Feature

Dames at Sea

By From the August 1996 issue

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"Human males operating in groups -- talking, planning strategies, devising traps, improving weapons, sharing the spoils -- became the most successful biological phenomenon on earth. In the process, the male-grouping became an essential evolutionary element in human nature. Group loyalties and powerful bonds of attachment went beyond mere cultural influences... A misguided but vociferous minority is campaigning to conceal human gender differences and to obscure the evolutionary truth about our species."
—anthropologist Desmond Morris in his foreword to the 1984 edition of Lionel Tiger's
Men in Groups.

And so it goes, with one attempt after another to conceal the differences between men and women, while pretending they no longer matter. The Senate voted in June to repeal a law banning abortions at military hospitals overseas. The repeal drive was led by Patty Murray, the tiresome "mom in tennis shoes," and supported by Ted Kennedy. "Those who oppose this amendment are exposing servicewomen to substantial risk of infection, illness, infertility, even death," Kennedy said, expressing himself as hysterically as he did when he denounced "Robert Bork's America," while at the same time confusing the issue. The Senate should not have been talking about abortion. It ought to have been debating how a great nation had so declined that it now entrusted its national defense to pregnant women.

But the Senate will not discuss this; the House will also take a pass, and the Clinton White House, of course, is hopeless. The idea that women are entitled to serve in the military wherever they choose may defy all laws of God and man, but it seems to be an idea whose time has come, no matter how sorry the consequences. Right now they are the sorriest in the Navy.

The Navy began assigning limited numbers of women to noncombat ships around 1980. It was a bad move from the start. A later study of two Navy tenders showed a pregnancy rate among female crew members as high as one in three. In 1994, the same year that women began serving on combat ships, the Navy Times reported that at least five babies already had been born at sea. A boy died just after birth. Since then, more women have been assigned to ships, and the Navy now takes it for granted that some 10 percent of them will be in a family way whenever they return from long cruises. Our admirals, however, are unlikely to admit this publicly, or even to acknowledge that sex takes place at sea. When 39 of the 400 women aboard the aircraft carrier Eisenhower became pregnant, the Navy suggested that they all were impregnated when their partners had joined them for shore leave.

Naturally, there is ribald merriment about these matters among ordinary sailors. (The Eisenhower, which now has five women assigned to it, is referred to as "the Dike" and not "the Ike." The carrier Abraham Lincoln, which also has five women, is "the Babe" and not "the Abe.") Beneath the merriment, though, is unease. The misbegotten campaign to place women in combat units has damaged all the services, but the conditions of shipboard life have made the Navy most vulnerable. John Dalton, the Secretary of the Navy, issued a policy statement last year insisting that "pregnancy and parenthood are compatible with a naval career." The challenge, he said, is "to ensure equality of opportunity" for women, while still keeping the fleet ready to do battle. An expectant mother can remain on sea duty until her sixth month, and no harm will be done to "operational readiness." Dalton also said, however, that "a full complement of highly trained personnel is essential to maintaining operational readiness," but that pregnancy -- "a natural event" -- could limit a woman's "ability and availability to perform all assigned tasks."

Dalton was advancing two contradictory thoughts simultaneously. George Orwell called this double think. The Secretary of the Navy wanted us to believe a warship can have a full complement of highly trained personnel even if some of them are down with morning sickness, or gone off to have babies. Pentagon figures show that during the hostilities in the Persian Gulf, naval women were 3.7 times more likely to be "nondeployable," or out of action, than naval men. Moreover, the berthing spaces assigned to women on shipboard can only be filled by other women. Thus the Navy must find a female radar technician, say, to replace the pregnant or otherwise nondeployable radar technician who has departed. If one is not available, the warship must do without.

Under the circumstances, operational readiness seems to be a delusion, a sacrifice offered up to putative feminists of both sexes. Biological laws, ancient lessons about bonding, and biblical enlistment rules (only males can go to war) are suspended. Military history is ignored. The Soviet Union sent women into battle in World War II. Israel used women combatants in its 1948 War of Independence. Stalin's experiment was shrouded in propaganda, and the results are unclear, but Israel said never again. Male soldiers lost control when they saw women being blown apart, and women, when taken captive, were brutalized sexually. Women reduced the combat effectiveness of Haganah units, Moshe Dayan said later, because men moved to protect them from capture. The thought of pregnant women in danger would have been insupportable. Responding to both military necessity and moral imperative, Israel barred women from combat.

Military necessity and moral imperative, however, are now being slighted. The indecent campaign to send women into combat may be unstoppable. Polls snowthat the great majority of women in the armed forces do not want to serve in combat units, and would not volunteer for them, but no matter. The people who did not want the boys to go to Vietnam, Central America, or the Persian Gulf now want the girls to go everywhere else. When the Presidential Commission on the Assignment of Women in the Armed Forces recommended in 1992 that women should continue to be barred from air and ground combat, the warriors on the New York Times editorial page called the commission's report "a hash." When Admiral Frank Kelso, the chief of naval operations, later lifted the ban on air combat, the warriors congratulated him for "in effect junking the commission's work." They insisted that "all too often reason flees and emotion takes over when there's talk of women in combat."

In a way, that was true. Reason has been fleeing. The armed services have introduced "dual standards" and gender-normed training requirements to make themselves more hospitable to women. Even the toughminded Marines have succumbed. Male Marines must complete a 15-mile march with weapons and a 40-pound pack in five hours; women Marines have to complete a 10-mile march with a 25-pound pack and no weapons in three and-a-half hours. Somehow everyone is supposed to start and finish together. But the Marines still refuse to assign their expectant moms to sea duty, and in a time of small victories, realists should be happy with that. Many of Clinton's Pentagon appointees have inappropriate ideas about women, and one never knows where, or how, they might strike next.

Two years ago, for example, Secretary of the Army Togo West sent a confidential memo to Secretary of Defense William Perry, outlining plans to open thousands of additional combat posts for women. Earlier plans to do this had been rejected by the late Les Aspin, Perry's predecessor, as too meager. The new plans would remedy that. Women were to be admitted into the field artillery, combat engineers, and air cavalry. They would also fly Special Forces helicopters. The memo to Perry, though, was not cleared with Gen. Gordon Sullivan, the Army Chief of Staff. In fact, Sullivan, who was with Clinton in Europe for the D-Day commemoration when the memo was sent, had never seen it. The author of the memo was an assistant secretary of defense, Sara Lister, who had circulated it among Pentagon civilians, and bypassed the military chain of command. If Perry were to approve the memo, or at least its main components, the Army's war-making ability would be affected without any Army officer having had anything to say about it.

But things did not work out as planned. Someone leaked a copy of the memo to Elaine Donnelly, the president of the Center for Military Readiness in Livonia, Michigan. She then faxed a copy to the Washington Times, which used it as the basis for a story. Consequently, Secretary West withdrew the memo he had sent to Secretary Perry. This meant that General Sullivan and other Army officers would now be included in a policy matter from which they should not have been excluded in the first place.

EVENTUALLY, THE NEW YORK TIMES reported on the controversy. It interviewed Secretary West and some unidentified civilian staffers. According to the Times, the staffers insisted the generals had been consulted, "but suggest the officers may have misunderstood Mr. West's plan." Actually, that was unlikely. The officers must have understood it completely. The Times also quoted West on his "two basic principles" of policy: "One, everyone in this country is entitled to an opportunity to serve and should be given that opportunity. And two, the Army is a war-fighting entity that exists to fight and win the nation's wars."

But the primary reason the Army exists is to fight and win wars, and West, at the very least, had his principles backwards. Worse, his own first principle was specious. Everyone is not entitled to serve, and to suggest that they are is to reduce a warfighting entity to a social agency, bound by the rules of affirmative action. On the other hand, as a Clinton appointee, West probably had just that in mind. At the same time he was upsetting the generals, Secretary Dalton was circulating his "12-12-5" plan among the admirals. It said that by the year 2000, Navy and Marine Corps officer recruits should be 12 percent black, 12 percent Hispanic, and 4.25 percent Asian-American and Pacific Islanders, inexplicably leaving out Native Americans, although possibly squeezing Aleuts in among the Pacific Islanders. When the plan was eventually disclosed, Dalton insisted it had nothing to do with quotas; it was about "goals." This was not true, of course. A process of selection based on race and ethnicity among a fixed number of human beings can only be conducted with quotas.

All this was part of an ongoing battle. Civilian bureaucrats pressure, manipulate, or otherwise intimidate generals and admirals on matters dealing with women, minorities, and gays. Sometimes the generals and admirals resist; sometimes they cave, and often now someone calls Elaine Donnelly. Her modest Center for Military Readiness is distinguished by its list of informants. Mostly they are active and retired military officers unhappy with what they regard as the slackening of standards all around them. Usually they attribute this to the desire to placate feminists, and usually they are right when they do. Mrs. Donnelly, once a member of the Presidential Commission on the Assignment of Women in the Armed Forces, who might otherwise be described as a happily married suburban mother of two daughters, has become something like their court of last resort. People on the other side of the issue do not like her. Therefore, she is being sued.

The suit was brought on behalf of a woman naval aviator who claimed that Mrs. Donnelly had defamed her by publishing false information about her flying skills. The co-defendants are the San Diego Union-Tribune, the Washington Times, and "John Does 1 Through 100," Mrs. Donnelly's informants. At issue is a report she published, "Double Standards in Naval Aviation," after another woman naval aviator, Lt. Kara Hultgreen, died in a crash of her F-14 while attempting to land on the Abraham Lincoln. The report said that Lt. Hultgreen had not been held to the same standards as male pilots; her training career had been marked by four "downs," or failing grades, while one or two downs are "sometimes sufficient to end a career" in naval aviation. The report also said that a "Pilot B," who was identified only as another woman F-14 pilot, had received seven downs, and still was allowed to complete her training.

Pilot B, who is the plaintiff in the suit, is represented by a lawyer from WANDAS, the acronym for Women Active in our Nation's Defense, their Advocates and Supporters. Most of its members, apparently, are civilians, and whatever the merits of the suit, it seems likely that its principal aim is to silence Mrs. Donnelly and her informants. In the current political climate, little dissent is tolerated on issues involving women in the military, and very little is found. Indeed, the Washington Times and the San Diego Union-Tribune may be the only two daily newspapers in America that look into the more egregious failures in military training policies on a consistent basis. The Center for Defense Journalism at Boston University publishes the very knowledgeable Defense Media Review, but it is a monthly. Generally speaking, the dominant media view was expressed in a Time magazine essay -- "One Woman's Fight to Fly" -- by the columnist Margaret Carlson: "For the moment, perhaps the only way women can make their points is to take a few admirals down with the ship."

And certainly that has happened. In the wake of Tailhook and other real or imagined scandals, admirals have been dropping like flies. This has solved absolutely nothing, of course, and the real problem has yet to be faced: There is a difference between men and women.

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About the Author

John Corry is a former New York Times media critic and reporter.