Apparently, the American military is so far superior to its adversaries that it can send women to the front lines. In the Iraq and Afghanistan wars we had more women than ever before.
After all, why not use a war as an exercise in gender-bending social engineering?
The dominant ideology dictates that there is no significant difference between men and women. Anything a man can do a woman can do, too. And vice versa. Thus, women soldiers should be allowed in combat or in combat support, lest they lose out on career opportunities.
As we know, people fight wars to advance their careers and to make ideological points.
Reporting the experience of Courtney Wilson, a lieutenant who led a platoon in an engineering batallion, Benedict Carey shows that Wilson had real difficulty bonding with male soldiers.
Naturally, no one is allowed to imagine that women are never going to enjoy male bonding and male camaraderie. It’s easier to think that the women and perhaps even the men just need more therapy.
In Carey’s words:
One of the biggest adjustments the United States military attempted during the Iraq and Afghanistan wars was cultural: the integration of women into an intensely male world. Women made up about 15 percent of the force during these two wars, compared with 7 percent in the Persian Gulf war of 1991, and they saw more combat in greater numbers than ever before.
Yet even though women distinguished themselves as leaders and enlisted soldiers, many of them describe struggling with feeling they do not quite belong. For men, the bonds of unconditional love among fellow combatants — that lifeblood of male military culture — are sustaining. But in dozens of interviews with women who served, they often said such deep emotional sustenance eluded them.
To today’s military officers, it’s a problem needing a psychological fix:
“Clearly these data beg us to account for why there’s this apparent surge in felt hopelessness and alienation among so many women service members during deployment,” said Dr. Loree K. Sutton, a retired brigadier general, a psychiatrist and the commissioner of the New York City Mayor’s Office of Veterans’ Affairs. “This is a critical endeavor, and it’s got to go beyond individual factors and look at group dynamics.”
Of course, everyone asserts that women are great soldiers and great officers. But, if these women cannot bond with their troops and if their troops do not respect them, how good can they really be?
Carey does not address another important issue, so we will. Do female soldiers undergo the same basic training as male soldiers? Are women required to undergo the same physical exertions and demonstrate comparable strength?
If the military changes the standards in order to accommodate women’s constitutional weakness, one understands why men would not treat them as one of the guys.
If Lt. Wilson is any indication, women soldiers do not feel that they belong. Thus, they are prone to interpret even good-natured ribbing as ridicule and contempt.
One hates to say it, but even though the dominant ideology forces everyone to agree that there are no significant differences between men and women, the facts remain and reality will out.
Considering how strict the army is about sexual harassment and sexual assault and even fraternization, the presence of women represents a threat to men’s careers.
In contrast, the women said, they got mixed messages. The Army bans most jewelry and makeup yet is institutionally protective toward women, at least out in the field. “You’re treated like a girl, and yet you can’t really be a woman — that’s the feeling,” Lieutenant Wilson said.
Mixed into this odd displacement were ever-present sexual undercurrents. Many women said that at night, on base, they would not go to the bathroom without an escort. Lieutenant Wilson said a noncommissioned officer in her unit continually made sexual jokes that made her so anxious she thought about reporting him. She decided against it, but the threat lingered.
In fact, almost any consorting with a male soldier was enough to feed an appetite for gossip that rivaled high school, veterans said. “What made it unbearable were the moments you felt you couldn’t socialize or bond with the men after a hard day — they were mostly hard days — because of the rumors that would fly,” said Susanne Rossignol, who served in Baiji, Iraq, in 2004 and 2005.
Lt. Courtney Wilson might have been tough as nails, but she could not deal with mockery and nearly became anorexic when someone called her fat.
Carey describes the problem:
“Lieutenant Wilson is a model officer whom I would trust with the most difficult mission,” her company commander wrote in September of 2010.
But she was less certain she inspired affection. “Courtney doesn’t have that laid-back humor a lot of guys have, so she’d get teased and didn’t know how to shrug it off,” said Lieutenant LaPonte, who became a close friend. “She took everything personally.”
Perhaps no more so than when a couple of soldiers cracked that she looked fat.
It was a bad joke, at best; a distance runner, she worked out whenever she could. Still, it got under her skin. “I was living on carrots and water,” she said. “I was down to 122 pounds, so skinny you could see my clavicle. It was crazy, but I felt I had to prove something to them.”
Weigh her words: she felt she had to prove something to them—prove what, exactly? That she was a slim, attractive woman?
When her efforts at self-medication failed, Lt. Wilson tried therapy:
Jack Daniel’s and Coke blunted the anxiety, but the relief did not last. She tried biofeedback, prayer, meditation and psychiatric medications. Finally, reluctantly, she began regular talk therapy with a psychologist at the Fort Hood military base in Texas.
“She really struggled to connect with other people, and in part it’s because she was trying to be someone she was not,” Roger Belisle, a clinical psychologist at Fort Hood’s Resilience and Restoration Center, said in a phone interview.
It’s not just that she was trying to be someone she was not. It’s that the army was allowing her to pretend to be someone she was not.
This all raises an interesting question. America has chosen to ignore the fact that men and women are different. It has chosen to place more and more women in combat or combat support missions.
And yet, most men consider themselves duty-bound to protect women. Does this mean that as more and more women join the military the nation will feel less and less interested in fighting wars? Does it mean that with more and more women in the military America will prefer to see wars in terms of winning hearts and minds? Does it mean that the nation will feel queasy sending women into combat, unless it’s in a war against climate change?