Back in the early days of the Reagan Administration, the noted classical scholar-turned-military strategist Al Bernstein encouraged me to write about the practical and theoretical problems involved in trying to achieve equality for women in the military. At that time, I warned that any effort to hold the military to civilian standards of equality was not only wrong-headed, but dangerous. “Although the military defends the principles of democratic society, it cannot fully embody them,” I wrote. “Its end is victory, not equity; its virtue is courage, not justice; its structure is authoritarian, not pluralistic. In short, although the military defends democratic principles and is shaped by the regime of which it is a part, it is not simply a microcosm of the larger society.”

Judging from Stephanie Guttmann’s important though largely neglected new book, The Kinder, Gentler Military, the situation has gotten steadily worse—much worse. Although Guttmann acknowledges that these problems began with President Nixon’s abolition of the draft and have for different reasons (feminist mostly, but occasionally free market) plagued every successive administration, she focuses on events during the Bush and Clinton years, deftly setting military policy within the broader context of social and political developments.

Beginning with the end of the Cold War, commanders became more and more vulnerable to escalating political pressures to expand opportunities for women in the military. But the American victory in the Gulf War made these pressures nearly irresistible. The press regaled the public with breathless accounts of women aviators streaking across the skies, all the while downplaying news that one-tenth of the female crew of a navy repair ship had left midcruise because they had become pregnant. With light casualties and brave testimonies by quickly released female prisoners of war, Operation Desert Storm helped to weaken Americans’ traditional resistance to the idea of women in combat. There seemed to be no good reason to bar women who wanted to bleed and die for their country from the “equal opportunity” to do so.

But as Guttman points out, there is something “peculiarly masochistic” about the oft-expressed willingness of women warriors to die for their country, rather than kill others in defense of it. Missing from the horizon of these would-be martyrs is what Sir Walter Scott once described as “the stern joy which warriors feel in foemen worthy of their steel.” And this raises the question of what it is these women warriors wish to conquer: the enemy of the “quintessentially masculine” military? Amidst the post-Gulf euphoria, however, these questions went largely unexplored.

Then in fall 1991, Tailhook exploded on the political scene. As professor of military relations Charles Moskos remarked, “The Tailhook convention of ’91 was the worst event for the Navy since Pearl Harbor.” Former Secretary of the Navy James Webb concurred: the fallout from Tailhook went on for years and produced a “casualty list which reads like a Who’s Who of Naval Aviation.” With the Clarence Thomas-Anita Hill controversy fueling feminist complaints that men “just don’t get it,” public pressure mounted to reform the military’s outmoded attitudes toward women.

* * *

From the standpoint of military morale, the election of the draft-dodging Bill Clinton in 1992 could hardly have come at a worse time. And indeed, one of Clinton’s first public acts was to remove all barriers against homosexuals in the military. Forced to retreat to a policy of “Don’t ask, don’t tell,” administration officials pressed on with their agenda to end what they and their feminist allies believed was a “culture” of sexual harassment and discrimination in the military. The Clinton Administration had more leeway with the Navy and the Air Force because Congress sets their policies by law, whereas the Army and the Marines have traditionally made their own policies.

In 1993, without much fanfare, a Democratic-controlled Congress quietly repealed the laws that had been in effect since 1948 excluding women from combat in the Navy and the Air Force. Although a few combat positions, notably on submarines, are still closed to women, they can now be assigned to aircraft carriers as well as combat jets. The following year, Navy Secretary John H. Dalton announced that “pregnancy and parenthood are compatible with a naval career.”

In chapter after chapter, Guttmann describes how over the last decade Navy, Army, and Air Force policies have been altered and standards lowered to make a greater number of military specialties attractive to women, and to advance their careers. Beginning with boot camp, the emphasis now is on cooperation and confidence-building. Gone are the shame-inducing, humiliating contests of strength and speed; recruits are now separated into ability groups and told to compete against themselves. In the name of personal empowerment, the obstacle course had been re-named the “confidence course”; the drill-sergeant has been transformed into a facilitator and friend. Officers croon soothing nightly messages over the inter-coms, and ships are now equipped with massage therapists and shrinks skilled in the latest New-Age healing techniques.

The Navy has taken the biggest hit in the wake of Tailhook, and it has the attrition rates to prove it. Sailors and officers alike complain of a “Mommy ship” mentality where “no matter what you do you get an award for it.” In the New (feminized) Navy, authority manifests itself in the form of a smothering, infantilizing Mommy who “corrects your language, takes away your booze, slaps you if you gawk at a woman or tell a dirty joke, worries overbearingly about danger and prescribes tons of tiresome safety procedures….” At the same time, women are being pushed ahead and assigned to combat specialties for which they may not be qualified. The death of naval aviator Lt. Kara Hultgreen, who may well have been pushed too far, too fast after the Tailhook debacle, may help to explain why junior officers are bailing out in record numbers.

Things are not much better in the Army and the Air Force. Even former Secretary of Defense William Cohen, himself the very model of the modern Defense Secretary (having dropped out of ROTC early in his college career) complained that boot camp was too easy. Only the Marines have held the line and, not surprisingly, morale remain high and attrition low.

Are things likely to get better? In contrast to the Clinton years, Bush’s Secretaries of State and Defense both served in the military. And if the president’s military record is not as distinguished as his father’s, he at least served. Career officers are not likely to despise this Commander-in-Chief.

But what, if anything, can the Bush team do to reverse the dangerous demoralization of our armed forces? Or as the more pessimistic among us fear, must America lose a war or see its women horribly maimed and killed before we retreat from this gender madness? As The Kinder, Gentler Military makes clear, it was our civilian leaders who got the military into this mess by turning the armed forces into a gigantic testing ground for social policy, and it is they who must lead them out. But how?

In her concluding chapter, Guttman lists a number of modest reforms that could begin to restore morale right now. First, eliminate all recruiting quotas for women, and concentrate instead on getting the very best recruits, who will in all likelihood be working-class black and Hispanic men. Second, follow the lead of the Marines (and the Israelis) and re-instate the policy of separating men and women in boot camp. Third, in boot camp and beyond, restore high and equal standards for performance and personal conduct. Eliminate double standards. Fourth, implement MOS (military occupation specialty) qualifying tests, and allow women who can meet these rigorous tests to be assigned to these billets. (I have doubts about this one). Fifth, restore openness on all gender-related matters, and don’t try to cover up dicey policies that are not working. Sixth, announce a general amnesty for all officers unfairly tarred by Tailhook. Seventh, draw a clear line between military and humanitarian actions, and assign the latter to a civilian corps. As we are discovering in Bosnia, the skills required for waging war are very different from those involved in keeping the peace. Eight, which needs no explanation: be more like the Marines.

To Guttmann’s list, I would add two additional suggestions: abolish DACOWITS, the Defense Advisory Committee on Women in the Services. As National Review‘s Kate O’Beirne pointed out recently, it is not enough to try to tip the balance on this committee by appointing sensible women who appreciate the importance of combat-readiness. This is a committee whose entire culture is weighted in favor of advancing the cause of ambitious women officers. As long as it exists, it is trouble. The 50th anniversary of its establishment provides the perfect occasion for its dissolution. And finally, pressure America’s elite liberal arts colleges and universities to restore ROTC to our campuses. If the feds can use the threat of withdrawing public funds to bring about gender equity in sports, they can surely use it to revive military readiness. It’s time to remind all those who insist on a military force “that looks like America” that the one group noticeably missing in action these days is white middle and upper-class college educated men.