Coeds at War

| 16 Feb 2015 | 04:53

    In today's New Navy, meanwhile, boy sailors and girl sailors ship out together on aircraft carriers, spending weeks cooped up below decks. They're not supposed to be fraternizing?or drinking, or smoking or using cuss-words, or going on shore leave, or reading Playboy, for that matter?but Gutmann says that between the boredom and the repressed hormones there's more sex and necking going on behind the parked fighter jets than there is at the far end of the average high school football field on a Friday night. God forbid there should be a surprise attack; half the crew would be caught literally with their pants down.

    This is what Gutmann calls The Kinder, Gentler Military (Scribners, 300 pages, $25). She says it's a military that's been bending over backwards to become "feminized" and almost comically p.c. over the last decade or so. And if we get whipped the next time we go to war, she warns, it'll be precisely because the armed services have gotten so distracted with trying to achieve their goals of gender integration that they're forgetting that their main job is to fight, kill and win.

    Gutmann came by my office last week, put her feet up and cracked a Bud Lite?she gets nervous being interviewed, she explained, and hoped it would make her more "garrulous." The Kinder, Gentler Military is, after all, her first book. She's a journalist (The New Republic, Penthouse, Playboy, New York Post, etc.) who started writing about the military in 1995. She doesn't come from a military background; in fact, she comes from the ultra-p.c. college town Ann Arbor, where, she jokes, "I never even met a Republican until I was an adult." It was her interest in tracking what she calls "the mutations of the sexual revolution" in the real world outside Ann Arbor that led her eventually to the armed services?the last sector, she says, of American society that feminists turned their attention to, having successfully brought their agenda to the civilian workplace, the education system and so on.

    The 1990s were a rough patch for the military in many respects. The Cold War was over. A boomer Democrat entered the White House, and for the first time ever the majority of the people responsible for setting military policy?in Congress, the White House, even the Pentagon?are people with either no military experience, or military brass with no combat experience. The services were ordered to downscale, and their mission was redefined from simple war machine to the dangerously more vague, touchy-feely role of global constable we've seen them stumble through in recent years.

    Meanwhile, they hemorrhaged manpower and talent. It became increasingly hard to attract good recruits or retain the people they'd spent billions training. Gutmann writes: "The services (except the Marines) are meeting recruitment goals by the skin of their teeth, if at all, even though they have been digging deeper and deeper in the potential recruit pool and offering 'recruits everything but a new car,' as one soldier put it... Attrition is a particular problem in the Navy, where the most experienced people (especially the aviators, who cost millions to produce) are leaving the service in droves."

    To attract young people and retain the ones they've got, "In the nineties we saw the Army go from combat boots to Nikes, from open-bay barracks to dorms," Gutmann writes. "The Army is so anxious to make new recruits happier that boot camps now offer 'sensing sessions' in which they can complain about the food, their sleeping accommodations, or the conduct of a drill sergeant... The Navy has put masseuses, gyms, psychiatrists, E-mail (the little change that made the most difference), video movies, cappuccino, and soft-yogurt machines aboard ships."

    On top of all that, the Tailhook scandal of 1991 reinforced the image of the services as wicked dens of sexist iniquity, society's last strongholds of male culture. The services had in fact been trying to integrate more women in more important roles since the Vietnam era?West Point went coed in the 1970s?but the Clintonian feelgood Democrats and feminists wanted the process speeded up; they became set on a kind of affirmative action quota system, applying to the military the sorts of gender equalities they'd brought to the civilian workplace. "They used the language of job opportunity," Gutmann says to me. "'This is a job, and women are being denied equal opportunity.'"

    So, for instance, if there weren't enough women generals, "It wasn't because young female officers were dropping out in their late 20s to have babies and therefore interrupting their careers," Gutmann tells me. "It was because somebody must be persecuting them. So the integration of women got more politicized than it had ever been." And the brass and Congress actually became "more and more hostile to the traditional culture of the military. The culture of the military is male. It is maleness distilled. It's about aggression. It's the way men relate to each other. The way men relate to each other in the barracks is the way men relate anywhere they're together."

    This policy has been influenced by feminists "who are uncomfortable with sex difference at all," she argues. And because they believe that sex difference is a construct of a wicked patriarchal society, "If the military would endorse the idea that we are all the same, there are no differences, then that would set a very powerful example for the rest of society." The goal has been to use the military "to bust what they consider masculine stereotypes" and what they call "hyper-masculinity."

    (In her book, she quotes a very telling passage from Betty Friedan's The Second Stage, written after a visit to the sex-integrated West Point of 1975: "I leave West Point, as the first female cadets are about to graduate, feeling safer somehow because these powerful nuclear weapons that can destroy the world and the new human strategies therefore needed to defend this nation will hence forward be in the hands of women and men who are, with agony, breaking through to a new strength, strong enough to be sensitive and tender to the evolving needs and values of human life?if only the last gasps of threatened machismo do not stop this evolution.")

    So the brass were ordered to get more women in there, at any cost, and to get themselves nonsexist and gender-neutral on the double. As the military is wont to do, they've applied themselves to this task with a maniacal obsession, and the result, as Gutmann describes it, is a military that's become more absurdly p.c. than Antioch College. For the average soldiers and sailors, and certainly for midlevel officers who have to enforce increasingly arcane new rules and attitudes, morale is dropping through the floor, she says.

    More to the point, it is also a military that may be rendering itself less and less able to fight when we need it to.

    In chapters that would be funnier if they weren't so disturbing, Gutmann describes what boot camp is like at Fort Jackson, where as many as half of new recruits may be young women. "The problem is that from the minute they put men and women together in basic training they saw female failure," she says to me. "It was embarrassing, it was discouraging. One felt bad for the girls." As a result, "they dumbed it down. Everything was reduced to the level of the average woman recruit. And that is not high. It's not high for the men, either. What they say about fat teens is absolutely true." She says she went to Ft. Jackson expecting to be depressed by being surrounded by hundreds of buff, high-energy 18-year-olds. Instead "I came back feeling like fucking Superwoman," because so many of the recruits were so out of shape. "I could out-climb them, out-walk them, everything."

    To reduce opportunities for sexual misconduct at Fort Jackson, no recruit can go anywhere alone?they travel in pairs, called "battle buddies," in effect chaperoning each other. Physical activities like rope-climbing or grenade-throwing are "gender-normed"?i.e., scaled down for female physiques. (One can only hope any enemy army they might confront someday is equally p.c.) If you still can't keep up, you're not washed out and sent home, you're assigned to a new "Ability Group," with lowered standards?a sort of boot camp special-ed class.

    Instead of despised drill sergeants there are "confidence course facilitators" who do everything they can to make all new recruits feel useful and wanted. Boot camp used to be about creating soldier-units to fit the Army's needs; now it's the other way around, and the Army is there to help each recruit be all that he/she can be.

    Gutmann concedes that probably half the female recruits she saw at Fort Jackson had the determination and strength to keep up. It's the other half, she insists, who soak up all the time and effort and drag things down for everyone else. She writes about one girl in a wall-rappelling exercise who "is nearly catatonic as she approaches the lip of the platform and the waiting drill sergeant. Her brown face is streaked with tears, and her mouth is quivering. In the old days?we all know the script?the recruit who freezes up would have been humiliated shamelessly for showing fear. A drill sergeant would have 'gotten in the kid's face' and snarled about his loathing for little mama's boys and wusses, et cetera. The sergeant of the nineties, on the other hand, is under strict instructions not to 'abuse the recruits.' Though his degree of nonabuse is supposed to be 'gender neutral,' in practice, everyone says, it always works out that the drill sergeants (terrified of sexual harassment charges, sex discrimination charges, or general trainee-abuse charges, which they believe are more likely to come from women) 'are softer' on the girls?as is this drill sergeant, who murmurs 'You can do it''s to the girl until she shakily steps off the supporting platform and makes a jerky and tearful descent."

    The Army integrated boot camps "with the idea that there's no difference," Gutmann says to me. "But all I saw in gender-integrated training was difference. When you put 200 young people in uniform and you put them out in the field all doing the same task, what you see is the difference. I watched them doing an exercise where they had to lift their rifles over their heads [repeatedly], and the people all across the field who dropped out and were having trouble were girls.

    "This is not to deny that there are certain exceptional individuals who are different," she adds. She cites a female F-18 pilot she met who's a triathlete now training for the Iron Man competition. "I would never say she shouldn't be doing her job."

    But that's all anecdotal, I counter. And clearly women have been successfully integrated into law firms and all sorts of other traditionally male professions. Why not the military?

    "That's not the analogy," she replies. "The better analogy is why haven't we integrated the NFL?" And why not? "Because there are very significant physical differences between men and women. It's true that in a city like New York we have little sense of them, because we work with our heads mostly..." But the military, like pro football, "is still a very physical endeavor," where typical male attributes like upper body strength and endurance are still crucial.

    This is most true, she says, for ground troops, routinely expected to be able to carry 60-pound packs on their backs, plus 15 pounds of rifle, and run, march, dig holes, change the tires on the Hum-Vee. "Upper body strength is the key to equality" in ground troops, Gutmann says, and only exceptionally large and strong females can keep up.

    She cites a study done by a military researcher in which intensive physical training for young women improved their upper body strength to the weakest levels among males. The findings were promptly disavowed by the brass, Gutmann says, because since the 1990s the goal has been not to try to change women to fit the military, which was seen as sexist, but to change the military to suit women. So they've been changing the jobs, lightening the equipment, refitting aircraft carriers to accommodate coed living quarters, redesigning the cockpits of fighter jets to accommodate female physiology (the ejection-seat technology had to be changed because the explosive force that propels the seat out of the jet wreaks havoc on women pilot's smaller-boned bodies).

    There have been some interesting repercussions. It turned out that female ground troops were developing bladder infections on long field exercises because they were holding their pee, unwilling to squat and piss with guy soldiers standing around. Researchers developed a funnel device, "the Lady J," that lets you pee standing up, and without removing so many clothes "and showing your butt." The military has not adopted its use, but you see versions advertised in travel catalogs.

    When it comes time to ship these coed troops off to war, things will have become much more complicated than they used to be. In the old days you packed a bunch of single young men into ships, trucks and planes and off they went. Now, with all the family, housing and childcare support the new military offers as incentives, the services have become havens for single parents. Which led to tremendous social disruption, confusion and bureaucratic expense when everyone was called up for the Gulf War, for example.

    As for women soldiers fightin' and dyin' at the front just like men, Gutmann claims this mostly remains a peculiar feminist dream. When 13 American women were reported to have died in the Gulf War, Congresswoman Patricia Schroeder ghoulishly crowed that "The Persian Gulf War helped collapse the whole chivalrous notion that women could be kept out of danger in a war," and NBC's Naomi Spinrad bizarrely cheered that "It wiped out cultural taboos that American women should not be wounded, captured, or killed facing an enemy." Looking more closely at those deaths, Gutmann lists only one you could say really died in combat (a shot-down helicopter pilot), and one hit by a Scud in her barracks behind the lines, one who evidently stepped on leftover U.S. ordnance and blew herself up, one who crashed her helicopter a day after the hostilities had ended?and eight who were traffic fatalities. (Indeed, more American troops died in traffic accidents than from Iraqi fire.)

    For all that, Gutmann concludes with modest-sounding proposals for simply curbing the most egregious excesses of political correctness in current military policy. She suggests that the other services "Follow the lead of the Marines and the Israelis and go back to separating the sexes in boot camp. This would allow drill sergeants to restore discipline and standards because they could train the men as hard as they need to, without worrying about injuring the women..." Eliminate all recruiting quotas for women, she also suggests, and stop pursuing the possibly disastrous goal of having female soldiers in frontline foxholes with males.

    "It's not worth the U.S. government spending the time and the resources to try to achieve something that is not really helpful," she says to me, "and that huge numbers of Americans oppose for a million different reasons."

    Afterwords Last Friday on the Today Show, Linda Ellerbee, who wears her self-regard way too close to the surface for my taste, was touting her Girl Reporter series for middle-school kids, when Katie Couric asked a relatively sensible question, which was did Ellerbee think that many middle-school boys would want to read such a girly-looking book. There are all sorts of ways Ellerbee might have replied. She might have said, Well, Katie, two of the most successful shows in modern tv, Buffy and Xena, feature strong female heroes and enjoy massive global audiences of young boys and girls who, by the way, have self-selected to get over any innate gender biases and admire the shows' female leads without being instructed to do so by high-handed old-school feminist NPR amateur social engineers like...Linda Ellerbee. Instead, she went into kneejerk feminist cant mode, purring in that bizarrely self-satisfied way she has that well, Girls read books about boys all the time, so why shouldn't boys read her Nancy-Drew-for-the-00s books? Which sails right past the reality that unless there's an Ellerbee Class Fembot in the room to enforce it, most boys are just not going to be naturally interested in books called Girl Reporter. Most boys wouldn't be caught dead touching books with such girly covers, let alone cracking them. No doubt Ellerbee's been consulting with the Army.

    Sharon Packer, MD, one of my personal female heroes, is a psychiatrist and an artist who teaches really interesting courses for the New School. Because she's got certain restrictions on her mobility, she doesn't go into a classroom; the classroom comes to her, through the school's DIAL program of online courses. "The entire course is conducted online," Sharon explains, "with text, conversation, weblinks, printed handouts, books and home video viewing. Access is available 24/7 (so that people can log on from all over the world). It is asynchronous, like a bulletin board, rather than a chat room, so that students can post their comments and read other comments and course content at their convenience."

    I sat in on one of her courses for one day a couple years ago, and with Sharon and her students from all over the country firing e-mails back and forth it was one of the liveliest classroom discussions I'd ever been in.

    The spring semester starts this week (March 20-May 19), with the real academic content starting next week, and there's still time to register for Sharon's course "Dreams, Drawings, Drugs & Ideas." It's about Freud's and Jung's dream theories, Breton and the Surrealists, the Hashish Club, absinthe, opium, LSD, Baudelaire, Rimbaud, dream imagery in the movies... You see my point. You can register online at, by fax (229-5648), phone (229-5690) or in person (65 5th Ave.).