DESFIREX, the Desert Firing Exercise, is a semi-annual celebration of cordite, steel, white phosphorous, and sand held at the Marine Corps Air Ground Combat Center in Twenty Nine Palms, California. During the weeks before, the howitzers and trucks are prepared for the field; They are rushed through a maintenance pipeline that at all other times of the year moves at a snail’s pace. Marines suddenly “find” the missing spare parts that the Corps’ byzantine supply system has not been able to produce for months: everything from Humvee door handles and windshields to the red tube lights which fasten to the gun barrels and make the cannons legal for the freeway journey from the back gate of Camp Pendleton to the high desert three hours away.
Eleven years ago, I was a second lieutenant experiencing my first DESFIREX. I was running “the box,” or Fire Direction Center (FDC). Here—in a seeming chaos of computers, radios, field telephones, maps, slide rides, and charts—is, as Freddy Cannon put it, where the action is. At the eye of the storm is the Fire Direction Officer (FDO), the “mortal engines, whose rude throats dread clamors counterfeit.”
My first trip to the desert as an FDO was a baptism of fire, thanks largely to a battery commander fond of quoting (he claimed) Frederick the Great: “A soldier’s enemy in peacetime is his commanding officer.” We got Frederick the Great when things were running like clockwork. More often the batter commander’s voice came booming over the landline: “Lieutenant Check! Come and see me when you get your FDC whose command triggers immortal Jove’s unf—ed!” In time I did, by the grace of God and with the patient help of a first-rate Ops Chief, a “field Marine” if ever there was one: a squat staff sergeant as skilled at training second lieutenants as he was at trigonometry and smuggling Jim Beam to the field.
For one of my fellow lieutenants, however, the exercise almost meant the end of his career. He was the Assistant Regimental Communications Officer. In that billet, he was forced to tolerate something infinitely more unpleasant than a battery commander who took seriously the job of preparing his officers for war: Women Marines, a.k.a. “WM’s”—the American military’s foremost oxymoron.
Female radio operators and technicians are permitted to serve with artillery units in the Marine Corps at the regimental level (which is sufficiently removed from the fray, goes the justification). My friend had a half-dozen such WM’s under his care. On this trip to the desert, one of them came down with the sniffles or a stomachache (not uncommon when women go to the field) and convinced the corpsman to medivac her. My friend carried her ALICE pack up to the landing zone as she shuffled along behind him. Dumping the pack on the sand at the edge of the LZ, he turned to her, said, “You owe me one,” and left her there to await the incoming helicopter.
Three weeks later, back at Camp Pendleton, he found himself standing on the carpet in front of the regimental commander’s desk, responding to the charge that he had told the lady lance corporal that, in exchange for his carrying her pack up the hill to the LZ, she owed him one—well, you fill in the blank.
A story that could have ended badly did not. My friend had a reputation as a solid officer; the WM in question had another sort of reputation; and the man who ran the 11th Marine Regiment had all the powers of discernment—if not all the guts—that you would hope to find in a bird colonel. Nevertheless, the WM went without reprimand for her calumny, and the event only served to reinforce the low opinion held by the vast majority of Marines of their sisters-in-arms.
Readers may regard the story as anecdotal and as no proof that women do not belong in the Marines, but I have dozens more: There are the WMs, great with child, marching along in their maternity uniforms (yes, there is such a thing); the girl recruit who flat-out refused to navigate a night compass course because she was afraid of the dark; the girl lieutenant at the Basic School at Quantico who burst into tears when she “went unq” (failed to qualify) with the 9mm Berretta (a remarkably forgiving pistol), and her Staff Platoon Commander (a girl captain) who consoled the distraught young officer by giving her a hug right there at the pistol range.
Those are my stories. If you need more, check out the invaluable work of journalist Brian Mitchell or talk to any officer or enlisted man who has resigned his commission because he is weary of watching unqualified women coddled, promoted, and given choice assignments—to say nothing of watching them drive their airplanes into the sides of aircraft carriers—while morale and readiness continue to decline. Collect as many stories as you wish about the ill effect on morale and unit cohesion caused by the sexual integration of the Armed Forces. Present the seabagful of evidence to your representatives in Washington—but do not expect the aggressive recruitment and integration of women into the military to subside.
The Republican front-runner, George W. Bush, has already proclaimed his enthusiasm for a sexually integrated military, and he is only the latest in a long line of Republicans whom we can thank for our feminized Armed Forces: men like Pete Du Pont, who as a congressman sponsored the legislation to enroll girls at the service academies, and Ronald Reagan, who emasculated the Code of Conduct for POW’s, changing the preamble from “I am an American fighting man” to “I am an American fighting for my country.” Do not forget former Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Gen. John Shalikashvili’s 1996 statement: “I don’t want to prophesy . . . but my sense is we are on a countdown to the days when there won’t be a position in the military that women can’t and won’t occupy.”
The general is right, but if you want a glimpse of the sexually integrated force of the future, do not look to Hollywood. A few enthusiastic amazons like Demi Moore’s G.I. Jane may sign up, but they will hardly be the rule. (As it is, half of the women who enlist today fail to complete their service contract.) Nor will the military look like the combat units featured in tire recent film version of Robert Heinlein’s novel Starship Troopers, in which women in the distant future serve alongside men right down to the fire-team level, pilot the same spaceships as men (though with greater skill), heft the same massive machine guns, and wrestle with the same giant space bugs threatening Earth’s existence. Women will also shower alongside men (no one will think anything of it) and love will flow freely in the coed squad bays (on this last count, the film may prove uncannily accurate).
Hollywood’s fantasies about the sexually integrated Armed Forces are no sillier than those of United Nations doctrinaires who see women in the military as a mechanism for “break[ing] down traditional views and stereotypes of women in countries and local communities where they serve among peacekeepers.” The lead article in the December 1995 edition of Women 2000, a monthly published by the U.N.’s Division for the Advancement of Women, asks, U.N. peace-keeping: where are the women ‘blue helmets?'” In contrast to the accompanying photograph of a grenade-launcher-toting soldierette (no girls-with-guns pinup), the article concludes that women can “make a difference” in peacekeeping missions because they are “often willing to take innovative approaches to establish a dialogue between polarized groups. They sometimes use unorthodox means such as singing to defuse potentially violent situations.” Oh, good. We used to sing quite a bit in the Marine Corps, though I am not sure how far “BROWN eyes—GREEN eyes—BLUES eyes—RED! / If it’s got slanted eyes, shoot it in the HEAD” would go toward reconciling the polarized.
Readers may find the cadences that Marines sing as they run in formation both coarse and insensitive (they are), but no one could misinterpret their content (killing) and purpose (to concentrate the warrior’s mind on killing). Nor could anyone mistake the emphasis of the Marine Corps’ (sometimes silly) advertising. Flashing swords and armor-clad knights in close combat with monsters, dragons, and beasts mean that the Corps is in the business of fighting. The other services advertise themselves as places to learn job skills, make your high-school teacher proud of you, and earn money for college. They suffer serious personnel shortages. The Corps does not.
For now, that is. iAfter all, New Age fantasy battles that take place on giant chessboards de-emphasize the reality of killing, as does discouraging such gruesome chants as “NAAAY-palmstick. s-to-kids!” Perhaps more slowly than the other services, but surely as steadily, the Corps is reshaping itself into the sexually integrated force foretold by Shalikashvili. The result, however, will not be a force of Amazons or song leaders, or even a gang of sisters that fight like girls. Any of these would be preferable to the androgynous military of the future, which will be characterized neither by the bull dyke cranking out chin-ups nor by the vixen traded around the barracks, but by an unwillingness to embrace the purpose of the military and the central fact of war: killing.
From an American perspective (if that phrase still makes sense), warfare has already become so denatured by the presence of women that we are unwilling to commit any forces, male or female, to ground combat. We are often told that our servicemen (or, in today’s parlance, the unsettling “service-members”) are put “in harm’s way.” They rarely are. Well out of range of the antiquated weapons systems of our alleged enemies, our “brave men and women in harm’s way” launch missiles from ships positioned over the horizon and drop bombs from planes 10,000 feet in the air. Our military today is farther removed from the kill than is a jealous wife who hires a hit man to off her unfaithful husband.
Not witnesses to the kill, our servicemen begin to believe that they are not really in the killing business. Other lies follow: everything from “humanitarian” and “peacekeeping” missions, which bring nothing but strife, to “childcare centers” void of any real care for children. (The Armed Forces are already the nation’s largest operator of institutional daycare.) When we must admit to killing, we speak as antiseptically as we think we act. “Surgical bombing”—what an oxymoron!
Some pilots may protest that they are fully aware of the nature of their work, but their arguments do not square with the testimony of a Canadian pilot interviewed last April by the Toronto Globe and Mail. (Canada is an ideal cultural barometer for estimating how close we will be to the abyss in ten years.) Did the pilot think about the people whom he was killing with his bombs? “No.” What was his chief concern? “Discharging [his] payload and returning to base.” (Images of another joyless activity come to mind.)
Waging war so far from the kill does little to reduce the military might of those whom we bomb. We now know that for all the tonnage we dropped on the Serbs, we left Milosevic’s army largely intact. Talk about denatured warfare: Most of the vehicles and tanks we bombed were decoys, and most of the people we killed or maimed were noncombatants. What is more, according to Hillary Clinton’s biographer, Gail Sheehy, it was the First Lady who ordered the bombing.
Noncombatants, of course, are the chief victims of our other chosen method of denatured warfare: the embargo. Flow many hundreds of thousands of Iraqi and Serb women, children, and elderly have suffered and died because of our courageous act of denying them the things they need to live? (I understand that my countrymen in Slovakia—who are still real men—have thumbed their noses at the “international community” and are selling electricity to the Serbs this winter.)
Is there any hope of reversing the march toward a military unwilling and unable to fight a real fight? Getting women out of the force is the first step, but on this point, conservatives have erred in arguing with the feminists in technical terms. As long as conservatives object to women in the military on the grounds that they cannot throw a hand grenade beyond its blast radius, or hump a 70-pound pack, or fasten a pistol belt around a pregnant belly, the feminists will always have a technical response: more arm curls, a lighter hand grenade, longer web belts, and “besides, war nowadays is more about pushing buttons and looking at screens than it is about mud and bayonets and charging machine-gun nests.”
Wien feminists make the case for women in uniform, they argue from what they regard as a moral position. They speak in terms of right and wrong, not of combat readiness. It is wrong to deny women the opportunity to serve their country. It is right for women to enjoy the same advantages that men do. Conservatives need to respond in kind: It is immoral for a nation to send its daughters, wives, sisters, and mothers to war. We have forgotten that it is immoral because we have been convinced that it is something other than an act of killing. We should remind ourselves before we are reminded.