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I hear aircraft carriers are in this season

June 24, 2011

The Guardian yesterday had, linked from its front page, a brief piece on Rear Admiral Nora Tyson, the first woman to command a US Navy aircraft carrier strike group. Until today I had no idea Adm Tyson existed (or indeed what the correct abbreviation for “Admiral” was) and having found out I am, on balance, glad that she does.

Recently, at the height of the controversy about “don’t ask, don’t tell” – the law forbidding gay, lesbian and bisexual members of the American armed forces from serving openly – in the US, there were a few voices in the social justice blogosphere essentially saying “With all the crap that is wrong about the American military-industrial complex, why the hell are we fighting to get into it?” And I can see their point, and can see an analogous argument in this case that an admiral who happens to be a woman taking command of a nuclear-powered US Navy aircraft carrier named in honour of George Bush Senior is not something to celebrate.

On the list of things wrong with military-industrial complexes in general, though, equal right to serve and equal treatment of service members are two of the more tractable problems. (Arguably, integrating the military properly would be a step, however tiny, on the way towards making it unnecessary; a tiny reduction in the net amount of inequality in the world, I guess.) And at the moment, none of the nations with armed forces seem terrifically interested in getting rid of them, and military service is still a valorised career choice; you work with what you’ve got.

There is a certain weight to the argument that the drive for equality in the military is only encouraging them, as it were, and that making it a less prejudiced environment would just encourage more people to join, ultimately perpetuating the whole business. Which is possible, though I suspect that some of any gain in recruitment would be offset by a drop in sign-up from those wedded to older-fashioned ideas.

I have to come down in the end, though, on the side of pursuing and celebrating equality in the armed forces being a worthwhile thing to do. It’s not a zero-sum game: it’s possible to simultaneously work towards a more representative military and in the longer term aim to reduce its presence or get rid of it entirely. Getting rid of sexism and homophobia would at least thin the list of wrong things a bit.

(Aside: This is one where it’s particularly obvious that sexism bites both ways. Military service is routinely portrayed even by its fans as physically backbreaking, psychologically devastating, brutal, dangerous, and thankless work – and by the same people as inherently a man’s job. What the hell is this supposed to say about men? Their injuries and trauma are insignificant? They’re naturally predisposed to be better at killing? There’s some pretty uncomplimentary implications there.)

Thoughts on the morality of the military temporarily aside, what actually spurred me to write this post was something else entirely. Whatever one’s views of Rear Admiral Tyson’s choice of career (helpfully detailed on the Admiral’s Wikipedia page) there is no denying her success at it is pretty formidable. She’s served in the US Navy for more than thirty years and is now in charge of approximately one hundred thousand tons of floating nuclear-propelled steel. (Just the fact that I can write the phrase “one hundred thousand tons of floating nuclear-propelled steel” and have it refer to an item of human construction is pretty amazing when you think about it.)

Her command of the USS George H.W. Bush on its first deployment may not be of international significance, but it’s no small thing. When I clicked through to the Guardian article from the link on their front page, I was expecting it to be in the “News: US” section – surely the logical place to file interesting tidbits from that country’s military. But no. It’s under “Life & Style: Women”.

I’m not entirely sold on the necessity or helpfulness of having a separate section of newspaper for news about women, but I can kind of see where they’re coming from. Having the “Women” section be not even a top-level category – when TV is a top-level category for chrissakes – but a subset of “Life & Style”, though? Fuck that shit.

Exercises for the reader:

1) Please attempt to envision circumstances under which the appointment of a male admiral to command of a US aircraft carrier would be reported in the “Life & Style” section of any newspaper. (The only even halfway likely possibility I can think of is if he were gay – which speaks for itself, I think. Though given the following list I have no idea which sub-category this would be put under.)

2) Peruse the following list of sub-categories under the Guardian’s “Life & Style” tab:

Fashion
Food
Health
Homes
Gardens
Fitness
Craft
Family
Relationships
Showbiz
Women
Dating

3) Sigh.

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11 Comments leave one →
  1. June 24, 2011 8:34 am

    Weirdly, The Guardian does have a separate sections for Feminism (though for stories explicitly about feminism, not women in general), Gender and Gay Rights filed under World News, as well as Equality and Disability filed under Society, which just makes it even odder that Women is under Life & Style.

    (Incidentally, the article in question is in the US Military and United States sections as well, but for some reason they’ve picked Women as the most important one at the top of the article.)

    Also, sorry if all the links in this means it ends up in your spam queue!

  2. Mark permalink
    June 25, 2011 11:37 am

    I’d imagine it’s more an editorial decision about the readership of different sections than a matter of taxonomy.

  3. June 25, 2011 12:03 pm

    I get the impression from the brevity of the article, and the sparseness of her quotes, that they couldn’t persuade her to give the kind of gushingly girly soundbites that they wanted – Nothing about painting her nails Mountbatten pink, or anything along the lines of “The sailors under my command all act like I’m their Mum”.

    The shoehorning of her quotes into the structure make for a few baffling moments though;

    [quote] But the rise of women through the ranks has not been without controversy. There have been numerous cases in the US in the past 20 years of sexual assaults on women while they’ve been serving overseas. And, of course, there are plenty of instances of sexual discrimination. Adm Tyson declines to answer questions on these subjects, referring me to the Washington press desk.

    “I would love Britain to have one,” she says, and suddenly beams.[/quote]

  4. Seamus aka Xiémuç Guiri permalink
    June 26, 2011 6:25 pm

    I get the impression from the brevity of the article, and the sparseness of her quotes, that they couldn’t persuade her to give the kind of gushingly girly soundbites that they wanted – Nothing about painting her nails Mountbatten pink, or anything along the lines of “The sailors under my command all act like I’m their Mum”.

    I guess you haven’t read the Guardian before then. The kind of stuff they would want is about discrimination, sexual harrassment and how hard it is to be a woman in the navy: the questions about those subjects that she “declines to answer” in the bit you quote could well have come from the Guardian correspondent, I think. They’re pretty heavily interested in reporting that kind of thing.

    As for why this is in the “Life & Style: Women” section, I imagine that’s a nod to the fact that the Guardian absolutely would not have reported the appointment of a new US admiral if it had been a man taking up the job. That’s a kind of discrimination, I suppose, but, Wickedday, I would contend that it’s not the kind your article suggests.

  5. Seamus aka Xiémuç Guiri permalink
    June 26, 2011 6:57 pm

    Also:

    Military service is routinely portrayed even by its fans as physically backbreaking, psychologically devastating, brutal, dangerous, and thankless work – and by the same people as inherently a man’s job. What the hell is this supposed to say about men? Their injuries and trauma are insignificant? They’re naturally predisposed to be better at killing?

    No. It’s supposed to say that men are stronger, more able to withstand pain (source), more accustomed to being aggressive, and in many cases would rather do something dangerous and damaging themselves than let a woman do it. One of the arguments commonly advanced against having women in the military is that male soldiers break training and do stupid shit when female fellow soldiers are hurt or in the line of fire. Naturally it’s not fair for men’s behaviour to be used as a justification for holding women back. However, I do think the observed tendency in men of suicidal altruism in the presence of a woman in danger could at least be taken as an indication that perhaps more is going on than an impulse to hold women back when people call soldiering a man’s job. Picking out the worst possible reasons why someone might hold a point of view is not the way to analyse motives.

  6. knightofthedropdowntable permalink*
    June 28, 2011 12:42 pm

    Entrance to the military is rigorously checked though, so restricting any group at all on principle is foolish – surely if you fulfill all the criteria for joining you should be allowed to join, else not be. It doesn’t matter if one group or another is less inclined to be good or bad at it, because you still have to check each individual anyway – they wouldn’t just allow me to enter the army on the grounds that I’m a man* and doing the opposite is just as ridiculous.

    There are also quite a number of armed forces that do allow women, and they don’t seem to have any problems with suicidal altruism – possibly this altruism is a result of societal expectations and unfamiliarity with the situation, rather than fundmental differences between men and women? If women were allowed to join and became a familiar part of the army, perhaps the male soldiers would behave normally instead, as long as they weren’t still being pressured to treat them any differently.

    *At least, I hope they wouldn’t – since I’m weak, easily startled and have a very low pain tolerance, doing this would be very stupid. Also, I’m a pacifist, so I wouldn’t be joining even if they tried to make me.

  7. June 28, 2011 2:27 pm

    On the question of the Guardian’s article taxonomy, I’m more pissed off by the Women section being a subcategory of Life&Style than by this article being in the Women section. The latter is all very well assuming you’re going to have a Women section; the former really isn’t. Apologies if that wasn’t clear.

    I’m with knightofthedropdowntable on your latter point, Seamus – male soldiers behaving unprofessionally in the presence of female colleagues is a problem to be solved by normalising women in the military (or in specific subsections of it like frontline units or submarines) rather than excluding them. The broader principle is generalisable to wider society, too: men dropping everything and/or neglecting their own jobs in order to try and do women’s for them is at best unhelpful and at worst – like in a combat situation – actually dangerous.

    Fair point about other appointments of admirals not usually making the UK news, though, and I’m not surely entirely what I think about that. I’m inclined to think that one “hey, this is kind of neat” article is legit, but beyond that . . . there’s a fine line between highlighting historic firsts and exoticising. I think it’s been particularly obvious in the rhetoric surrounding Barack Obama’s election, where, while it’s very very cool that he’s the first non-white US president, damn near every policy he makes is construed in some quarters as being about his race in one way or another. Or Stephen Hawking: there are very few disabled people who are so prominent, but it’s not exactly relevant to bring it up every time if he’s talking about physics.

    I suppose the comparable case for Adm Tyson would be if she were involved in some important naval action in her professional capacity, and subsequent reporting continued to focus on her being a woman as opposed to, y’know, being an admiral. We’ll have to see.

  8. Mark permalink
    June 29, 2011 12:51 am

    In that case, you seem to have missed that “Women” is just a grouping within “Life & Style”. It’s not Grauniad’s “Women” news section, because that’s taken by “Gender”. I think it only demonstrates that the writer/editor decided to run it as a G2 personal interview rather than a news article. This could be for any number of reasons, but it’s a hard to guess in this case whether they were inappropriate.

  9. Seamus aka Xiémuç Guiri permalink
    June 29, 2011 1:46 pm

    Oh, I entirely agree that excluding women isn’t the solution to male soldiers exhibiting silly behaviour: I just thought that the instances of such behaviour cast showed that people’s reluctance to see women in the military is not necessarily motivated by prejudice against women.

  10. Seamus aka Xiémuç Guiri permalink
    June 29, 2011 1:48 pm

    Or, I should say, not the type of prejudice against women one might think.

  11. Alex permalink
    August 11, 2011 10:10 am

    http://www.mod.uk/NR/rdonlyres/10B34976-75F9-47E0-B376-AED4B09FB3B3/0/women_af_summary.pdf

    Here’s the UK rationale behind not lifting the ground-combat restriction.

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