The Battle About Women in the Military


WEAK LINK: THE FEMINIZATION OF THE AMERICAN MILITARY by Brian Mitchell, Washington, D.C.: Regnery Gateway, 232 pp., $17.95

ARMS AND THE ENLISTED WOMAN by Judith Hicks Stiehm, Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 331 pp., $29.95

POLITICAL extremists, no matter their coloration, too often are brothers - or sisters - under the skin. Armored in self-righteous principles, they scorn moderation, denounce the conventional wisdom, and push their agendas by trying to annex the moral high ground.

So it is for both the macho traditionalists and the ardent feminists who keep battling each other over the position of women in the military, even as common-sense adjustments in the field gradually settle the issues. It took three decades after 1950 for blacks in the military to gain full acceptance, to climb the power structure alongside open-minded young white officers who were superseding their skeptical elders. The All-Volunteer Force made women significant in the military after 1973. Women now make up 10.7 percent - 220,000 - of the whole. Will the difficulties they face gradually be eliminated during the 1990s?

Not so, according to Brian Mitchell, an infantry officer turned defense journalist, and Judith Hicks Stiehm, a political scientist who has written extensively on women in the military. Neither author seems even remotely aware of the black analogy; both are true believers, focusing narrowly on their arguments while entirely ignoring broader issues.

Mitchell contends in ``Weak Link'' (he's also spoken on radio and television talk shows) that the substantial presence of women in the military is an unmitigated disaster, which has dangerously weakened - ``feminized'' - our national security.

This social experiment run amok must, he insists, be halted before women enter combat units and the Army to which he once belonged goes downhill. Lesbianism, romance and marriage, pregnancy and abortion, latch-key children and single-parent military families, sexual manipulation by wily women, double standards and sheer physical weakness, an egocentric ``what's-in-it-for-me?'' attitude, and - above all - the weakening of male cohesion and bonding due to the female presence: All this Mitchell blames on military women. Sexual harassment by men, not to mention the legal imperatives of equal opportunity, are ignored.

Every melodrama requires a villain, and Mitchell finds his in an - allegedly - very powerful feminist cabal, which even the Reagan administration dared not counterattack. To be sure, a few women - Phyllis Schafly, for example - are fighting the good fight, he says, but the feminists remain triumphant, subverting religious teachings on the ``natural'' role of women. Mitchell, predictably, invokes principle: Those 220,000 military women are a Trojan Horse, the mere tip of a dangerously radical iceberg on which the entire nation may founder.

In ``Arms and the Enlisted Woman,'' Stiehm also goes for the moral jugular, her slogans being equity, equal opportunity, and generous quotas that would attract tens of thousands more women into a wide-open military. How this may affect the status quo - and military effectiveness - doesn't interest her: Men simply will have to accept the righteous demands of women, harassment will have to cease, and issues such as pregnancy and child care can easily be handled.

Stiehm too has a hidden agenda: power. Though her footnotes, bibliography, statistics, and dreary, unclear style give this book an academic cast, it is essentially a polemic. Like Mitchell, she has scores to settle, and she sprinkles the book with sudden, sly, gratuitous thrusts at traditional opinion.

Stiehm perceives war as a ridiculous game that men impose on the world. While Mitchell often refers to the international environment, Stiehm ignores it completely - her soldiers exist in a total vacuum. Hence she scorns the ethos and traditions of military organizations. To Stiehm, armies are little different from, say, IBM or General Motors in uniform, and talk of bonding, cohesion, and effectiveness is just a coverup for the coercion that gives patriarchal men power over their juniors. She is, to be sure, prudent on this, but the buzzwords and the heavy theorizing are inescapable. It follows that a strong feminist contingent will help end this nonsense, while also giving feminism a new area of operations.

What about women in combat? Mitchell, predictably is adamantly opposed: They can't handle it, and shouldn't be asked. He ignores a half century of experience with women guerrilla fighters, not to mention the courage of female nurses in wartime hospitals. Stiehm, surprisingly, waffles on the issue, but cites public opinion surveys that support the idea.

The military are dubious, and rightly so. The Vietnam disaster demonstrated the importance of retaining public support. The sight of women casualties on TV would likely antagonize ordinary Americans, no matter how they may answer an abstract, sanitized opinion survey.

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