Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Race and Military Service

I often rely on my partner for analysis of race and color: he grew up the only white boy in a village in West Africa, and majored in post-colonial studies in college. So I am bad at catching my own foibles, unfortunately. I realized after I posted here and at feministing that I hadn't touched on race issues in the military. So here's a few tidbits:

African Americans in particular are seriously overrepresented in the military; African American women make up almost half of servicewomen, while they make up only 13% of the country. Black men are also overrepresented, though not as much as women: 30% of military men are black. There are a variety of reasons for this.

The South is also overrepresented in the US military; African Americans may be 13% or so in the nation overall, but most (56%, according to wikipedia) live in the South--perhaps this accounts for some of the disparity. Another argument is that the military recruits/exploits the most economically vulnerable; African American women as a demographic group certainly are economically vulnerable.

It is often noted that lower socioeconomic classes make up most of the military, and therefore is an exploitative institution. Certainly there is merit in this argument, but remember that sometimes one person's exploitation is another's opportunity. Think of it as the difference between active and passive voices: the poor are frequently recruited by the military vs. the poor often enlist in the military. Who is the actor in each sentence? Who has the volition, the choice? Even exploitation by the military does not preclude choice of the military by the individual. Given few choices, I would pick the best one, even if it came with caveats and gotchas. While it's important to recognize the coercive contexts in which people make choices, it's unfair and inappropriate to claim they didn't make a choice at all. Women frequently choose to enlist because of the benefits they will get (which she needs, and can't get anywhere else--thus the coercive aspect).

While researching my thesis, I came upon an interesting study. While enlisted African American Navy women had many complaints about sexism and racism in the service, when asked why they stayed they replied that it was much better in the military than out. This was one of the few explicit acknowledgements by an academic that the military, though flawed, might be better than civilian life in some way. Military women come to this conclusion far more often.

The US military is also regarded as the first large institution to effectively desegregate, and probably the least racist large institution in America.While problems obviously remain, the women in the above study are not the only African Americans to find the service less racist than the outside world.

Inception; also military culture 101

Every time I open my laptop, I check feministing.com, which I love. Over the years I've been occasionally frustrated with feministing's posts on military women--they always revolve around the assault and harassment rates. Assault and harassment are a problem, but not just a military problem--the rates of assault and harassment among college women are often comparable, if not worse, than those of military women. But more importantly, is that all feminists care about with regard to military women? Rape and harassment are certainly not the only feminist issues.

(Context here. I am the jane in the comments. MK suggested that I start a blog; well, why not?

I wrote my honors thesis in the Women's and Gender Studies department on U.S. military women (specifically enlisted women) and feminism. More pertinently, as feminism often struggles with the same authenticity/voice/authorship issues that most identity politics movements do, I am a military woman. I enlisted in the US Air Force in 2004, and will re-enlist in 2010. I deployed to Iraq in 2008. My father is a retired AF Colonel, his father is a retired Navy Captain, and my mother's ancestors were Army Generals. I am the first woman to join up in my family. I am not the first person to enlist, but the last enlisted member was four generations ago, and he retired as a Major General.

As a military person, there is something that immediately stands out about my family: they are all officers. Most civilians have only a tenuous grasp of military culture, and one of its core differences from civilian life is rank. The US military is both hierarchical and a caste system: hierarchical in that one person will outrank the other, and therefore have power/control over their subordinate, and caste in that there are two separate classes of military people. Officers are the upper caste, and enlisted are the lower. However, the separation is not simple or clear cut: no fresh Second Lieutenant would disregard the advice of an E7, let alone an E9. In fact, one of the duties of NCOs (Non-commissioned Officers: depending on service and period in history, E4 and up; currently, most services call E5 and up NCO) is to train and shape new officers.

The basic distinction between officer and enlisted is a college degree: you need one to commission as an officer (the verb enlist is reserved for enlisted members). Back in the day, officers were often landed gentry--sons who would not inherit under primogeniture. The difference was and still is primarily one of class: those who have access to college and those who don't. ROTC notwithstanding, most enlisted people start college after they join, often with the financial and infrastructural support of the military itself, while officers look to join after completing their degrees. In the case of ROTC (Reserve Officer Training Corps, which is the primary method of officer accession in the US), college students can get full scholarships if they promise to join up when they graduate. I would argue that there is still a class separation: to get into ROTC, you first have to get into a four-year college. Enlisted people more often cobble together several commity colleges, credit for their military training, and CLEP or DANTES exam-for-credit to get their degrees.

Why does this matter? For a lot of reasons, of course, but it situates me in a particular context. I got into and graduated from a spectacular college (through much financial aid, I might add), but I enlisted before college, as a high-school graduate. Therefore my peers in college are demographically very unlike my peers in the military, and the contrast in opinions, lifestyles, and opportunities is striking.

Most women in the service are in the enlisted corps, primarily because most military people full-stop are enlisted. The ratios of O to E vary by service, with my Air Force at about 1 to 4 and the Marines at roughly 1 to 9. But the accounts of military life we hear are interestingly segregated: women officers and male enlisted. Ellen Ripley in Alien, Meg Ryan's character in Courage Under Fire, Demi Moore's G.I. Jane, the women of the Stargate franchise: all officers. Conversely, we see much more of enlisted men: Rambo, Black Hawk Down (both officer and enlisted, but the main characters and the majority are enlisted, as in the actual service), Jarhead, Saving Private Ryan (ditto), and others.

In academia the divergence is even more pronounced: the women who are cited, who are the voice of military women, in academic writings are almost universally officers. I think that there are several reasons for this:

1. Academics are most comfortable talking to women who are similar.
2. Women officers are often very impressive: college educated, professional, fit, and strong.
3. Enlisted women are much more likely to be hostile to feminists, or academics in general.

This is unfortunate, since enlisted women are exceptionally transgressive, more so than women officers (fighter pilots, cops and special forces excepted; though as yet there are no SF women, at least officially). Enlisted people are the grunts: we carry heavy stuff, fire big weapons, make a ruckus, and sweat a lot. As a society, we're mostly used to female professionals--doctors, lawyers, etc. But one doesn't often see women construction workers or mechanics... except in the military, that is. I would argue that the "grunt"--Gyllenhaal's Jarhead, for example--is an integral part of the American construction of masculinity. A lady lawyer in uniform, or even a lady pilot, like Meg Ryan's Karen Walden, is no longer transgressive in mainstream America. (The pilot may fire weapons, but through a machine which most people (incorrectly) think requires little physical strength; but she is also a professional, highly educated.) However, women grunts are baffling: even feminists are shocked that I do my own plumbing and work on my own car, and Army men with broken ankles would try to take their body armor and bags rather than let me carry them, even though it was my job. When I could carry theirs and two others', they were always vocally impressed.

One of the reasons that professions, though better paying and more powerful, are more integrated lies in one of the major criticisms of mainsteam, traditional feminism: there are huge skanky class issues. Women with power (rich, white women, usually) have made the most progress, and most of their progress has benefited them primarily and everyone else tangentially.

Anyway, this is getting massively long. To sum up: I feel like in many ways, I straddle class boundaries. From a middle-class, officer-type family, and college educated, but enlisted.