On military women: Making the worst case

March 15, 1998|By Joanna Daemmrich | Joanna Daemmrich,SUN STAFF

"Women in the Military: Flirting with Disaster," by Brian Mitchell. Regnery. 405 pages. $24.95.

Finally, a guy blurts out what others usually only dare to whine privately after a few beers: They had to let in women - and the old fraternity was ruined.

Or, as Army veteran Brian Mitchell laments: The gutless brass sold out the nation's brave officers and gentlemen and left the once-proud military weak-kneed and demoralized. But as his book demonstrates, the politically correct don't have the monopoly on self-righteous and tiresome arguments about women in the military.

More liberal historians blame the military's macho culture for the persistent hostility toward women. Arch-conservative Mitchell claims the reverse point of view, but quickly resorts to bashing all the usual targets: the media, politicians and "feminists." Skipping over contradictory facts and quoting outdated statistics, he denounces the "feminization" of America's armed forces in his second book, "Women in the Military: Flirting with Disaster."

He uses a survey to suggest Navy recruits prefer comfortable shore jobs - though it was taken in 1983 long before the combat ban was lifted to allow women aboard warships. He doesn't give a name or date of another study that he writes showed female Air Force mechanics barely had the strength to lift their tool boxes.

Many of his assertions aren't backed up with any research. Recent graduates of military academies may be astounded to read that since the arrival of women, the honored traditions "would never again mean as much to those who went there."

In one breath, Mitchell claims that Navy Lt. Paula Coughlin "had reason to appear defensive" because she wore a denim miniskirt at the Tailhook convention where she was fondled by drunken aviators. In the next, he critizes Barbara Pope, an assistant Navy secretary, for appearing in "dowdy business dresses," unlike a more savvy Pentagon appointee who "dressed to kill in short skirts."

So are short skirts good or bad? Never mind; Mitchell already has swept on with his blame-the-victim ranting.

Similarly, he dismisses military women's accomplishments, from peacetime work to fighting in the Gulf, as either exaggerated or the result of unearned favoritism. Better to focus instead on Navy Lt. Kara Hultgreen's fatal crash of her F-14 fighter jet.

Mitchell has some valid criticisms of the military's tendency to deny any difficulties with accommodating ever-greater numbers of women. He also notes that the media are too eager to believe allegations of abuse; for example, one woman at Aberdeen, who charged a drill sergeant with rape turned out to be a chronic liar.

Such points get lost, however, in his exaggerated tirade about the pink-collared military. For men and women in the armed services, it will hardly seem new; they've been rehashing gender conflicts for years. But Mitchell's book is a must-read for politicians, reporters and scholars who often are perplexed by military men's tenacious resistance to women.

Unquestionably, as Mitchell writes, "many military men still like to think that they endure the danger and hardships of service so that mothers and children can be safe at home." But he forgets that others are comfortable fighting side by side with women. And in a war, everyone at home will be better off by fewer "boys-will-be-boys" shenanigans and more clear-headed thinking by the sailors and soldiers - of either sex.

Joanna Daemmrich spent eight months covering gender issues at Annapolis in 1996. She also wrote about the Army's sexual exploitation scandal at Aberdeen. She has been a reporter with The Sun for eight years and currently covers the statehouse.

Pub Date: 3/15/98

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