Military

Recently I got involved elsewhere in what I will loosely call a discussion about the military, specifically about women who serve in the military. Having done so myself some years back, I have an interest and some knowledge about this subject.

The interchange was based on a couple of points raised in reaction to the Baylys' Memorial Day slam against women in the military (see the entry below this one).

I ended up dealing with some highly inaccurate, romanticized notions of what warfare and military service entail. There is, for one thing, the idea that there are or can be secure, segregated sleeping facilities for men and women. While that is a given in permanent and secure deployment situations, it cannot happen when the mission involves extended movement or when the unit is taking hostile fire. As I tried to explain, sleep happens when and where it can, fully-clothed, and if anything, illicit or felonious interaction between male and female is less likely than in those supposedly secure, segregated quarters. In other words, the mission overrides the need for sleep, or at least seriously intrudes upon it. You catch a few hours here and there in the vehicle, your improvised cover (be it standing or dug-in), or wherever/however, in uniform, your weapon at the ready, instantly alert. Sex is NOT on your mind, whether you're male or female, or if it is, it's one of those fleeting thoughts that does not get acted upon.

But no. There must be secure, segregated sleeping quarters in ALL circumstances, with the added "precaution" of removing any women from combat, where incidents of sexual assaults are an increased risk. Right. Remove the women, that will solve the problem. More of that romanticized idea that sexual assualt is primarily about sex. More resignation to the idea that it's normal behavior for men to assault women (sexually or otherwise), so remove the threat by removing the potential victims. Oh, but no! Just remove the women in addition to clamping down on the men who commit the crimes, because "many" of them do.

I was chastised for daring to say that I believe such an opinion does a disservice to men and women in uniform. Well, I still fervently believe that it does. We continue to cast military personnel in the guise of the last way we saw them prior to their enlistment: as hormone-plagued teenagers who will "hook up" if we give them the slightest opportunity. We discount the idea that they can and do mature (very quickly!) past that spoiled, immature teenage state into disciplined adults who are not "distracted" by the presence of the opposite sex. We either want to say that the right to defend their country should be denied to women altogether, or we somehow want to create artificially "safe" situations in which women will never be threatened by sexual assault or by war wounds or, God forbid, death in combat. It's based on a myth that is absolutely unfair to the good, law-abiding personnel who serve in our armed forces.

That's where another romanticized misconception is revealed. "Combat zones" are essentially the entire theater of conflict in modern warfare. There are no longer "front lines" and secure "rear areas." And as plenty of National Guard and Reserve personnel have discovered, if you enlist, you are subject to active duty service in an area of conflict. Probably several tours' worth of service. If you volunteer to serve, you volunteer to put your life on the line. Thankfully, most who do volunteer know this, even if the civilians back home refuse to recognize it.

The fear-driven "what-ifs" came up in this "discussion." What about if we fight a "real" war (apparently Iraq and Afghanistan aren't real enough), because if we do, the enemy will set up brothels of POW women if we don't wake up and stop allowing women to serve in the military, or we don't at least keep them in "safe" places. By all means, we must radically change military policy in order to plan against the most improbable and horrific fantasy that a civilian can conjure up! All I can say about such a ludicrous idea is that it's a good thing some civilians don't have a say in policy-making. It's obvious the man who put up this "proof" that women don't belong in the military, has never been trained in the military. Personally, I hope someday he (and people who think like he thinks) is in a position for a military woman to protect him. Because he's the civilian, for all his grandiose talk about the inadequacies of women to serve in the military.

Along those same lines, he brought up the "unfairness" of the different score requirements for men and women for military physical fitness evaluations. He apparently thinks that it is a military necessity to be able to do 70 push-ups. (Hint, fella: not all military men can do 70 in two minutes.) That's a critical military task, right? He appears to be unaware that it's called "physical fitness" for a good reason: the physical fitness tests measure an individual's PHYSICAL FITNESS. I'm well aware, despite his false charge, that men and women are built differently. One of those differences is in where the strongest bones and muscles in the body are located. It doesn't take a genius to recognize (and most human beings seem to appreciate) that a man's greatest bone and muscle mass is in his chest and arms, while a woman's is located in her pelvis and thighs. Men are built so as to make it EASY to do push-ups. A woman who can do, say, 50 push-ups in two minutes is actually far more fit in terms of her upper body, than a man who can do only 50. The requirements for sit-ups, the PT critic failed to mention, are roughly equal for men and women. Is he going to cry "unfair" about that, too? Of course not. And given a woman's slightly smaller lung capacity and shorter stride, the time requirements for a two-mile run are slightly faster for men than for women. The point, of course, is that the military has for years now tested and refined its test parameters in order to ensure that an easy-to-administer, low-equipment physical fitness test actually does, accurately, test a military member's physical fitness. Having been in a test unit for the first establishment of the three-event test for Army women (it used to be a silly seven-event test reminiscent of junior high gym class), I do know a little of the history and the rationale behind the three-event test as it is administered to military women. And believe me, a woman who "maxes" her PT test is an extremely fit individual, just as is a man who "maxes" his. And there's little mercy if you don't make the minimum on a PT test. Bottom line: If you want an army of push-up doers, you will require men and women to do the same number of push-ups. If, however, you want a physically fit army, the current PT standards are an excellent measure of that fitness.

Other silly things got said, but I'm tired of this. I couldn't qualify for military service anymore even if they did want me (and to date, I've received no recall letters). I happen to honor the men and women who set aside their dreams in order to serve their country in uniform. I respect them immensely for going where they're sent, doing what they're superbly trained to do: protect freedom and engage the enemies of freedom. I don't care if a military member is male or female, as long as he or she has been trained well and obeys the law. And if ANY servicemember breaks the law, I expect (as should any loyal American) that he or she be prosecuted. There is no place in the American military for the "boys will be boys" blind eye expectation that sexual (or any kind of) assault against fellow members or civilians is regrettable but inevitable. We DO do our forces a disservice to state that it's better to remove women from combat zones because the men are just too likely to commit crimes against them. Military service is not safe. Criminals are criminals. War is war. And misogyny is misogyny, and has no place in the armed forces or anywhere else in civilized society.

Final statement: I believe in the ideal of peace in this world. Most military personnel pray fervently for peace, because they know they will pay the price when we fall short of that ideal. And because we, as a society, have made it our policy to fall short of that ideal, we need the best and most capable personnel we can get to volunteer for our armed forces. We don't need the rhetoricians hearkening back to a time that never really was, telling us our woes would be lessened if we just prohibited women from serving in the military. (They don't know how perilously close the U.S. came during Korea and Viet Nam, for instance, to DRAFTING nurses. No women, except when we couldn't get the job done without them, I suppose.)

But that's the thing about America, and one of the things that our military protects for us: the right to expression of our opinions without fear of governmental retaliation. While the Patriot Act does threaten that right, still by and large, we have it, and do we ever exercise it! And my opinion is, whatever we bloggers say or how odiously we say it, we need policy-makers who rely more on logic and law than on emotions and religious proof-texting to regulate our military. Women ARE doing the job, and doing it well. And if they're uniquely threatened by unlawful behavior, then eliminate the unlawful behavior, not the women. We can't afford to lose good military personnel, especially not to the "friendly fire" of criminal assault.


believer333 said...

thank you for writing this. I learned something.

Kristen said...

Well said. Thanks for telling it like it is.

Singing Owl said...

That was so well written! I'm sharing it.

Psalmist said...

Thank you, friends, for commenting. I'm glad it made some sense. I'm not asking everyone to agree with me on every point about women serving their country in the military, but I do bristle when those who don't, base their objections to women serving on lies, rumors, myths, and generations-outdated information.

Michelle said...

Thank you for writing this. I, too, served in the military, and find myself struggling with what to think now that I have a daughter (after 3 sons!)... Honestly, the thought of her going in never truly bothered me, but the in the circles that I am in, it is shunned. It sort of makes me wonder what they think of me sometimes!

Auntie Knickers said...

Thanks for writing this -- from another woman veteran (albeit I'm so old, it was still the Women's Army Corps and I think we maybe had even more than 7 events in our PT test. Or maybe it just seemed that way to me.) You make so many good points.

Psalmist said...

Hail and well-met, Auntie K! I missed the WAC by only a few months, and was still issued WAC brass in Basic. Fort McClellan was still the only post for women's Basic at the time, too, and I was routinely referred to as a WAC for the first couple of years I was in. (Even lived in the "WAC Shack" at my first permanent post.)

I hear you on the seven events. That shuttle run didn't test fitness, it ruined knees. And a flexed-arm hang? Uh...what did that prove??? But I will say this: the dress uniforms were tailored to actually fit real women. It was a real step down when they were phased out in the early 80's. And my original issue boots were absolutely the best-fitting footwear I've ever owned. Again, designed for women.

I'm curious: Did you have to learn to make your "unmentionables" (undies) "smile" for inspections? It all seems so ridiculous now...but it was a serious matter to roll them just so and then set them in the foot locker so the inward fold made a "smile."

Strange the things one remembers. I don't have too many contemporaries to compare notes with. So many things have definitely changed since 1977.

Thanks for commenting!

Psalmist said...

Hi, Michelle. So glad you stopped by.

Yes, it's a definite problem the judgment that goes on in some circles. The church (parts of it, anyway) seems much worse about that than the rest of society. The disrespect that some Christians feel free to show women who don't conform to their narrow little parameters of "biblical womanhood" really does make me angry sometimes.

I'm happy to say that on the several occasions each year that veterans are especially recognized at my church, as the only woman who stands up, I'm as warmly thanked as any of the men. One of my biggest fans is an elderly retired AF Reserve chaplain, who also served in the Army during the Korean war. He asks for war stories sometimes, and then tells some in return. He says he saw three integrations in his lifetime: racial in the US and the military, women in the military, and finally women in the clergy, and he says he thanks God for each and every one of them, because he's a better man for having had his prejudices proved wrong. One of my all-time favorite people. :)