War and Gender

by Joshua S. Goldstein

Cambridge University Press, 523 pages, $27.96

The Kinder, Gentler Military

by Stephanie Gutmann

Encounter Books, 300 pages, $16.95

More than one military pundit has fantasized out loud that one of the handful of women flying combat missions over Afghanistan might drop the bomb that kills Osama bin Laden or Taliban leader Mullah Mohammed Omar. Even some political conservatives applaud the media images of American servicemen and servicewomen of various races working an - in the case of the Marine Corps tanker plane that crashed earlier this month - dying side by side in the war against terrorism, a war to preserve "American values," in the words of politicians of all stripes.

That's all well and good. But the vivid stories and film clips of female pilots on the prowl for terrorists and of other female service members working round the clock in the Afghanistan campaign belie a more complex reality. The large-scale integration of women into the military during the past three decades has been far from smooth. Two books - War and Gender: How Gender Shapes the War System and Vice Versa, by Joshua S. Goldstein, a professor of international relations at American University, and The Kinder, Gentler Military: How Political Correctness Affects Our Ability to Win Wars, by journalist Stephanie Gutmann - offer conflicting explanations for why that is so. (The Kinder, Gentler Military, first published in 2000, was recently reissued in paperback with a new preface.)

It's hard to imagine two more-different approaches to the subject. Gutmann spent much of the late 1990s interviewing U.S. troops deployed around the world and observing training in what she terms the "new military," a no man's land of neutered male and female behavior and politically correct language, where even common terms such as "cockpit" are suspect. She has little patience for theory - -feminist or any other kind - and tells her story through the experiences of the men and women she encounters. Goldstein takes an altogether different approach. Drawing on historical evidence and academic scholarship, he attempts to "synthesize the state of knowledge on the relationship of war with gender." The central observation driving Goldstein's research is that war, over time and across cultures, is an almost exclusively male endeavor. He presents what he calls a "dossier of evidence" of how gender shapes war and vice versa.

In the preface to War and Gender, Goldstein describes himself as "antiwar and pro-feminist" and says he came of age ("as a peace activist") during the Vietnam War. This description, and the fact that Goldstein has never served in the military or experienced war in any capacity (other than to oppose it, presumably from the safety of the campus) will no doubt alienate many potential readers: military officers and government officials whose job it is to make the sexually integrated military a more fair and effective institution. Indeed, War and Gender, like so many books by academics, seems to be written almost exclusively for other academics. Face-to-face contacts with a few soldiers and sailors, and a few extended dips into military reality would have mightily benefited Goldstein's book.

To the author's credit, though, this ambitious work brings together much of the current understanding of history, biology, psychology, and anthropology as it relates to war and gender. Goldstein puts to rest many popular assumptions (there's no evidence that the fabled Amazon warriors ever existed, for instance, or that early societies were peaceful and egalitarian). And he explains why combat historically has been man's work, an important matter, Goldstein asserts, because the U.S. military is undergoing the most intense gender-integration effort ever conducted by a nation in peacetime. (He was writing before the attacks of September 11.)

Throughout the 1990s, the military, pressured by Congress and the Clinton Administration, opened to women tens of thousands of jobs from which they were previously barred. Still closed to women are assignments to submarines and to ground combat units, including infantry, armor, artillery, and Special Forces. The challenges of accommodating women have ranged from the practical (separate sleeping and bathroom facilities, for example, had to be added to some ships) to the cultural ("sensitivity training" curricula were created to ease the transition).

"Every step of the way, the experience of integrating women has fueled a raging political debate," Goldstein writes. "The two sides tend to draw on two kinds of moral arguments. One concerns fairness - whether it is proper, desirable, or just to allow women to participate in combat if they so choose, or even to assign women soldiers to combat on the same basis as men. The second category deals with the effectiveness of the military and whether the participation of women in combat would reduce or increase (or neither) its readiness, fighting ability, and morale." He also notes that those who favor allowing women in combat and those who oppose it often interpret the same events differently to illustrate their opposing points.

For instance, female soldiers first gained widespread visibility during the 1989 invasion of Panama, where almost 800 women - 4 percent of the force - participated. About 150 women came under enemy fire, with some returning fire. Army Capt. Linda Bray, commander of a military police unit, became something of a celebrity after her troops captured a military dog kennel during a firefight. At first, the Pentagon played up the story since the Army was getting positive coverage. But when it appeared that all the attention would only increase pressure to lift the ban on women serving in combat units, military officials apparently began leaking disinformation to undermine Bray. Because participants in a given military action often present different accounts of what happened, it's no wonder that Bray's role in combat produced conflicting versions. Nonetheless, the different accounts of exactly what happened didn't stop both proponents and opponents of women in combat from using Bray's experience to bolster their positions.

War and Gender contains much information and analysis that could be useful to policy makers saddled with shaping and implementing policy in today's military, but too much of the good stuff is all but inaccessible in this densely packed work. The author also makes more than a few assumptions that startle. Consider this statement made early in the book: "Virtually all human cultures to date have faced the possibility, and frequently the actual experience, of war (although I do not think this generalization will last far into the future)." It's not clear exactly why Goldstein believes thousands of years of warfare will abruptly end and human nature will take a revolutionary turn for the better.

Although War and Gender is about far more than the U.S. military's recent experience with gender integration, the author's conclusions about this experience will seem superficial to anyone who has spent much time in or around integrated military units. Goldstein concedes that men in general are bigger and physically stronger than women, but he argues that individual strength alone does not win wars, especially in an increasingly technological age. True enough, but strength does still matter at some fundamental level, as we have seen in the ground action in Afghanistan. He writes that pregnancy, "a controversial political issue, is not a major military problem." In the peacetime military, that may be true, but as a military reporter throughout the 1990s, I can say that pregnancy has indeed been a problem in some units. Fully 30 percent of the women in one Army military intelligence battalion dispatched to Saudi Arabia in 1990 for the Persian Gulf War got pregnant between the time the unit was ordered to prepare for deployment and when the unit actually shipped out, several weeks later. Not only was the male commander horrified, but many female troops were too. It's unclear how widespread a complication the pregnancy factor is for military commanders, but enough anecdotal evidence exists to suggest that it is a subject the Pentagon should study more closely.

"Overall, the results of the U.S. experience indicate a broad, deep, and well-rounded capability of women to participate in the kinds of actions and operations required for combat, and to hold their own in combat itself when drawn into it," Goldstein concludes. "Most of the problems revolve around men's difficulties in adjusting to the presence of women in their midst, and even those problems are most acute when women are a novelty and much less so after men work together with women soldiers."

Gutmann would firmly reject this summing-up. In her introduction to The Kinder, Gentler Military, she writes, "The pursuit of 'gender equity' is exacting a huge price in dollars and morale." She is not so much opposed to integrating women into the armed forces as she is convinced that the military has made a mess of carrying it out. By playing down differences between the sexes, by trying to pretend away the effect of sex in the ranks on unit morale and cohesion, by lowering fitness standards, and by ignoring other problems stemming from integration, the military leadership has created resentment between men and women and a climate of "doublethink" - women are simultaneously treated as if they are as tough and capable as men and yet so delicate that, in a profession that seems to pride itself on its creative profanity, they need special protections from possibly offensive language. What Gutmann wants to provoke is a "scorched-earth-honest discussion in which the silenced are allowed to speak."

Gutmann's overheated, polemical style will alienate some readers. That's a shame, because she makes many valid points. In a section about how assigning women aviators to combat units has changed (and not for the better) the hypercharged, no-rules-here atmosphere in which fighter pilots seem to thrive, she writes: "Aviators aren't just flying patrols, they're fucking the sky. And in the 'New Navy,' a 's'cuse me while I kiss the sky' attitude (a laJimi Hendrix) will get you in trouble." The sensitivity to women's assumed sensibilities has led, at least in some parts of the Navy, to a climate so rigid that it is unacceptable to use the word "cockpit" - the correct term is now "flight station." In one of many examples of politically correct language, Gutmann cites memos from the brass instructing aviators that a mark made to a landing chart formerly known as a "gash" would now be referred to as a "stitch." Says Gutmann: "Maybe because the term reflected the inherent aggressivity and libidinousness of aviators - whatever - it's out of the vocabulary."

Needless to say, these and other absurdities have sparked much grousing among military personnel, male and female. Gutmann captures the realities of mixing large numbers of young men and women and training them for the rigors of a profession whose chief mission is to kill - a reality that is too often missed in academics' discussions of women in the military. As one paratrooper quoted in The Kinder, Gentler Military puts it, "The kind of guys who love fallin' out of airplanes in the middle of the night also tend to be the guys who like to drink and stuff like that. Trying to build an army from a group of choirboys has to be detrimental to the warrior ethic."

We want to hear what you think about this article. Submit a letter to the editor or write to letters@theatlantic.com.