Minerva: Quarterly Report on Women and the Military

Quarterly Report on Women and the Military: The Kinder, Gentler Military: Can America’s Gender-Neutral Fighting Force Still Win Wars? – Review

The Kinder, Gentler Military: Can America’s Gender-Neutral Fighting Force Still Win Wars? – Review – book review

J. Michael Brower

The Kinder, Gentler Military: Can America’s Gender-Neutral Fighting Force Still Win Wars? A Lisa Drew Book (Scribner), NY, NY, 2000, pp. 300, hardcover: $25.00

Reviewed for H-Minerva by J. Michael Brower

When you had the covered wagons going across the country, there were lots

of examples of women engaged in ground combat. If women want to go into

combat, I don’t see any reason why they shouldn’t–Dr. Sheila Widnall,

Secretary of the Air Force, 11 February 1996, Washington Post.

There comes a time for every journalist to heed the knock of opportunity. In Stephanie Gutmann’s systematic trashing of the concept of women in the armed forces, that opportunity is the knocking down of her own sex. A cause celebre for conservatives with a penchant for the carelessly anecdotal, The Kinder, Gentler Military is a mocking caricature of female contributions to the American military, 300 pages of stepping repeatedly on the same rake, a shrill, semi-literate condemnation of “girls” invading this man’s military.

This brutal banality of a book begins with (non-military) veteran reporter Gutmann at Fort Jackson, Columbia, South Carolina, faulting the performance of women in basic training. The narrative then staggers into a tirade over women’s standard-lowering influence on military skills and decries pregnancy aboard Navy vessels. Gutmann generally leaves morale problems, operational failures, gender-related litigiousness, Tailhook ’91, sexual assaults and all forms of bad luck on the doorstep of females in the military, imperially concluding that we should throw over half of them out of the services. “There will be an outcry about `taking a step back,’ about discrimination,” intones the author solemnly, “about lack of opportunity. The only appropriate answer is `Too bad’.” This recommendation is given despite the author’s concession only a few pages before it that “women became an indispensable part of the U.S. armed forces a long time ago.”

Using interviews, cut-and-pastes from her previous articles, and secondary sources, Gutmann constructs a rickety story of females as a millstone about the neck of the military. The author cites the resentment of males (usually referred to as “boys”) against their female comrades-in-arms and attempts to prove that women reduce combat effectiveness. She posits that servicewomen cannot perform typical military tasks as proficiently as males, cannot comprehend the horrors of war, and challenges women’s “right to be in combat.”

Gutmann seems to all but openly rejoice that the seed of equality planted by the passage of the Women’s Armed Services Integration Act in June 1948 has yet to be fully harvested. She is wont to quote the hopelessly a-historical observation by John Keegan in The History of Warfare, “women do not fight. They rarely fight among themselves and they never, in any military sense, fight men. If warfare is as old as history and as universal as mankind, we must now enter the supremely important limitation that it is an entirely masculine activity.” This supreme erratum is the appropriate epitaph to this hysterical, misogynist “book.” Gutmann rivals Brian Mitchell’s 1989 study Weak Link in her enthusiasm to lambaste the contributions of the female-at-arms. The book is the antithesis of efforts like Dr. M. C. Devilbiss’ Women and Military Service (1990), which a decade ago did much toward assessing women in an historical context. It also ignores a host of works that emerged throughout the 1990s examining the role of the female in the military (e.g., Maria and John Dever’s Women and the Military (1995); Women Soldiers: Images and Realties, (1994), from editors Elisabetta Addis, Valeria E. Russo, and Lorenza Sebestaand; Crossed Currents: Navy Women From Worm War I to Tailhook (1994) by Jean Ebbert and Marie-Beth Hall and many, many others.) During a discussion of the dark hand of war upon woman (rape, crossfire casualties, refugee status, and loss of home and family), Gutmann sides with the apologists of militarism and finds the “New Military” incapable of fighting and winning the nation’s wars with so many women in the ranks.

Gutmann is hostile to the world-historical paradigm that is integrating women into all areas of the world’s militaries, to include combat and submarine duty. Her book fails to recognize, and is actually too juvenile to even consider, the economics roots of the women’s equality movement. It overlooks that women’s economic gains and subsequent status have translated into the political power which is propelling servicewomen inexorably to the highest ranks of the military. She applauds that the question of combat will restrain them a while longer. Gutmann is utterly blind to the fact that what was once in the military a “privilege” for women–serving in their nation’s armed forces–is evolving into adroit de femme. Despite the hundreds of books and military studies to the contrary, Gutmann concludes that servicewomen have helped to undermine this readiness: “It was once a happy marriage: young men who like to risk their bodies and shoot and blow things up, and a society that was plenty happy to let them do it served a special social good–besides keeping us free.” Women, we are to understand, have mined all that. While she doesn’t realize it Gutmann hints at the fact that the military is really about social control first, and shooting and blowing things up as an afterthought. Just as Gutmann’s insulting and overly simplistic analyses about the military will make any veteran cringe and bristle, her gauche dismissal of the contributions of servicewomen will enrage all who have honorably served their country in the armed forces. Only someone who has never served could have written such a insensitive, poorly researched, and sloppy book.

Her assessment is that military “morale is at rock bottom,” and has several “recommendations” for improvement (hold onto your seats!): (1) Increase the number of “high school dropouts we currently accept” in place of women [recall the success level of the “McNamara 100,000” during Viet Nam!]; (2) Separate the genders in boot camp (observes Gutmann, “Maybe we could keep more women in drill sergeant school if they faced the prospect of drilling women only.”); (3) Reform gender integration by endorsing the concept that “The military world does favor men”; (4) Permit more criticism in the ranks of “gender-integrated training” and similar questioning of equality policy; (5) Issue the Tailhook Association “an official apology” from the commander in chief and the joint chiefs regarding fallout from Tailhook ’91; (6) Revitalize the Peace Corps and distinguish “peacekeepers” from “warriors”; (7) Demand that all military services be more like the Marines (“The Marines: Live like them”), “because they are generally doing all right.”

Such a belletristic, half-baked, and sexist his-story will sooner than later find its way off the few bookshelves it degrades and happily into the ashbin of literary history. The Kinder, Gentler Military is recommended for anyone seeking the obscurantist, reactionary, historically twisted and hopelessly benighted view of servicewomen in the U.S. military.

J. Michael Brower is a Vermont writer focusing on military and information technology affairs. He served as an analyst in the Army Secretariat at the Pentagon from 1991-1997 and is an Air Force veteran.

This is an expanded version of a review J. Michael Brower originally wrote for, the Stars and Stripes Web site.

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