Tuesday, December 25, 2012


“Combat is a full-contact sport.”

That’s the sentiment of a late friend and coauthor, a two-war warrior who survived Korea on the ground and Vietnam in the air.  He was good for a five-minute rant when he saw the 1990s TV commercial of a female Soldier tapping on her battlefield laptop, “No enemy is going to get the best of my outfit!”

John was livid because, in his words, extremely few women can hack the program as genuine combat infantrymen.

Now here we are far downstream and we’re still flailing in sexual waters.  The Arizona Republic headlined on December 2:  “Marine Pioneers Push to Place Women in Combat.”  Meanwhile, the marines’ only two women who entered the 13-week infantry training course at Quantico, Virginia, both failed.  As of this month, no further females have applied.

However, in November four military females—two army and two marine—sued the secretary of defense regarding the law excluding women from combat units. 

Here’s a link:

The women claim that the “combat exclusion” clause is somehow unconstitutional.  Moreover, presumably the policy “sends a clear message to the world that women are not capable of serving their country to the same extent as men.”

Well, if we’re talking physical differences between the “genders” (“sex” has long since disappeared from military argot) the answer is OF COURSE THEY’RE NOT AS PHYSICALLY CAPABLE.  How many women can hump an 80-pound ruck plus weapon and ammo uphill all day?  Damn few men can do it.  But we have “gender norming” to help even the military playing field in favor of humans whom God or Nature selected as physically weaker than males.  Not even the United States Government can change that. 

The notion of some sort of DoD glass ceiling that prevents noncombatants from attaining high rank is, to put it delicately, batguano.  The pentagon is stuffed to the rafters with star wearers who've never been shot at anymore than I have.  (Though come to think on it, I was downrange of some idiot bird hunters who dusted me with No. 7 shot a time or three...)

The navy has been run by noncombatants for decades—submariners and surface officers.  The air force's mission has far less to do with air combat than with airlift so I don't hold that against the blue suits.  And I've seen photos of a "highly decorated female marine lieutenant general."  Yes, there are such things--she had more ribbons than Five-Star General Eisenhower (who was never shot at either.)  

For that matter, let’s check some other senior military leaders.

General of the Army George C. Marshal, WW II chief of staff.  Went to Europe in the Great War, serving as a staff planner.  No combat.

General of the Army Henry H. Arnold, chief of the Army Air Forces in WW II.  No combat.

Fleet Admiral Ernest J. King, chief of naval operations who ran the world’s biggest navy in WW II.  Observed some British operations in WW I.

Fleet Admiral Chester Nimitz, commander of the U.S. Pacific Fleet in WW II.  No combat.

Fleet Admiral William F. Halsey.  He saw Atlantic service in The Great War but no combat before WW II.

Clearly, combat experience is irrelevant to the highest echelons of the U.S. military.  Meanwhile, we’re left to ponder upon the reality of young American females in a field environment.

I’ m not going to delve into the psychological aspects of Women In Combat—Unit Cohesion and Male Bonding and Stuff.  Instead, we should focus on the more immediate concerns—what women are capable of doing physically.  Rather than default to the rhetorical level (“How many women can go a round with Mike Tyson?”) let’s look at some specific examples over the past 30 years.

This comes from Mark Morgan, a Washington National Guardsman from 1998 to 2002.  “There was a big uproar back when the Army proudly announced it was making its physical fitness/testing standards tougher in order to improve the health and stamina of the force...and then promptly raised the standards for those of us over 40, leaving the 20-30-somethings with the same semi-low standards. Needless to say, it didn't go over too well with us old(er) troops.”

Reportedly “Big Army” used to claim it had the same standards for men and women because the required running times were identical—for 18 year old females and 50-something males.

This comes from Ken Ferguson, a former commercial pilot:
“When I was at Fort Rucker during 1981 the obstacle course was ‘gender normed.’  There were little ladders for the use of small troopies to aid in getting over walls and such.  If that was too hard or too scary, they could just go around.  We all knew it was just a crock.”

Note that we are not trying to deny women access to the military profession.  Truth be told, we cannot maintain enough (excuse the term) manpower without females, who comprise about 15% of active and reserve component personnel.

Nor are we dissing some females’ ability to perform in ground combat.  There were at least two examples in Iraq when women dismounted from stalled vehicles and killed the enemy with rifle fire.  I know several women I’d feel completely comfortable watching my back in a gunfight.  No doubt some readers do, too.  But fighting is the least of it: in the infantry world, it’s about strength, stamina, and endurance.

Sexual politics is of course not limited to the military.  In the 1970s a San Francisco (where else?) judge ruled against a fire department's physical fitness test as Discriminatory.  The trainee who filed the complaint (one firefighter said she um bitched about it) could lift and carry 75 pounds so the judge said that was the new standard.  The chief replied, "We don't have any 75-pound firefighters."  Didn’t matter.  Wasn't Fair...

So: how about True Equality?  How about one physical standard for everyone, without Gender Norming?  Then those extremely few women who want to carry more than half their body weight uphill at 8,000 feet while getting shot at can do so, comfortable in the knowledge that like their male comrades, they can hack the program.

Thursday, November 22, 2012


Today is Thanksgiving 2012.  Here's George Washington's proclamation designating Thursday, November 26, as "a day of public thanksgiving" as requested by the House and Senate, 223 years ago.

Issued by President George Washington, at the request of Congress, on October 3, 1789
By the President of the United States of America, a Proclamation.
Whereas it is the duty of all nations to acknowledge the providence of Almighty God, to obey His will, to be grateful for His benefits, and humbly to implore His protection and favor; and—Whereas both Houses of Congress have, by their joint committee, requested me “to recommend to the people of the United States a day of public thanksgiving and prayer, to be observed by acknowledging with grateful hearts the many and signal favors of Almighty God, especially by affording them an opportunity peaceably to establish a form of government for their safety and happiness:”
Now, therefore, I do recommend and assign Thursday, the 26th day of November next, to be devoted by the people of these States to the service of that great and glorious Being who is the beneficent author of all the good that was, that is, or that will be; that we may then all unite in rendering unto Him our sincere and humble thanks for His kind care and protection of the people of this country previous to their becoming a nation; for the signal and manifold mercies and the favor, able interpositions of His providence in the course and conclusion of the late war; for the great degree of tranquillity, union, and plenty which we have since enjoyed; for the peaceable and rational manner in which we have been enabled to establish constitutions of government for our safety and happiness, and particularly the national one now lately instituted; for the civil and religious liberty with which we are blessed, and the means we have of acquiring and diffusing useful knowledge; and, in general, for all the great and various favors which He has been pleased to confer upon us.
And also that we may then unite in most humbly offering our prayers and supplications to the great Lord and Ruler of Nations, and beseech Him to pardon our national and other trangressions; to enable us all, whether in public or private stations, to perform our several and relative duties properly and punctually; to render our National Government a blessing to all the people by constantly being a Government of wise, just, and constitutional laws, discreetly and faithfully executed and obeyed; to protect and guide all sovereigns and nations (especially such as have shown kindness to us), and to bless them with good governments, peace, and concord; to promote the knowledge and practice of true religion and virtue, and the increase of science among them and us; and, generally, to grant unto all mankind such a degree of temporal prosperity as He alone knows to be best.
Given under my hand at the City of New York the third day of October in the year of our Lord 1789.
Go. Washington
*     *     *     *     *     *     *     *     *     *     *    *     *     *     *     *     *     
There had been previous occasions of thanksgiving, dating from the Jamestown, Virginia, settlement in 1607 and of course the better-known feast held by the Pilgrims at Plymouth, Massachusetts, after surviving that first winter of 1620-21.  Subsequent observations were held from the 1630s through the Revolutionary War.
In recent years Rush Limbaugh has read The Real Story of Thanksgiving on his radio program, stressing the Pilgrim traits of individual initiative and self reliance.  It's available here:
In response, two years ago the New York Times published a combination rebuttal and elaboration.  It's available here:
My families were relative latecomers to the New World, arriving 15 and 18 years after the Pilgrims' landing at Plymouth.  (A naval aviator relative--a 10th cousin twice removed--notes that we share an indirect ancestor aboard the Mayflower, "on the cruise without Skyhawks.")  But whether the future will offer greater or lesser reasons for thanksgiving than this year remains in the hands of We The People.

Sunday, October 28, 2012


Mercy sakes, how time flies.  It’s more than FORTY-ONE years since I sold my first magazine article.  The April 1971 edition of Air Progress included “Omens, Augurs, and Jinxes” which I had written for a magazine writing class in college.  Professor Roy Paul Nelson pledged that anybody who made a sale got an automatic A for the class, and I sorta recall that one other student aced the course.

Here’s some extracts from the manuscript, originally written as “Confessions of a Superstitious Aviator.”

I remember distinctly how it all started.  I was watching the afternoon movie on TV—one of those aviation films of the late ‘30s, possibly Tail Spin with Alice Faye.  There was a scene at the Cleveland Air Races where a girl pilot was smoking a cigarette near a plane being refueled.  “Hey, you,” warned a mechanic, “don’t you know you ain’t supposed to smoke around airplanes?”

“Nah,” came the laconic reply.  “I’m not superstitious.”

It’s been years since I saw that movie—well before I learned to fly—but the incident keeps coming back to haunt me.  You would think that in the space age there would be no room for superstitions in as exact a science as aviation.  But if you look for them, you’ll find more than a few of the old jinxes, hexes, and omens still persist.  There are some new ones, too.  Even sky-diving, the space-age sport, is affected.  My pals who enjoy leaping out of airplanes say that it’s bad luck to wish a jumper well before he makes an exit.

Anybody with a passing interest in aviation knows that, of all the superstitions connected with the business, the oldest is that which predicts doom for the pilot who allows his photo to be taken before takeoff.  The origins of the legend are somewhat nebulous, but the fact that it reportedly happened to a pretty fair pilot named von Richthofen seems to bear considerable weight.

“That’s ridiculous,” I said.  “Look at all the guys who had dozens of pictures taken and nothing happened.  Look at Lindbergh.  Look at the astronauts.  They’re on live TV, which must be worse than a plain old Brownie.”

By now I was fascinated.  Not that I believed any of that stuff, but my curiosity was aroused.  Since the photo jinx had originated in World War I, I decided to check for other superstitions of the era.  I found plenty.

Good luck charms and talismans of incredible variety seem to have found their way into cockpits on both sides of the front.  Some, however, were more exposed to the elements.  Take the case of a pilot in the Lafayette Escadrille (note: Edwin C. Parsons, who penned a hugely enjoyable memoir, The Great Adventure.)  He placed his fate in the care of a stuffed black cat.  The creature was tied to one of the struts whenever the pilot went on patrol.  One day the cat stopped or deflected a bullet that otherwise might have struck its owner.  The 100-mph slipstream rapidly depleted the mascot’s stuffing, rendering it limp and torn upon landing. But replacement stuffing and some quick needlework had the black cat operational again.

Stuffed animals, however, were not adopted only by Allied pilots.  At least one German ace with 30 victories (Ltn. Ulrich Neckl) posed on his Fokker D.VII with a teddy bear that reputedly he carried into combat.  It would be difficult to imagine a less Teutonic and less warlike mascot, but the ace was still around on Armistice Day.

In the midst of war it seems that true love, and its reasonable facsimiles, accounted for many of the items aviators took aloft to protect themselves from occupational hazards.  One French pilot refused to wear a regular flying helmet, preferring a girlfriend’s silk stocking for headwear (Jean Navarre, the enfant terrible of the Verdun Front.)   Scarves, rings, hankies, and even baby shoes were at one time considered bulletproof.  Even riding crops were carried by ex-cavalrymen, but apparently nothing was as widely sought after as a girlfriend’s garter.  According to popular legend, mystical powers were attributed to garters removed from the leg of a virgin during the dark of the moon.  In the best Joseph Heller style, however, there was a catch.  If the girl didn’t remain true, the garter lost its protective powers and the pilot was in danger until he found a more trustworthy female.

It struck me as odd during all my research that rabbits’ feet were conspicuous by their absence.  Apparently the mental processes of airmen do not place much faith in such conventional talismans.  But the charms and gimmicks devised were more original than such ordinary means.  The biplane pilot’s trademark, the white silk scarf, for instance.  Somebody told me that never, under any condition, should you ever wash your scarf.  I had been flying more than three years when I heard that one, and since my scarf had been washed a few times, I promptly dismissed the concept as invalid.  But one of the pilots I knew, thinking of having some fun at his wife’s expense, turned pale when she pulled his formerly feelthy scarf out of the washer.  He carried on for several minutes, bemoaning the curse by which he could never again wear his favorite scarf.  The plot backfired though: his act was so good that his wife was completely convinced.  She wouldn’t let him near an airplane for the rest of the week.

The last good-luck habit I discovered was sticking a wad of chewing gum on the fuselage before clinging in.  As with the other superstitions, this one seems to have no basis in recorded history, but was widely adopted during World War II.  The plot is not difficult to imagine: The pilot is in a hurry to take off, forgets to put the gum by the cabin door (“Use Your Checklist”), and fails to return.  That one really grabbed me since I’m a big Spencer Tracy fan, and he forgot the duty chewing gum in A Guy Named Joe.

So my course is set: on that happy day when I might resume flying, I’ll have my teddy bear bedecked with scarf, garter, and chewing gum added to the check list.  And don’t you even think about taking my picture before takeoff….