AMERICANS are sometimes given to leaping before
looking, even in critical matters of national policy. Such was the plunge of a decade ago, for reasons then superficially compelling, into the volunteer army. It was shortly followed, and to some degree necessitated, by the "integration" of women into the armed forces and the military academies.
The leaping is over with; now begins the looking, of which these two books are early examples. They tempt one, unfortunately, to the Tolstoyan maxim that while good books may yet be written on the vexed subject of women warriors every faulty one will be faulty in its own way--as are both of these.
Neither Helen Rogan's impressionistic report on an early group of sexually "integrated" basic Army trainees, nor Judith Stiehm's relentlessly systematic study of the first women cadets at the Air Force Academy, is without value. But perspective is short and both books show conclusions quickly outrunning the evidence. In the absence of solid experience, and in our anxiety to believe that all progress is good, we rely upon speculative (anthropological/sociological/psychological) modes of inquiry into our adventurous social experiments. Rogan builds her report, with occasional digressions, around a group of young women she followed through the grind at Fort McClellan, Alabama. But as a novice observer she sometimes fails to distinguish between sensations common to all basic military training (boredom, studied insult, techniques calculated to stifle individuality, the distortions of a closed, single-minded world) and those that are, or may be, peculiar to women. Stiehm's problem is another failure of selectivity: She tells all, and a great deal more than all, and the final effect of her prose, with its occasional clinkers like "suboptimum utilitization" and "motivational structures," is rather stupefying.
Still, there are things to be learned--rather similar things--from both. The military is by long custom a world designed by men for men, whose penetration by women is by most (not all) insiders resented and resisted. That this resentment does not quite defeat "integration" results from the military's also being hierarchical and authoritarian, and compliant with civilian policy. Duty matters; and even when the duty is odious it will nonetheless be assumed in good faith.
The primary barrier to success here is biological and psychological. Over the whole experiment brood the confusions of la diff,erence: both actual difference and a constellation of superstitions, attitudes and fetishes about physical capacity and the appropriate roles of men and women in a civilized society. In its most hectic form, it is Rep. Lawrence McDonald's (D-Ga.) brooding on the House floor (this during the debate on the integration of the military academies) over the specter of field nursing: "Can anyone seriously imagine an officer giving a lecture or leading a tank column but requiring a pause to breast feed her infant?"
In more sophisticated forms, it is the troubling recognition that the physical training routines central to traditional ideas of military bearing and prowess must be modified. If they are modified, that becomes a source of resentment among men; if they are not modified, assuring that many women will fail at the old physical tests, they become a source of concern, reinforcing the view that women have no business in integrated military roles to begin with. In utterly frivolous form, it is the skirt-vs.-pants issue, much discussed at the academies, and, more strangely, with rather different outcomes at West Point and Colorado Springs. (The Navy, as ever, tends to cool it.)
The brighter side, for those who approve the experiment, is that at Fort McClellan, the Air Force Academy and other places it was found that women had more physical capacity than anticipated. Their usual lack of upper-body strength (to do pushups and pullups) can, it seems, be remedied by proper training techniques. And certain female characteristics (the higher proportion in the body of subcutaneous fat) are arguable advantages: providing, for instance, greater resistance to cold.
But if physical differences are less intractable than superstition had it, and even if women match and sometimes exceed men at the bookwork (being, especially among enlisted trainees, better qualified on the whole), other crucial issues remain--the interrelated issues of command and combat.
As both authors observe, the revised ethos of the "new" army tends to embarrass taboos. It was, Stiehm tells us, the conception of the service academies as primarily educational and career-preparing places (not combat schools) that made it increasingly difficult to explain their denial to women. The same was true, in other ways, of the rank-and-file enlisted ranks. So long as military service was defined as a hazardous and onerous duty, and hand-to-hand ground combat envisioned as its central function, it was easier to rationalize the segregation of women from it. Today, soldiering is more and more regarded as a "career" like others, and this redefinition of military service (setting aside the problems inherent in it) played an equal part with the women's- rights movement in toppling barriers of tradition and prejudice.
Even so, as Rep. McDonald's rather overwrought oratory would suggest, the ultimate issue still is whether women should or could face the hazards of combat. Congress has thus far evaded the issue by banning women from missions and roles (fighter aircraft, combat ships) that might place them in harm's way. The old taboo- questions (women in foxholes and body bags, the questions of strength and stamina in the unrefined hell of battle) are not so much resolved as finessed. And this in itself remains a sore point to some, since combat missions continue in some cases to be the ticket to high rank--or are, at least, thought to be.
It isn't surprising that, in the end, both Rogan and Stiehm define the basic problem as a potential "desanctification of a male sanctuary," in Stiehm's phrase. Both view male defensiveness as the real barrier to true integration: Not that women are, on the evidence, clearly incapable of doing what men do in war but that the idea of woman-as-warrior threatens to undermine an ultimate redoubt of manhood. "Femininity," as Rogan puts it, "is something that does not have to be proven; the ability to bear children is enough. . . . In peacetime, masculinity is being different from women; in wartime it means going off to war. Women soldiers deprive men of their masculinity by showing that soldiering is not so terribly hard and by usurping the profession." Stiehm echoes the point: "Were women to enter combat, men would lose a crucial identity--warrior."
This quasi-anthropological speculation (like so much of the speculation in both books) seems to me glib and often simplistic. Is this really the heart of the matter? Is it really that simple? When the cake of custom is broken, not all the objections can be safely dismissed and overridden as the reflection of self-interested prejudice. There are, after all, some valuable prejudices; the trick is to tell which are and which aren't. And when the prejudices happen to be those of most civilized societies some consideration is due them.
I doubt that we really know enough, yet, about either the subtleties of gender "roles" or about the practical consequences of military integration to reach firm conclusions. Doubt needn't lead to a reversal of policy; it ought to induce a note of caution. The landmarks in this terra incognita are few and fragmentary. The heroic behavior of nurse POWs in the Philippines during World War II is suggestive but not conclusive; as is the experience of the Israeli Palmach, the elite fighting force that involved young women in combat during the 1948 war of independence. One suspects that it will only be the test of war itself that will finally tell the tale, making speculation redundant. Until then, we can only guess.