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THE KINDER, GENTLER MILITARY Can America's Gender-Neutral Fighting Force Still Win Wars?

In 1994 the aircraft carrier Eisenhower set off on its maiden voyage with a crew that was 10 percent female, a remarkably high proportion and therefore a test of the armed forces' more woman-friendly policies. ''The Eisenhower's mission was a resounding success,'' Time magazine concluded, reflecting the typically favorable reviews given the experiment. By contrast, Stephanie Gutmann, in her new book, ''The Kinder, Gentler Military,'' uses the Eisenhower to illustrate her main point: that the effort to reach ever higher levels of sexual integration is weakening the armed forces. To Ms. Guttman, the Eisenhower did not show that sexually integrated ships are good but that the military's public affairs effort was a triumph of politics over naval reality. ''We called it the 'Emperor's New
Clothes' cruise,'' John Gadzinski, a pilot temporarily seconded to public affairs at the time, told Ms. Gutmann. ''This is a boat where our job is to put bombs on target, missiles on target and make sure that things get done.'' But this cruise, Mr. Gadzinski continued, was set up for appearances, so that, for example, female sailors who worked in data processing were sent up to the control tower and the flight deck ''to make a pretty picture for the V.I.P.'s on their walk-throughs.''

Ms. Gutmann has written a highly charged polemic that rips through public relations cant like a tank breaking telephone poles. ''The Kinder, Gentler Military'' is not the best book one could imagine on this important subject. Indeed, a less aggressively partisan, more neutrally reported essay might have been more persuasive, an essay that included, for example, at least one sustained interview with a Pentagon official seriously addressing the question of sexual neutrality and military preparedness. Instead, Ms. Gutmann presents a largely anecdotal case, written with a kind of jaundiced hipness (''This is one area where we absolutely have to cleave to a certain bottom line''), that often seems aimed at scoring debating points rather than judiciously balancing policy alternatives. Nonetheless, Ms. Gutmann has done her research thoroughly, and she raises questions that demand to be answered.

The basic attitude of policy makers and the press is keyed to three assumptions:

  • That sexual neutrality is necessary.
  • That it entails changing the male-dominant, sexist culture that has prevailed until now.
  • That this can be accomplished without reducing fighting effectiveness.

Ms. Gutmann, in examining that attitude, tours boot camps and aircraft carriers; haunts the hearing rooms of the military's gender advisory boards; and talks to soldiers, sailors and airmen (male and female). She comes up with a very different conclusion. She says the country's leaders, submitting to political pressure, have allowed military preparedness to be gravely compromised for the sake of an unworkable sex-neutral principle.

Ms. Gutmann's contention that the recruitment and training of women has led to a conscious effort to change the old warrior culture -- the one in which the drill sergeant stuck his head into the arriving recruits' bus and announced that he was their worst nightmare -- is not seriously disputed.

''This is not your father's Army anymore,'' Gen. Claudia Kennedy, the first female three-star general in the American armed forces, told West Point cadets in 1997. Ms. Gutmann visits Camp Jackson in South Carolina, where 70 percent of the women going into the Army get their training, and she agrees with General Kennedy's assessment. But she describes Camp Jackson as a kind of Girl Scouts for grown-ups, a place where self-esteem therapy prevails over hard, physical tasks.

''Because training regulations note that 'many new soldiers are not physically fit or capable of strenuous activity,' '' she writes, ''they no longer do a required number of push-ups to a count, the drill sergeant exercises along with them as a sort of 'role model' and they drop out when they feel like it.''.

At the Great Lakes Naval Training Center, she finds that the old obstacle course is now called the confidence course and has been moved indoors. For a while, Ms. Gutmann reports, trainees got ''blues cards'' that they could hold up to get a break in the middle of an activity, but, while those were eliminated after being ridiculed in the press, ''recruits can still avail themselves of something called a 'training timeout.' '' ''Ability groups'' have also been created to handle weaker trainees. The Army, Ms. Gutmann says, found that many women could not pass the standard grenade-throwing test of 35 meters (115 feet). So women only have to ''pick up a live grenade and essentially dump it over the wall of a deep cement enclosure, where it could burst to its little heart's content.''

Mr. Gutmann provides a history called ''How Did We Get Here?'' in which such highly publicized sexual scandals as the 1991 Tailhook incident and the 1998 Aberdeen Proving Grounds rape cases play a major role. She delves thoroughly into both incidents -- one involving mass sexual harassment, the other sexual assault charges against drill sergeants -- and comes up with many signs that hysteria in the press and political panic inflamed public opinion and turned the investigations of these incidents into witch hunts. She suggests the distressing possibility that in the Aberdeen incident, where a drill sergeant was sentenced to 25 years in prison for rape, political correctness rose to the level of a human-rights violation.

Ms. Gutmann has so much reverence for the old warrior culture that it becomes a vicarious nostalgia for the old days, when men were men and things were tough. But plenty of old warriors have stories about the stupidity and sadism of the old culture and how it drove good men as well as good women away.

Still, Ms. Gutmann is no extremist in these matters. She offers a set of policy recommendations -- one of which would be to eliminate sexual recruitment quotas -- that would keep the armed forces open to any and all who meet the necessary high standards.

Since the latest phase of the integration of women began, the armed forces have not had to fight a long, tough war against a strong foe. If such a war comes and the gentler military doesn't do well, Ms. Gutmann's hard-headed book will have provided an early-warning signal



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