August
16th 2009
Whig of Illusory Progress awarded to the New York Times!

Posted under: American history, Gender, women's history

wig

The Whig of Illusory Progress!

Good morning, folks!  Autumn is here on the high plains desert.  The light even in late afternoon is looking paler and whiter, and a cold front blew in last night that demanded window-shutting and sweater-putting-on.  Amazing!  Well, at least some members of famille Historiann get some use out of winter through skiing.  We still have a lot of warm, sunny afternoons to look forward to in September and October (and sometimes into November!)

The seasons change, but some things don’t apparently, so today I award a Whig of Illusory Progress to the New York Times for its proclamation that because of the invasions and occupations of Afghanistan and Iraq, “G.I. Jane Breaks the Combat Barrier as War Evolves!”  It’s a decent article, summarizing what people who study women in the military have been saying for at least the past thirty years:  warfare has changed, and military technology demands a wider skill set than pure brawn, with evidence and interviews with people who have served in our current wars for the empire.  Since the majority of today’s military is no longer a majority of infantry or combat positions, women are everywhere:

From Necessity, Opportunity [ed. note:  this sub-head is worth a Whiggy of its own!  Where have we heard this before?]

No one envisioned that Afghanistan and Iraq would elevate the status of women in the armed forces. 

But the Iraq insurgency obliterated conventional battle lines. The fight was on every base and street corner, and as the conflict grew longer and more complicated, the all-volunteer military required more soldiers and a different approach to fighting. Commanders were forced to stretch gender boundaries, or in a few cases, erase them altogether.

.       .       .       .       .       .       .       .       .      

War is different today, they say. Technology has changed the way some of these jobs are done, making them more mechanized and less strength-dependent. Warfare in Iraq involves a lot more driving than walking.

What is more, not all combat jobs are the same. Handling field artillery or working in Bradleys, for example, are jobs more suited to some women than light infantry duties, which can require carrying heavy packs for miles.

Yadda yadda yadda.  Someone with more time than I have this morning can go find the same story written after the Gulf War in 1991, I am sure, not to mention the same narratives of women’s “empowerment” and “progress” through warfare that go all the way back to the Revolutionary War.  I suppose this Whiggy has to be provisional, until we have evidence of the erasure of this kind of “progress” for women in the military when (or if?) the U.S. ever withdraws finally and completely from Iraq and Afghanistan, and the postwar era (like all postwar eras) permits us all to forget the importance of women in this war, and to reimpose sex-segregation in the military. 

Mark my words:  the U.S. won’t give up on sex segregation in the military so easily and quietly as the officers quoted in the New York Times say they have, because military service, and in particular combat service, is the one thing that differentiates men from women citizens.  Of course, this difference is for the most part theoretical, since the vast majority of Americans don’t in fact serve in the military, but a whole aircraft carrier’s worth of assumptions and privileges rests on this slender thread.  There are very real and powerful reasons why Gore Vidal calls us “the United States of Amnesia.”

11 Comments »

11 Responses to “Whig of Illusory Progress awarded to the New York Times!”

  1. Erica on 16 Aug 2009 at 8:40 am #

    “Warfare in Iraq involves a lot more driving than walking.”

    I found that sentence particularly funny, given the ages-old “women can’t drive” myth, and the fact that apparently us fragile women are incapable of walking or carrying heavy packs for miles. Inequitable hiking endurance? Puh-lease.

  2. Historiann on 16 Aug 2009 at 8:43 am #

    Yeah–I think it has more to do with the fact that it’s difficult to identify a “front line” in an urban war of occupation, but wev.

  3. Indyanna on 16 Aug 2009 at 10:59 am #

    I think there’s room for skepticism about the _Times_ piece, but also maybe skepticism about skepticism, and so the “provisional” designation is probably the right one. The basest sort of whiggery is not just an overly or naievely optimistic perception of change or progress, but some implication that progress is in the nature of things, and the article doesn’t really suggest that. True, you probably could find a similar article in 1991, but not one for Vietnam, or Korea, or a long series of wars before that (if we exclude “homefront” issues).

    The postwar trajectory is definitely where to look for the key. Sometimes it’s where the actual change happens. After WWII, Truman used the executive authority of the commander in chief to make race-based changes in the military system that could never have been pushed through the Dixiecrat congress for the civilian society. The Army said hey, we’re not an agency designed for social experimentation, but that’s exactly what it became, and some of the results spilled or seeded over into the early years of the Civil Rights era.

    None of this is to take too blithe a commentary tone, but I do think the potential for “evidence of…erasure” is the right place to keep the light shined on.

  4. Rad Readr on 16 Aug 2009 at 11:06 am #

    The reporter who wrote that seems to have developed a beat out of post-war traumatic stress. Among her previoius stories are some about violence to women (spousal abuse upon returning to the United States) and also high rates of suicide. So, the overall picture is the U.S. has bombed the hell out of these countries, killed tens of thousands of people, suffered thousands of its own casualties, created a returning force of psychologically traumatized soldiers who kill women and themselves — but hey, there are more opportunities for women in combat!! A well-deserved whig award.

  5. Notorious Ph.D. on 16 Aug 2009 at 11:33 am #

    Women have been at the barricades (sometimes quite literally) for centuries. But the existence of Women Who Can Kill You is too much to be borne for too long. Expect stories like this to be balance out with a soldier-moms with babies thing.

    And I’ll believe that discrimination based on gender (as opposed to biological sex) is over in the military when they start letting openly gay men and women in.

  6. tanya on 16 Aug 2009 at 11:52 am #

    My dissertation-in-progress analyzes women’s roles in national defense from the end of WW2 through the late 1970s – when they finally did away with the women’s components that had (in an administrative sense) separated women and men in the services. Recently I read some 1978 congressional debates over women in combat, and the things said in those sessions are just, well, insane. This inability to separate cultural ideas of femininity and what women “should do” from what women are capable of doing – it’s just so huge when it comes to military service in our country. And it’s the nation’s own loss – or rather, Congress being idiotic time and time again, because they’re the ones who made the rules that regulated women’s service for so long.

    I personally love this quote from Colonel Mary Hallaren of the Women’s Army Corps – she said this back in 1947 when they were in the midst of debates for the Women’s Armed Services Integration Act:

    “In the future, we won’t have to worry about recruiting the women or convincing the men. When the house is on fire, we don’t talk about a woman’s place in the home. And we don’t send her a gilt-edged invitation to help put the fire out. In the future, we shall be concerned with her utilization.”

    Now, if we could just get to the point where we don’t need to convince the men….

  7. Paul on 16 Aug 2009 at 9:31 pm #

    “because military service, and in particular combat service, is the one thing that differentiates men from women citizens.”

    I don’t know – I can’t help but think that if we reach the point where that is the only thing that distinguishes the lives of men and women citizens, it will be largely to the advantage of the women. After all, if in a future time men and women have equal authority in every part of life, but one group is expected to risk their lives in combat while the other is not, which one is privileged?

    Also, while the “Whiggish” view of history certainly has its problems, and is completely wrong in some areas, it isn’t completely wrong, either. There certainly seems to me like there has been a lot of progress over time – although it is often slow, uneven, and with periods of backsliding.

  8. Investigations of a Dog » Combat Roles and Patriarchal Equilibrium on 17 Aug 2009 at 4:05 am #

    [...] Historiann has posted about a very Whiggish article in the New York Times about how changes in warfare have supposedly improved women’s rights by creating more opportunities for female combat soldiers. As Ann points out, there are lots of things wrong with this article. She concentrates on the fact that similar things were said during the Gulf War in 1991 but that the supposed progress evaporated after the war. As some of the commenters suggest, the idea that women used to be incapable of fighting but that changing technology has made things easier for them is basically a lie. Joshua Goldstein’s book War and Gender (which I’ve posted about before) presented lots of empirical evidence to demolish the assumption that women are smaller and weaker than men. This is true on average, but in practice most people aren’t exactly average. In fact statistics for size and strength for men and women are distributed along bell curves which overlap. The biggest, strongest women are bigger and stronger than the smallest, weakest men. Goldstein estimated that in a major war, if combat soldiers were recruited purely by ability and not by gender then about 10-15% of combat soldiers should be female. This has clearly not been the case in reality. Goldstein found that some form of war exists in almost every culture, and that women have nearly always been formally excluded from active combat roles. There are a few exceptions (eg the Dahomey in West Africa in the 19th century, the Soviet Union in the Second World War) but these just prove that women can fight, and therefore their exclusion in most other cultures must be down to gender ideology. Or not quite. Because Goldstein sees the gendering of combat roles as being too universal to be down to gender ideology, which would be expected to be culturally specific. This is where I part company with Goldstein. While War and Gender is a really important book which needs to be read by anyone interested in either war or gender (or just by anyone), it has its limitations, which we need to move on from. [...]

  9. Historiann on 17 Aug 2009 at 7:01 am #

    Thanks, all, for your comments–I was out most of the day yesterday and couldn’t participate in the discussion. Tanya, thanks for the report on your research–it sounds fascinating!

    As to Indyanna’s point that the Whiggy in this case must be provisional until we see what happens after the wars (if there ever is a postwar period in the future…): I suppose I wasn’t just hitting on the whiggishness of the analysis of women’s role in combat, but speaking to the larger Whig history trend in which every war changes EVERYTHING for women in American history:

    1. The American Revolution changed EVERYTHING because it showed that women were deserving of the privlileges of citizenship in a republic.

    2. The Civil War changed EVERYTHING because of the valiant support on the home front and troop support (and among Southern women, on the front lines frequently) showed that women were equal to men in their sacrifice.

    3. World War II changed EVERYTHING because women demonstrated that they could do industrial jobs that only men had done.

    Etc. Yes, things have changed for women over the last 233 years, but not as much as the rest of the world has changed. Women are still expected to volunteer their labor, especially in times of crisis, and then they’re expected to retreat when their nation no longer needs them. Women never get anything for the better out of war–and while Harry Truman’s deseg of the army is a terrific example of the war changing things, it’s not an example of war changing anything for women. I won’t hold my breath that the military will desegregate in terms of sex and sexuality (as Notorious points out, an important corollary in desegregating the current military), for the reasons that Tanya points us too: none of our civilian “leaders” want to have that fight.

    Barack Obama could presumably issue a Truman-like order to desegregate the military and to prohibit the dismissal of gay men and women–but he hasn’t, and my bet is that he won’t.

  10. Historiann on 17 Aug 2009 at 9:04 am #

    p.s. a colleague who saw this blog post recommended a book chapter that addresses some of the themes engaged here:

    [Ch 6] “Military Multiculturalism in the Gulf War and After, 1990-1999,” Melani McAlister, Epic Encounters: Culture, Media, & U.S. Interests in the Middle East since 1945, 2nd ed. (Berkeley: Univ. of California Press, 2005), pp. 235-65.

    I looked it over this morning–it’s a good review of the media coverage of the war, which indeed included lots of “hey, women are now fully integrated in our fighting forces!” stories like the NYT article linked above, and also analyzes the celebration of the multicultural military in contemporary media reports. This chapter then goes on to analyze a few movies built around the Gulf War that appeared in the later 90s.

  11. tanya on 17 Aug 2009 at 9:33 am #

    Paul, I was interested in this part of your comment:

    “I don’t know – I can’t help but think that if we reach the point where that is the only thing that distinguishes the lives of men and women citizens, it will be largely to the advantage of the women. After all, if in a future time men and women have equal authority in every part of life, but one group is expected to risk their lives in combat while the other is not, which one is privileged?”

    The problem is that this would not privilege women, not with the current military structure. The US military *rewards* combat roles. It’s how you attain at the highest levels, and it’s how you get recognition. Because women aren’t theoretically supposed to be in combat, they get passed over for medals (just one part of things, of course), but this means they also get passed over for promotions.

    We didn’t get a four-star female general until last November – almost 60 years *to the day* since women were admitted to the services formally.