Too pretty to fight? Army shakeup over frontline push for women

Army officials got in trouble for suggesting that "average-looking women" be used in promotional photos, illustrating the social dynamics that continue to play a role as women assume combat jobs.

Julio Cortez/AP
Miss Kansas Theresa Vail displays her combat boot during the Miss America Shoe Parade at the Atlantic City boardwalk in Atlantic City, N.J. Vail, an Army National Guard soldier, took exception to an internal Army email suggesting photos of attractive women should be avoided as the military works to attract women to combat roles.

The US Army has reassigned a colonel who suggested the military stop using pictures of pretty women in fatigues in order to help achieve new frontline gender parity demanded under the new Soldier 2020 program.

Army Col. Lynette Arnhart, who had written that the Army should use photos of “average-looking women” getting dirty instead of more glamorous pictures, stepped aside Friday amid a hubbub over whether the Army is really ready to more fully integrate women into combat roles.

The Army responded by saying Col. Arnhart’s admonition was not policy. But the decision to remove her and Col. Christian Kubik, a public affairs officer who added commentary to the email chain, nevertheless underscored the sensitive nature of the Army’s historic push to move women toward combat roles.

The reassignments, according to the Army’s Training and Doctrine Command at Fort Eustis, Va., were taken to “protect the integrity of the ongoing work on gender integration in the Army.”

Many women, including Theresa Vail, a National Guard soldier and reigning Miss Kansas, were dismayed by the comments, suggesting to the Associated Press that Arnhart’s viewpoint showed that the Army has a ways to go before it stops stereotyping women.

The shakeup came the same week as the Marines reported that three women volunteers had for the first time completed its brutal infantry training course, providing new information for the toughest crux of integrating female combat soldiers into all-male units: how to maintain rigorous standards required for combat while not discriminating against women, who are, by virtue of biology, smaller on average than men. Ten women have tried, but all have failed, in passing the Marines’ even more rigorous officer training course.

Meanwhile, a quarter million US female soldiers have already served in combat support roles in Iraq and Afghanistan – 150 of whom were killed and 800 of whom were wounded during tours.

The Army’s new Soldier 2020 program requires that the Army explain by 2015 what it will take to put women in combat roles. Among the emerging themes is making sure that women integrate all-male units in groups so as not to become isolated. Leadership and standards are also among the working debates.

“We’re not lowering standards,” Col. Linda Sheimo, chief of the Command Programs and Policy Division at the Directorate of Military Personnel Management, said recently. “The reality is that you will have some cases where men will not be able to meet that minimum requirement … and there might be some women that do.”

For her part, Arnhart had earlier suggested that gender integration has to take into consideration “social dynamics,” where the idea that a pretty woman might have gotten ahead because of her looks could undermine unit cohesion. Her more recent comments suggested that images of attractive women send the wrong message, specifically that they “may even make people ask if breaking a nail is considered hazardous duty.”

The Army, to be sure, isn’t alone in its struggle to parse looks and combat.

In response to last year’s Katy Perry video, “Part of Me,” which features the attractive pop singer signing up and training for the Marines, feminist Naomi Wolf, author of “The Beauty Myth,” called the video a “shameful” propaganda piece.

Perry shot the video at Camp Pendleton, Calif., with the help of 40 real female Marines. Not everyone agreed with Ms. Wolf, however. “Becoming a Marine is one of the most challenging things you can do,” one commenter replied. “[Perry’s] video was about becoming self-reliant, not dependent on some man to feel empowered and happy. Your type of feminism is about an ideology that would melt like ice in the face of real, independent women.”

Given the hubbub over Arnhart’s “average-looking” comment, it’s clear the military will continue to struggle with sexist attitudes as it tries to integrate. In fact, in response to the accomplishments of the female Marines this week, a Marine-themed Facebook page was flooded with degrading and insulting captions from both men and women under photos of the women.

This month, Gen. Robert Cone, commander of the US Army Training and Doctrine Command, published an article about Soldier 2020 that sparked Arnhart’s commentary, since it included an attractive, lip-sticked female soldier in full battle gear. The picture in question was of CPL Kristine Tejeda of the Army’s 1st Cavalry Division as she provided security in Ur, Iraq.

“Our recent wartime experience indicates there are few practical limits to the vital contributions women can make in our Army formations,” Gen. Cone wrote.

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