The passage of time causes the oddest things to happen. The children of the sixties are now in their sixties, and all that antiwar stuff came to nothing. Yeah, that war in Vietnam was both an epic farce and a far more epic tragedy, and like the French before us, we lost. The final helicopter lifted off from the roof of what was left of our embassy in Saigon and that was that. That war broke Lyndon Johnson – he refused to run for reelection – and pretty much destroyed the Democratic Party at their 1968 convention in Chicago. Then Nixon fared no better. His secret plan to end the war turned out to be no plan at all – invading Cambodia was not the answer, nor was the Christmas carpet-bombing of Hanoi, to move the secret peace talks in Paris along, which it didn’t. It was Gerald Ford who finally pulled the plug on the whole effort. Vietnam fell to the communists, and now they’re one of or key trading partners and more than happy to help us contain a newly aggressive and expansive China. They never liked the Chinese in the first place, but we did, as China was our close ally in World War II – when we had to defeat the Japanese, who now make half the cars sold in America, which we drive to sushi restaurants. It’s complicated. The antiwar activists of the sixties had no clue about any of this. Yes, peace is better than war, and you shouldn’t kill large numbers of people for no particular reason, and you shouldn’t sacrifice a generation of young men for no particular reason either. There are better ways to work things out. It’s just that no one knows what they are.
We’re still working on this. On April 22, 1971, John Kerry became the first Vietnam veteran to testify before Congress about the war – he spoke for nearly two hours to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, presenting the conclusions of the Winter Soldier Investigation and then discussing the big policy issues. He had his three Purple Hearts and his other medals, but now he had long hair and told them this war was stupid. There was no point in continuing, although ending the thing would be difficult. How do you ask someone to be that last man to die for a mistake? Then he did the unthinkable. The day after this testimony he was part of that demonstration with thousands of other veterans – they threw their medals and ribbons over a fence at the front steps of the Capitol building. It was dramatic. Each veteran gave his name, hometown, branch of service and a statement – no one was hiding anything. Kerry’s statement was this – “I’m not doing this for any violent reasons, but for peace and justice, and to try and make this country wake up once and for all.”
That would come back to haunt him. When he ran for president against George Bush in 2004 he was branded a coward and a crybaby. Yeah, he was a decorated war hero, but those well-financed Swift Boat Veterans for Truth ran a devastating PR campaign, all innuendo and hints, that he was a weak sister. George Bush, who avoided Vietnam as a fighter pilot stateside, and pretty much just didn’t even show up for duty for two years, was the real war hero, somehow. This was puzzling but it worked. George Bush clearly loved war – he’d started a few after all – and John Kerry felt that there were better ways to work things out. It wasn’t what you did, or had done – it was all about your attitude. And of course after 9/11 the nation was itching for war after war. Kerry was doomed.
The irony came on January 24, 2013, with John Kerry once again testifying before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, but this time sailing through his confirmation hearings as Obama has nominated him to replace Hillary Clinton as Secretary of State. Everyone loves him now, even the Republicans – all is forgiven. Everyone seems to know he was right all along, or they know that now – there are better ways to work things out. Now he’s a statesman, not a long-haired hippie punk – and George Bush is silent in Texas, an irrelevant embarrassment. The passage of time really does cause the oddest things to happen.
Don’t believe it. The antiwar activists of the sixties did not triumph, finally. We’re always at war. We always have been. After we took care of the Germans and Japanese we found ourselves at war in Korea and that one isn’t even over yet – we’re in the sixtieth year of a formal cease-fire with the North Koreans now suggesting it’s time to get back to real fighting – with their new and perhaps imaginary nuclear weapons versus the real ones we’ve got. Vietnam followed that Korean cease-fire, such as it was, and Ronald Reagan had us invade Granada and Panama, and Bill Clinton had us bombing Kosovo, and then it was Iraq for ten years, and now Afghanistan, for at least a tad longer, after a dozen years there. Any brief periods of peace were an aberration, and probably bad for the economy too. Eisenhower did warn us about the military-industrial complex that would, if we weren’t careful, determine almost everything we do in the world. He was right. Give peace a chance? That’s not what we do.
Add to that the brick wall that John Kerry ran into in 2004 – our worship of the warrior spirit or something like that. For more than a decade now we have come to trust the military to get things done, or actually to get most everything done. In the Bush years the Department of State became a little less important than the National Park Service – in Iraq, and then in Afghanistan, it became the job of the military to help create a working government. Donald Rumsfeld ran the show, through his generals, not Colin Powell and then Condoleezza Rice. Those two were tokens – not because they were black but because the military was wonderful and could do anything. Second Lieutenants were meeting with tribal elders about local infrastructure projects and Majors were setting up and running national elections and settling questions of authority and proper governance. No one needs diplomats when you have soldiers, and we had the best – save for Abu Ghraib and the occasional massacre of a few civilians.
One thing leads to another. All our soldiers – and sailors and airmen and Marines too – are heroes now. We all say that. There’s no question about that. We have an all-volunteer military after all, and these folks had the guts to join up to protect and save us and fight and die for us. At least that’s the idea. They may have had other motives of all sorts, but that doesn’t matter. Thank you for your service. The words open and close every public conversation with anyone in the military, and we should thank them. It’s just that this is not what the antiwar activists of long ago imagined. They imagined reluctant heroes, or at least humble heroes. They didn’t imagine a world where a goofy nineteen-year-old Private, assigned to late afternoon guard duty at the secondary gate at a small depot in Iowa, would be the most heroic of American heroes, by virtue of being in the military in any way at all. The world changed. Blessed are the peacemakers, as Jesus said, but any soldier of any kind is respected, no questions asked, and that matters more. All that antiwar stuff, even John Kerry’s, may have been right all along, but that doesn’t matter now. Kerry will get the new job at State, but the lowliest soldier is now the most respected man in America.
This is heady stuff. Who wouldn’t want to be unquestioningly respected? Ask that question and you get an answer:
The Pentagon lifted its ban on women in front-line combat roles on Thursday in a historic step toward gender equality in the U.S. armed forces after 11 years of nonstop war, during which the front lines were often not clearly defined.
Defense Secretary Leon Panetta and General Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, signed an order at a Pentagon news conference rescinding the rule that prevented women from serving in direct combat jobs.
“They serve, they’re wounded, and they die right next to each other. The time has come to recognize that reality,” Panetta said, noting that 152 women in uniform had been killed in Iraq and Afghanistan.
“Over more than a decade of war, they have demonstrated courage and skill and patriotism,” he said.
This was two years after the Pentagon scrapped Don’t-Ask Don’t-Tell and now gays and lesbians can serve openly in the military. In a country always at war, where the one sure way to be respected totally and without question is to be a full participant in war, you don’t deny anyone that opportunity. That wouldn’t be fair, and Obama added this:
“Today every American can be proud that our military will grow even stronger with our mothers, wives, sisters and daughters playing a greater role in protecting this country we love,” Obama said, calling the decision a “historic step.”
Everyone gets a chance at sure-fire respect, but only a chance:
“Let me be clear. We are not talking about reducing the qualifications for the job,” Panetta said. “If they can meet the qualifications for the job, then they should have the right to serve regardless of creed or color or gender or sexual orientation.”
“There are no guarantees of success,” he added. “Not everyone is going to be able to be a combat soldier. But everyone is entitled to a chance.”
Of course they are:
The American Civil Liberties Union, which filed a suit in November seeking to force the Pentagon to end the ban on women in combat, applauded the decision. For many women service members, the move is belated acknowledgement of the realities of the past decade of war, in which there were often no clearly defined front lines. Of those who served in the wars, 152 have been killed, including 84 in hostile action, and nearly 1,000 have been wounded.
Slate’s William Saletan offers context:
Nineteen years ago, when the Department of Defense considered whether to let women serve officially in combat, opponents said it might weaken the military. They called it a dangerous “social experiment.” And they won. DOD issued a decree that “women shall be excluded from assignment to units below the brigade level whose primary mission is to engage in direct combat on the ground.”
Today, as DOD moves to rescind that rule, defenders of the 1994 policy are sounding the same alarm. “Our military cannot continue to choose social experimentation and political correctness over combat readiness,” says Penny Nance, president of Concerned Women for America. “This kind of a social experiment is a dangerous one,” says Elaine Donnelly, president of the Center for Military Readiness. “The people making this decision are doing so as part of another social experiment,” says retired Lt. Gen. Jerry Boykin, executive vice president of the Family Research Council. “Is the social experiment worth placing this burden on small unit leaders? I think not.”
No one’s buying that this time:
House Speaker John Boehner and Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell are lying low. Sen. John McCain, R-Arizona, and other Republicans who set the party’s tone on defense issues are endorsing DOD’s decision. Why? Because the women-in-combat experiment has already happened – it was conducted in Afghanistan and Iraq by the administration of President George W. Bush. And it worked.
They were already there, doing the fighting and dying, and everyone in Washington knows it:
Members of the House of Representatives now serve with Rep. Tammy Duckworth, D-Illinois, who lost her legs as a helicopter pilot in Iraq. They also know Rep. Tulsi Gabbard, D-Hawaii, another Iraq veteran. And many lawmakers have visited war zones. “I’ve seen firsthand service men and women working together in a range of dangerous operations to achieve our military objectives,” says Sen. Kelly Ayotte, R-New Hampshire. “Today’s announcement reflects the increasing role that female service members play in securing our country.” McCain agrees: “American women are already serving in harm’s way today all over the world and in every branch of our armed forces. Many have made the ultimate sacrifice.” The chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, Rep. Buck McKeon, R-California, welcomes DOD’s decision and notes that during “a decade of critical military service in hostile environments, women have demonstrated a wide range of capabilities in combat operations.”
Saletan comes to this conclusion:
This is what happens to warnings about social experiments. Officially or not, the experiments take place. Sometimes, as in the case of single parenthood, they fail. Sometimes, as is in the case of gay marriage, they succeed. When they succeed, we lose our fear. And when they involve bravery, service, and sacrifice, we’re moved. We aren’t talking about experimentation anymore. We’re talking about experience.
Kayla Williams, a former sergeant and Arabic linguist in a Military Intelligence company of the 101st Airborne Division (Air Assault) – who also wrote Love My Rifle More Than You: Young and Female in the U.S. Army – offers more detail:
Those who served in Iraq and Afghanistan came to understand that in complex counterinsurgency operations, especially in Muslim nations, the presence of women troops is a vital way to interact with the civilian population – so important, in fact, that military leaders have long been skirting the old regulations by placing women in combat units.
Today, when Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta announces the repeal of the combat ban on women soldiers, the policy will finally catch up to the reality that many of us who have served in Iraq and Afghanistan already know. It will now be up to the services to demonstrate that women should be banned from specific jobs, rather than there being a blanket ban on women in all ground combat roles and smaller units whose primary mission is direct ground combat. It is a tremendous step forward. The fact that the final push has come from within the military speaks volumes for how vital women have become to operational success.
This is a triumph for women, and for fairness, in a nation in love with war. This news eclipsed the Kerry confirmation hearings, although the National Review’s Heather MacDonald isn’t too happy:
Any claim that our fighting forces are not reaching their maximum potential because females are not included is absurd. The number of women who are the equal to reasonably well-developed men in upper-body strength and who have the same stamina and endurance is vanishingly small. Because the number of women who will meet the military’s already debased physical-fitness standard will not satisfy the feminists’ demand for representation, the fitness standard will inevitably be lowered across the board or for women alone, as we have seen in civilian uniformed forces.
Maybe so, but Marc Ambinder disagrees:
The worry that standards will be relaxed for women is more appropriately expressed as a desire to make sure that the standards for the job are exacting and right; that means that some may be relaxed, and some may be tightened. Equality of condition in the military for men and women is not a goal of this policy. An end to discriminatory policies that have no rational basis while preserving military readiness – a readiness that still does incorporate recognition of gender differences – is.
Adrian Bonenberger – who describe himself as a former “executive officer (second in command) of a mixed-gender logistical unit in the 173rd Airborne Brigade for seven months” – says here that “watching women do CrossFit at strength levels beyond anything I achieved as a soldier have convinced me that women are capable of meeting the challenge of infantry training and infantry missions as well.” One only needs to be smart about things:
There are two truths functioning in parallel here. The first is that women are different from men. The second is that in modern warfare, women may in many ways be as good as men at fighting. Some evidence suggests that women may be better suited than men to be pilots, for one thing, and may be as capable as or better than men as snipers and marksmen. Rather than ignoring the differences (the current method) or trying to make women into men, or vice versa (the proposed future method), the military should be looking for ways to maximize the capabilities of both.
Here’s what I’m worried about: that the military will let women fail, that it will change the standards to allow unqualified candidates to succeed, then stand around with crossed arms waiting for a chance to say: “You see? I told you. Women can’t do it.” Instead, it should be taking all measures necessary to ensure that qualified women succeed.
That’s a dead end. Stuart Ackerman says there’s no stopping this now:
Reminiscent of the drawn-out effort to remove the ban on gays and lesbians serving openly, the different military services will have a long time to open their most dangerous tasks to women. Initial plans from the services for implementing the repeal are due on May 15. Reportedly, the services have until January 2016 to seek exemptions for positions they believe should remain closed to women. Still, as CNN notes, eliminating “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” might have taken a long time, but when it ultimately ended in mid-2011, it happened all at once, with all military positions open to out gays and lesbians.
He then cites the Pentagon official who leaked the news:
It’s likely to have the same effect as the repeal of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell, the policy that allowed gays and lesbians to serve but required them to hide their sexuality. “The effect of that?” the official said. “A big zero…”
And then the military homogenization of America will be complete. John Kerry will be the new secretary of state, but he will have thrown those medals over the wall for no reason at all. You can try and make this country wake up once and for all, but that’s never going to happen.