For a long time, my attitude towards seeing females in combat roles could have been summed up by something LTC Oliver North said when he spoke at my school. This was well after his Iran-Contra testimony in 1987, his Virginia Senate seat bid in 1994 and well before his days playing an amped-up version of himself on Fox News.
During the Q & A, Colonel North endured the expected hostility from non-fans with strength and grace, humbly deflected praise and open fawning from supporters, and was generally a fascinating guy to watch.
But it was his comment about women in combat roles that stuck with me. When asked what he thought about the whole thing, Colonel North said (something like), “It doesn’t bode well for a country when it has to send its women off to defend its men and children.”
Though I’m usually immune from being swayed by such pithy, throwaway comments, I had to admit it had an emotional and intellectual punch. “Wisdom” that can be summarized on a bumper sticker is usually as thin and two-dimensional as the sticker itself. But this quote seemed to harness a great deal of men’s intuitions about their historical and social roles.
And even though I knew that many women could play such a role, my thought was always informed by my reluctance to concede the warrior role to women. This wasn’t personal. This was my ‘collective male ego’ (the bond and sensibility I share with all right thinking, chivalrous men) bristling at the idea that there would be a group of women out there who’d be going to war to defend little ‘ol us, back stateside and holding down the homefront. It was my alarm that my fellow warrior brethren were in such short supply that women could outperform us to such a degree as to catapult themselves into front line status. I know: equality of opportunity, sexism, glass ceilings in the military…yeah, yeah, yeah. I’ve done some work in employment policies and organizational ethics; I am pretty well versed in the equal opportunity language. But I also know that courts also recognize the notion of a ‘Bona Fide Occupational Qualification’ (BFOQ) that allows employers to discriminate on the basis of EO protected classes if the job warrants it. For example, it is legally acceptable to insist that a priest be Catholic, that a rabbi be Jewish, etc. And, until recently, that combat roles be filled by men.
But my thinking was changed when we were in Germany. Given the close quarters of the American military community, I got to know servicemembers and their families much better. My wife is an Army veterinarian, and one of her missions was to provide healthcare to military working dogs. Pre-deployment checks, post-deployment physicals, etc. Every once in a while, I’d stop by her vet clinic on post and speak with some of the dog handlers. After a while, they came to know me and began to open up about their duties. Nothing classified, mind you, but just their take on their downrange experience with their animal. The care and training of their dog. The temperament of certain dogs. Nothing much, but you began to get some insight on their front line perspective. And I’ll never forget one comment a handler made about a dog that was nearing the end of its productive service, and well past its useful prime: “I wouldn’t want to get behind that dog.” I don’t trust that ‘servicemember’ with my life. I don’t have confidence that, when stuff goes down, this dog can be trusted to do is duty. This animal might be more of a liability than an asset. I don’t want to put my life in its ‘hands’.
Now, I’m a sturdy 6’3” and 240 pounds. Sadly, my actual weight is north of 270, but there’s a sturdy 240 in there somewhere. Though I’m nowhere near my previous top shape in the weight room, I can still bench press over 400 pounds. And I don’t say this to brag, but to illustrate. Because my military wife is way, way tougher than I am. And she’s hardly the exception.
One of my wife’s duties was to do dental exams on working dogs. How many servicemembers would elect to place their hands inside the mouth of a 90 pound German Shepherd that had been trained to maim and kill? Their face inches away from pure canine aggression? The only thing keeping this dog from going on the attack was the application of a drug (propofol) that Michael Jackson used recreationally. “You mean, the only thing that’s keeping this dog from mauling me is what’s in that little IV? Yeah, no thanks.” I’m all about God and Country and Warrior Ethos and all of that…but there’s no way I’d ever put my hands anywhere near a working dog’s open mouth. But Ma’am did. And didn’t think twice about it. She’s also a 20 time All-American in swimming, and held the American Record in one of the breaststroke events. But she doesn’t like when I talk about it. So I won’t.
My point is that many of the strongest, ‘fittest’ male bad-a**** wouldn’t be able to complete a single swimming practice. Most, not even the warm-up of a swimming practice. Warfare is largely a test of psychological and physical endurance. If warfare were conducted by a ‘winner-take-all’ powerlifting or strongman contest, then I could see how we could legitimately exclude women from combat. But saying that all women don’t have the requisite toughness and endurance for modern warfare is just silly.
There was one woman overseas, a retired Air Force MSgt, who I recently asked about this. She said, “Duty to your country as a service member (draft or volunteer) is a no brainer. Any man or woman understands they are putting their lives on the line. Period. We accept(ed) that and move on. It's our job. A woman's life is no better than the man standing beside her. We are all equal. Battle is battle. Once that uniform is on, we are (were—reliving glory days, sorry!) all serviceMEMBERS. I used to hate being told I couldn't do some details because I’m a female!! Really!? That person had no idea of what I was capable of!!”
Well, I knew. This woman now works in a civilian role, but would always work out at the post gym. I understood, as did everyone else, that you didn’t mess around when she was in there. Because it was her sanctuary. If you were screwing around, misusing the equipment or just taking up space, you’d get either the chill or hear a not-too-subtle, cutting comment. She was unfailingly pleasant, had this infectious energy and smile, and took pride in her cute outfits (golf visors and tennis skirts). But her workouts put every guy in there to shame. Hard-core, non-stop punishment. One time, I mentioned that she might be hurting guys’ morale by shaming them with one of her brutal leg workouts. After flashing a knowing smile, she said, “Good.”
There are detractors of this new policy. And they have some valid points. But believing that the proximity of tampons and the possibility of seeing an exposed breast is such an overwhelming distraction to our troops as to keep women out of combat units doesn’t speak well of the maturity of our infantrymen. And maintaining that combat units that include sweaty, grimy unshowered females (who haven’t applied make-up in weeks) is a menacing threat to the sanctity of your marriage…well, that doesn’t speak well of your marriage.
And though there’s still a resonance about LTC North’s quote, I have to admit that “I wouldn’t want to get behind that dog” has shaped my thinking on women in combat. Because seeing female servicemembers and a) what they can do, b) their level of toughness, c) their strength of character, and d) their dedication and determination has made me think that it was time for this exclusionary policy to end. I would much rather see a few of them at the tip of the spear than some of the corpulent, thickheaded slugs I’ll occasionally see around post.
At some point reading this article, a very, very clever reader might have made a joke about female combatants sharing traits with ‘working dogs’, or being b******, or whatever. Or mention the phallic imagery of the tip of a spear. Or point out: “You can’t spell ‘servicemember’ without a ‘member’.” Heh. And I’m thinking of a few female servicemembers who’d humor such off-color jokes by a) laughing along, and doing you one better, b) turning the other cheek as well as their backs on your way of thinking, or c) or turning your other cheek, flipping you arse over teakettle and putting your cheek flush on the pavement.