The Feminization of the American Military

by Walter A. McDougall

Foreign Policy Research Institute E-Notes, 4 February 2000

In a tender love song from the late 1970's, Bob Dylan asked, "Can you cook and sew and make flowers grow, do you understand my pain?" To the ensuing barrage of feminist criticism, the somewhat shaken but unrepentant song writer replied: yes, women should be free to do whatever they liked, but "when a man says he's looking for a good woman, he isn't looking for an airline pilot."

Two decades later, all manner of media are laboring to purge Americans of such benighted attitudes, and all manner of American institutions are breathlessly acquiescing. The title of one of my daughter's favorite bedtime books is Maybe You Should Fly a Jet, and the cover shows a woman -- a blonde, glamorous woman -- at the controls. Children's television programs inevitably depict female doctors, police, and mechanics; presidents of women's colleges deplore the fact that one in eight teenage girls still hopes for a career in modeling; and the United States Army encourages women to "be all that you can be" by trading cosmetics and cars for camouflage and helicopters.

Indeed, one of the central goals of the feminist movement is to establish a fully sexually integrated military, trained, fit, and ready to engage in combat. To the advocates of this cause, it is an outrage that the United States is not moving at a rapid enough pace in their direction; but the truth is that it has moved very swiftly indeed. The United States today is the only serious military power in history to contemplate thorough sexual integration of its armed forces. And thanks to an adamant feminist lobby, a conspiracy of silence in the officer corps, and the anodyne state of debate over the issue, the brave new world of female infantry, bomber pilots, submariners, and drill sergeants may lie just around the corner.

How ought Americans of both sexes to think about their co-educational military and the prospects for women in combat? No doubt many unreconstructed male chauvinists would agree with Nietzsche that "Man shall be framed for War, Woman for the entertainment of the Warrior, and all else is folly." But one need not be a caveman to argue that objections may be made against women in combat on some basis other than bias, for instance: common sense; the empirical evidence of the past twenty years; and the universal experience of the human race. As former Secretary of the Navy James Webb attests, military institutions must be coercive, hierarchical, and self-sacrificial, and as such they depend on a rigid code of fairness with regard to conduct, performance, and deportment, promotion on merit, and egalitarian treatment that by its nature cannot be gender-neutral. For as soon as the sexes are mixed in close quarters, especially for prolonged and tense intervals, the jealousies, courtships, and favoritism that are bound to erupt must corrode fairness and discipline.

Imagine, writes Webb, a ship at sea for a hundred days during which numerous crew members pair off for sex. That in itself spawns favoritism, duplicity, and pregnancies. But what of the crewmen who don't "score" with shipmates and must stifle their libido for months? "The inescapable feelings of resentment, competition, and anger that follow create a powder keg of emotions that cannot help but affect morale, discipline, and attention to duty." To military expert Edward Luttwak, the belief that mixing the sexes need not affect order and discipline is "a grotesque, puritanical hypocrisy. The Army can't do something that eluded the Franciscans. It can't run a mixed monastery."

Everyone knows this--and yet nobody talks, which is what allows the feminists to frame the debate entirely in terms of equal opportunity. Senior male officers habitually prove Napoleon's dictum to the effect that "He who is full of courage and sang-froid before an enemy battery sometimes trembles before a skirt." They keep silent because they know that to express caveats about sexual integration is a "career buster." Civilian officials talk much but say little lest they offend one or another constituency or lobby.

Militarily or Politically Correct?

Since most women in the military would not volunteer for combat even if they could, a few "exceptions" -- who do want to storm beaches with an M-60 machine gun or bomb Baghdad from a B-2 -- are what this fevered debate is really about. In essence, we are asked to transform the entire culture of the U.S. military, with all the incalculable effects that entails, on behalf of a small number of tough women who demand the "right" to fight alongside men. But is military service in our democracy really a right or entitlement? Or does it remain the privilege or (in wartime) obligation it used to be? That was a question unasked when the "All Volunteer Force" was set up, but chances are the Supreme Court will soon have to answer it unless the Commander-in-Chief answers it first.

One might think that feminists would celebrate the progress made by servicewomen. Instead, as Linda Bird Francke's book, Ground Zero: The Gender Wars in the Military, indicates, some feminists are furious that any barriers still exist to women in combat. And the reason they do, according to Francke, is clear: a male-dominated military establishment persists, from the top down and bottom up, in repression and even persecution of women, and conspires to protect its last male-only units in the name of atavistic machismo.

Yet despite Francke's accusations of rampant misogyny, emasculation is the undeniable policy of U.S. military programs today. The pressure on the armed forces to allow homosexuals to serve openly, begun in 1993 and renewed in the context of Hillary Clinton's run for the Senate, is only the most public manifestation of this. Less known is the fact that the Defense Department's schools for survival, obliged to deal with the prospect of females in captivity, now simulate sexual exploitation and torture of both sexes in order to "desensitize" men so they will not feel protective toward females. Meanwhile, the Pentagon continues to stoke recruitment of women to the point where one-fifth of all new recruits are now female, The Defense Advisory Committee on Women in the Services continues to pressure the military academies to increase their female enrollments, and the movement to lift restrictions on women in combat is cresting.

One need only retrace the dramatic change of tone in the statements of top military personnel over the last twenty years to discover how much ground has been gained by the feminist camp. In 1976 General William Westmoreland agreed that recruiting women for the "All Volunteer Force" would change the ethos of the U.S. armed forces. "Maybe you could find one woman in 10,000 who could lead in combat," he said, "but she would be a freak and we're not running the military academy for freaks." By 1993, Assistant Secretary of the Navy for Manpower Barbara Pope was boasting, "We are in the process of weeding out the white male as norm. We're about changing the culture." And in 1997 Secretary of Defense William S. Cohen promised that the revelations of seduction and rape in training units would not lead to curtailment of opportunities for women: "We are not going to turn back the clock."

In Jane Austin's Pride and Prejudice, the seemingly level-headed Caroline Bingley sniffs about an upcoming dance. "I should like balls infinitely better," she said, "if they were carried on in a different manner. . . . It would be surely be more rational if conversation instead of dancing made the order of the day." To which her brother replied, "Much more rational, I dare say, but it would not be near so much like a ball."

Writing in the 1940's in opposition to the ordination of women as priests, C.S. Lewis argued that the issue was not whether females could perform the caring and instructional missions of the clergy as well or better than most men, but rather that the Church was a creature of revelation, not reason, and that the Lord had chosen to place the burden of priesthood on men. But if men had become insufficiently masculine to perform their appointed duty, the solution was hardly to call upon those who were not masculine at all. We arrived at our current impasse over women in combat for the simple reason that not enough American men could be found to perform a masculine duty. And if our only solution -- and it appears that it is -- is to call upon those who are not masculine at all, then we may reach the point when, as Lewis wrote in The Abolition of Man: "We make men without chests and expect of them virtue and enterprise. We laugh at honor and are shocked to find traitors in our midst. We castrate and bid the geldings to be fruitful."

In an editorial praising deployment of women on warships, the New York Times chided opponents for acting "as if knighthood were still in flower." Well, knighthood gave us the words courtesy and chivalry, taught men how to behave toward enemies, comrades, and women alike, and bade them prefer death to dishonor. But the Times was right about one thing. It is certainly not in flower today and will not bloom again in our time ... unless the women revive it.

Items of Interest

The Demilitarization of the Military, edited by John F. Lehman and Harvey Sicherman (Foreign Policy Research Institute, 1997).

The Future of American Military Culture, edited by John F. Lehman and Harvey Sicherman (Foreign Policy Research Institute, 1999).

Walter McDougall, a Vietnam veteran and Pulitzer Prize-winning historian, is editor of Orbis, the quarterly journal of the Foreign Policy Research Institute. This essay is adapted from his article "Sex, Lies, and Infantry," which first appeared in Commentary, vol. 104/3 (September 1997)