I am finally writing to follow up on the issue of whether the pregnancy of women soldiers will weaken a mixed-gender fighting force. When I first started writing about the issue of women in combat, I identified the pregnancy issue as one potentially valid argument for precluding women from combat. I then noted that people often merely assume that women are less likely to deploy than men or are more likely to be sent home. The data I was able to find on the internet, which is admittedly limited, indicated that male soldiers are sent home or unable to deploy more frequently than women. Although only women face the issue of pregnancy, male soldiers have higher rates of substance abuse and disciplinary problems and thus men as a class are actually less reliable than women in terms of their combat readiness. Again, I admit that my data is limited but I think it is useful to recognize that we can't just leap to the conclusion that combat readiness is more of a problem for women than for men.
Although my post addressed military readiness as a whole, the Phantom challenged me with an article (dated 2001) indicating that "according to Navy Personnel Command statistics, 9.6 percent of women stationed aboard ships are lost each year due to pregnancy." As I pointed out in my response to him, the article fails to compare losses of female personnel to losses of male personnel. The Phantom's comment inspired me to shell out $20 to the Pentagon for a 1996 report by the U.S. Navy Personnel Research and Development Center regarding "Unplanned Losses from Deploying Ships" (the most recent available report I could find). The purpose of the study was "to investigate the number of pregnancy losses that are incurred by ships in the 6-month period prior to deployment" based on data from all gender integrated surface ships in the Atlantic and Pacific fleets for the preceding two years. I would like to share the key points of that study with you now.
-- Women have been assigned to non-combatant ships since 1978. The loss of pregnant women has not been a major problem because these ships have large crews. The study was necessary, however, to figure out the potential effect of pregnancy on combatant ships. Combatant ships are in a different position because they "have a more critical mission and higher operational tempo . . .[and] unplanned personnel losses cannot rapidly be replaced."
-- The study's authors noted that "very little objective information exists regarding the impact of pregnancy on deploying ships . . . [and that] because gender is not indicated in these reports, unplanned losses of men and women from deploying ships could not be compared."
-- Medical problems and administrative separations were the most frequent reasons for unplanned losses (40% and 22% respectively). Pregnancy accounted for 20 percent of unplanned losses.
-- Viewed another way, approximately 2% of the women in these ships became unplanned losses due to pregnancy.
-- Half of all unplanned losses for whatever reason occur in the one to two months before deployment. (I am not aware of any evidence that women are more likely than men to try to find a way out of having to deploy. While many view pregnancy as a way out for reluctant soldiers, I am willing to bet that reluctant male soldiers have ways to manipulate the system too.)
-- There is also data regarding the rate of all losses, whether planned or unplanned. Displinary problems accounted for 43% of Nacy personnel who did not deploy, and medical problems accounted for 33%. Pregnancy accounted for only 8% of reasons why personnel did not deploy.
-- The impact of pregnancy losses on the personnel readiness of ships was less severe than losses for other reasons because "85% of the pregnant women were very junior and thus, not highly trained personnel that would be difficult to replace or do without." Obviously, however, if greater gender equity is achieved in the military, the impact of pregnancy losses will be greater.
This data is obviously old, dating from 1996. It is also somewhat limited, as the study's authors observe. While it is clear that pregnancy accounts for a significant percentage of disruptive, unplanned losses from Naval ships, it is not at all the only circumstance which causes sudden unavailability in Naval perssonel. Furthermore, pregnancy only accounts for 8% of all losses, planned or unplanned, and we still don't know whether women are more likely to account for unplanned losses than men or whether women are more likely to account for all losses than men. I am not here to set military policy or conduct a scholarly study on military readiness. My main point is that we can't just blithely assume-- as so many people do -- that women are more likely than men to be undeployable merely because women face the issue of pregnancy. I am not aware of any information that supports that sweeping assumption.
Via Ginmar's entry of November 16:
It amazes me how little we've heard in the media about the top-notch performance of Sgt. Leigh Ann Hester, winner of the Silver Star for valor in combat. When her mixed gender unit was ambushed by 50 Iraqi insurgents last March, Hester "maneuvered her team through the kill zone [consisting of a barrage of fire from machine guns, AK-47 assault rifles and rocket-propelled grenades], into a flanking position where she assaulted a trench line with grenades and M203 rounds." She cleared two trenches with her squad leader and killed three Iraqi insurgents, thus "sav[ing] the lives of numerous convoy members."
Meanwhile, one of the unit's drivers, Spec. Ashley Pullen, winner of the Bronze Star "laid down fire to suppress insurgents and then exposed herself to heavy AIF fires in order to provide medical assistance to her critically injured comrades, saving several lives."
Six male soldiers, who also deserve honor for their bravery, won awards for their roles in this counterattack. The entire unit, including the female combatants, functioned cohesively and with great initiative, discipline, and skill to accomplish their mission. You can read more details here.
Despite this classic example of the effectiveness of women in combat, very few Americans are familiar with either Hester or Pullen, whereas we have all been subjected to relentless media coverage of damsel-in-distress Jessica Lynch, who was described in one widely published article, as "a hundred-pound girl, barely out of pigtails." (Here I will refrain from going off an enraged tangent about how such infantilizing terms are never applied to our young men, even if wounded and in distress. I am not sure our culture even has parallel terms for reducing a man to a wittle boy in quite such a degrading way. Barely out of Little League? Still dating cheerleaders? Not quite done with his GI Joes?)
The point is that the best argument for women's effectiveness in all sorts of traditionally masculine situations are actual examples of women doing it. And women have repeatedly risen to the challenge in the face of all naysayers -- in politics, law, medicine, business, and now, combat. The problem is getting the word out to the public about women like Hester and Pullen, especially in the face of examples like that of Lynch, which conform more closely to cultural expectations.
I am thrilled that people who actually have military experience have written posts in response to this one on the question of women in combat.
First, please do read the post entitled She Fights Too at the The Galloping Beaver. The author is a former Canadian naval commander, so he knows whereof he speaks. He tackles in a very thorough, knowledgeable and even-handed manner the issues that I have not yet addressed -- unit cohesion (including the issue of sexual harassment) and the phsyical disparities between the sexes. One interesting point he notes is that there are occasions when a woman's physique may be an advantage. For example, Canadian naval work includes hostile boardings of other ships in order to enforce embargoes. While sailors with a variety of skills are needed for this type of dangerous mission, there is a requirement for sailors of small build to get into and through small spaces. (I could probably do that and I bet Alice would be a good candidate as well!)
The Galloping Beaver also observes that, with recruitment levels so low in the U.S., Canada, and other NATO countries, and the "fluid" nature of front line combat zones in places like the Gulf, women are inevitably going to have to participate in combat. There is no point in keeping our heads in the sand and saying, "We wish women didn't have to do this because it contradicts our notion of femininity."
Next, read Ginmar's post, in which she takes the refutations of the cultural arguments against women in combat a step further, refusing to take their paternalistic assumptions at face value. As a woman who has served in the U.S. Military and has participated in combat in the Gulf, she also knows what she's talking about because she's seen it and done it first hand. I particularly liked her section in response to argument that men will no longer feel the need to protect women if such a thing as a woman combatant exists:
Here's the threat, made overt. Whether or not the offer of protection is there, the threat is always there. You have to accept one guy's protection or else you'll be prey for all the guys. The same guys who claim they're protecting women have never been interested in protecting women from themselves, their gilded cages, and the protection fees---servitude.
I will be writing more on this issue, but meanwhile check out these fantabulous posts. And, if you missed it, I did address the issue of women in combat and the pregnancy myth a few days ago.
I've been trying to get my arms around the issue of women in combat with a focus on arguments that appear at first blush to be the three strongest arguments against women in combat -- namely, the physical disparities between the sexes, the issue of unit cohesion, and the problem of women possibly being pregnant at the time of deployment. It's taking me longer to pull all this together than I thought, so meanwhile I thought I would share this site devoted to debunking myths related to women in the military.
Among other things, this site reminds us that it is ONLY an assumption that there is a problem with women frequently not being ready for combat due to pregnancy. People tend to focus on pregnancy because it is a condition that affects only women. But just because women are subject to this one particular issue, it doesn't follow at all that a higher rate of women are non-deployable at any given time then men:
. . . [A]s far back as 1975, the Navy discovered that men lost 190,000 days to drug rehabilitation and another 196,000 days to alcohol rehabilitation -- almost twice the "time lost" by women to pregnancy. Pregnancy reports and surveys have been generated over and over and by 1990 speculation was rampant that pregnant women were costing the military a proverbial fortune in early returns from overseas bases. Well, surprise, surprise -- another study showed that the average cost of the early returns for men as $7,174, while the average cost for women due to pregnancy was $2,046. Among medical evacuations, AIDS and substance abuse accounted for up to 8 percent, pregnancy for barely one percent. (source: Linda Bird Francke in "Ground Zero").
According to the National Women's Law Center 1992 position paper on women in combat, (page 5), women at that time had lower absenteeism than men even with time off due to pregnancy. Less than one-half of one percent of military personnel requested deferments for family reasons, including both pregnant women and men with family responsibilities, and the Pentagon did not view pregnancy deferments as a significant problem during Desert Storm.
There are some arguments against women in combat that I view as legitimate, and which I will examine in a subsequent post. There are also a number of arguments against women in combat which always get trotted out but which I think are basically just cultural prejudices. I will address these cultural prejudices first:
1) Women are not as brave as men, or as psychologically tough as men. Oh yeah? I just don't buy it. See my post entitled Heroism Knows No Gender.
2) It's worse when women die or suffer hardship than when men die or suffer hardship. Not true. All human life is equally valuable. My husband's life is worth just as much as mine. Many years ago, I saw an elderly southern general argue on the "Today" show that people who advocate women serving in the military just don't know what it's like. He said he wouldn't want to HIS daughters to have to bathe in muddy water or go to the bathroom in the woods or not be able to brush their teeth for days on end or whatever. Not convincing -- I wouldn't especially wish all that on anyone but why would it be worse for me than for a man? (And don't people know what women go through during childbirth? It's not for sissies as far as I can tell.)
3) Women might get raped if they are captured during war. Yeah, so? Bad stuff happens in war. That's why it's war. Again, rape isn't something I want to minimize, but I don't buy into the notion that women are somehow more vulnerable to brutality than men. Male prisoners of war can also be raped, or they can be brutalized in other ways. Recall the physical and psychological torture inflicted on Senator McCain when he was a prisoner of war.
4) Male soldiers will put themselves at risk to protect female soldiers. This argument is based upon the supposed protective "instinct" men have towards women. First, I doubt this is a deep seated instinct given the statistics showing the prevalence of crimes of rape and domestic violence by men against women. I think men are socialized (with varying success!) to be protective towards women but that doesn't mean that they will behave inappropriately during battle once they are trained to view their female comrades as fellow soldiers. The much vaunted protective instinct was also used within living memory as an argument to keep women out of litigation -- the idea being that male lawyers might feel they should let women lawyers win. As a woman litigator, I can assure you that that hasn't turned out to be a problem.
5) If women are in combat, men will no longer feel the need to protect women in other areas of life. So that means men are stupid? They can't tell the difference between a fellow soldier who does not need special help and a woman who needs some sort of protection? In any case, a gender-neutral code of "chivalry" is more useful: it should be a given in our culture that the strong protect the weak regardless of gender. Again see Heroism Knows No Gender.
6) A variation of the above: Allowing women to be subject to violence by the enemy is tantamount to a cultural endorsement of violence against women generally. Again, men are stupid? They can't understand why it is okay to send an armed and trained female soldier into combat but not okay to beat up a civilian woman?
7) Women will be vulnerable during combat because they need more time to go to the bathroom. Uh, no. I don't want to get too gross, but give a woman a flap in the right place and it's not that tough to go to the bathroom. During menstruation, I think women can take care of what needs taking care of more efficiently than men may believe. And even if there is some impediment to a woman's ability to take care of her sanitary needs because of the combat situation she is in, she can still fight. Remember when Uta Pippig won the Boston Marathon while bleeding heavily and openly during her period? It was gross and messy but she got the job done.
So that leaves the only three arguments against women in combat that I think could potentially have some merit: 1) Women weaken military effectiveness because women are generally physically weaker than men; 2) Mixed gender units are less cohesive due to love affairs and sexual attractions among member of the unit; and 3) Women are often unable to deploy due to pregnancy. My challenge for tomorrow (at some point I hope) is to address these more legitimate arguments.
Maybe I am missing something, but it seems to me that there is not a lot of public discussion by feminists regarding the issue of women in combat. This may be because a lot of feminists are also rather left-wing and therefore tend to be skeptical of military endeavors. (For an example, see this post by a feminist blogger who considers it a sell-out for Jane magazine to run an Army recruitment ad aimed at women readers.)
But if you are a feminist, you should be prepared to discuss the issue of women in combat, regardless of your views on the current war or the importance you place on military preparedness. It is a big mistake to opt out of the discussion simply by virtue of one's pacificism or one's opposition to the war. The issue of women in combat is important to feminism because:
-- The anti-feminist right has always used the prospect of women in combat as an argument that feminism is a bad idea. The deaths of women in combat is seen as the logical result of feminism. Phyllis Schlafley defeated the Equal Rights Amendment in large part because she argued that it would subject women to the draft.
-- There are a lot of myths and assumptions commonly held by the American public about what women are doing in the military, what they're not doing, what their capabilities are, and what impact their participation currently has.
-- Discussions of women in combat often become a free-for-all excuse to trot out every misogynist and paternalist stereotype out there.
-- The fact that women are not currently called upon (at least not officially) to make "the ultimate sacrifice" is one excuse for upholding patriarchal mores.
-- Women will always be second class citizens in the military if they are prohibited from most forms of combat. (After all, a military leader rightly has more credibility if he has seen combat; it would be tough for a non-combatant leader to exercise much leadership over battle hardened troops.)
-- There are women who want to fight for their country.
I am no expert on what is currently going on the military or what it is like to serve in the military. But I've been doing a little bit of research on the internet and over the next few days, I hope to share and opine on some of what I have learned.
I just returned from my town's Veteran's Day parade. I am a big sap (and also the proud daughter of a Vietnam veteran) so I tend to get all teary at events like that -- especially when the lines of soldiers stood at attention during "Taps." Sniffle.
Since this is a feminist blog, I will use today as an excuse to kick off a series of posts on women in the military, the subject of some recent thread drift (towards the end of the thread) on Crystal's site. Meanwhile, check out this interesting site, The Military Woman Homepage. (And for any Men's Right's Activists who may be reading -- I doubt there are any but you never know -- my interest in women in the military does not mean I'm dissing male veterans, so chill out.)
The November 7 issue of "People" Magazine features the story of Mary Bichanich, a 50-year old stay-at-home mother of five. Last summer, she found herself in the middle of terrible storm on Little Muskego Lake in Wisconsin, with 60 mph winds and lightning all around. As she was escaping to safety, she saw an enormous wave capsize two weed-cutting barges, throwing four workers into the water. Lightning bolts were striking within 50 feet of the workers and there was a danger that the water would wash the workers into the blades.
Bichanich called 911 and her husband, who told her to wait for help. But Bichanich knew there was no time to lose. She steered her speedboat towards the workers -- through the pounding rain, the powerful waves and the lightning striking around her. She got the four workers and took them to shore. As one of the workers, Andy Link, age 19, said, "She's a very courageous woman. She put herself out there when she didn't have to. I mean, her boat could have capsized too." The article features a picture of Bichanich with a couple of the people she rescued, two strapping young men named Craig Planton and Andy Link.
In the wake of 9/11, there was much talk of how the self-sacrifice of the firefighters and of folks like Todd Beamer proved the value of a forgotten masculinity. This masculinity is characterized by a self-sacrificing physical courage employed on behalf of the weak. I believe strongly in that traditionally masculine virtue. I won't deny that the majority of firefighters who died in 9/11 were men. Nor will I deny that men, because they tend to be significantly larger and stronger, are often in a better position than women to exercise this type of virtue.
But men do not have a monopoly on heroism, nor do examples of male heroism justify exaltation of the male sex at the expense of the female sex. Anyone at any time may find himself or herself in a position to help someone weaker. Craig Planton and Andy Link were weaker than Mary Bichanich during that summer storm because they were in the water and she had a boat. If I were on a sinking ship or in a burning building, it would be my job to protect my husband because he has a disability and I do not. If I were being snatched off the street by a mad rapist, however, I would certainly appreciate it if a big strong man (or perhaps a big strong woman or a woman with a gun!) were to rescue me.
Contrary to the myths of conservative anti-feminists, the rise of feminism will not lead inexorably to the death of heroism and chivalry. Ordinary people like Mary Bichanich and Todd Beamer of 9/11 fame will continue to act in extraordinary ways when the situation calls for it. But heroism and chivalry know no gender. I think we would all do well to imagine how we would act if confronted with a situation requiring physical courage, and to teach our children to do the same, regardless of gender.