Last month, two U.S. Army officers, Capt. Kristen Griest and 1st Lt. Shaye Haver, were the first two women candidates to graduate Ranger school. This is an event to take pride in. Out of a field of four hundred, 25% made it. The others were washed out or set back, which gives you some idea how tough the course is. Not to diminish the effort they all made, but to suggest it's a steep gradient. A lot of us wouldn't qualify.
When the news broke, former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee felt compelled to remark that the U.S. military isn't a social laboratory - they're meant to kill people and break things, is what he said. I take his point, but I think he's got it backwards. (He's also obviously taking a swipe at the retention of openly gay soldiers.)
In spite of being a deeply conservative, even intransigent, institution, the U.S. military has always been a social laboratory. The most intense combats we've fought are the Civil War and WWII, both of which brought enormous change. Viet Nam is of course a living memory to most of the people in my generation, but no matter how important it is, to us personally, and how divisive it was, to the country as a whole, I'm not sure it has as much historical significance as the other two. I could be proved
wrong. Viet Nam colors the thinking - strategic and political - of all our current senior commanders, and it's a perceived failure they don't want to see repeated. This leads to a kind of self-referential loop, or a fractured lens. It's a commonplace to say we're always fighting the last battle.
The point about the American Civil War, and the Second World War, is that they commanded near-total mobilization of men and resources. This is what sets them apart, in our experience. The machinery of the war effort was an engine that powered the new century. Few were left untouched by it. And then, afterwards, something similar happened both times. The peacetime Army drew down. It was more severe after the Civil War. 2 million men served under arms in the Union Army, and a million and a half fought for the Confederacy, but during the Indian Wars in the 1870's, the active-duty Army numbered no more than 30,000. WWII saw twelve million Americans serve. After demobilization, that figure dropped to a million-five.
The dislocations of war reflect broader social tensions and dislocations. To take one example, the Irish made up 10% of the Union Army - the Irish were also at the forefront of the New York draft riots, but they're a complicated clan - and a high proportion elected to stay in the military after the war ended. This at a time when professional soldiers were something of a despised class, and the Irish had a bad reputation to overcome, as well. It turned out to be a good career choice, in the main. More recently, although black GI's have served in every American war, there were few of them in combat during WWII, and that in segregated units, with white officers, but Truman fully integrated the services in 1948.
Women have played a supporting role - nurses and typists, although there were women pilots in WWII, not in combat, but ferrying resupply and aircraft into combat zones. The received wisdom being the usual boilerplate about upper body strength or lack of the warrior gene and all the rest, which still hasn't disappeared. Homosexuals have served with distinction, in spite of a prevailing locker room mentality. For that matter, so have Communist sympathizers and conscientious objectors.
In the end, it boils down to duty, not your politics, or your skin, or whether you sit down to pee. Lt. Haver and Capt. Griest have demonstrated that. They're the first but they won't be the last.
[This is a snapshot of my pal Michael Parnell, tired but happy, the day he himself completed Ranger training. I don't mean to make him self-conscious. He has every reason to be proud.]