Tucker Carlson is sounding the alarm: “So we’ve got new hairstyles and maternity flight suits. Pregnant women are going to fight our wars,” he said on his Fox News program Tuesday, referring to new grooming standards in the Army and a program to develop a flight suit for pregnant military personnel. “It’s a mockery of the U.S. military. While China’s military becomes more masculine as it’s assembled the world’s largest navy, our military needs to become, as Joe Biden says, more feminine.”
The Fox News host’s wildly offensive comments received a well-deserved rebuke from the military. Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin said the remarks inspired “revulsion,” while the Pentagon’s press secretary stated the institution wasn’t going to take personnel advice from “a talk-show host or the Chinese military.” On social media, both serving and retired military women took aim at Carlson’s message.
The across-the-ranks response demonstrated why Carlson’s claims were insulting and pathetic. But even if that doesn’t bother you, his verbal disparagement of female service members is also completely contrary to the needs of the American military and national security. Quite simply, the U.S. armed forces require all the smart and determined people they can get because the all-volunteer force is struggling to fill its ranks.
U.S. military branches frequently experience fluctuations in recruitment and have in recent years resorted to waiving recruitment standards and offering more generous financial incentives, both to lure new recruits and entice experienced personnel to re-enlist. Women represent a huge, undertapped pool of potential talent — if they can be persuaded to enlist and, especially, to re-enlist.
In 2017 a military study found only 11 percent of young people considered military service a viable option — with a much smaller fraction actually enlisting — a 10-year low. According to a 2016 survey, while nearly 60 percent of recruits came from families with a history of military service, only 43 percent reported being likely to encourage their children to adopt the same career path, due to cuts in benefits.
At the same time, as jobs in the military become more technically demanding, it’s in the Pentagon’s interest to get the most talented personnel it can to fly and maintain combat aircraft and warships, code cybersecurity tools, communicate with tribal leaders in war zones and operate electronic warfare systems.
Some positions have rigorous requirements that mean only a minority of Americans are eligible to even apply for them. Male and female pilots alike, for instance, must hold a college degree, fall within certain height requirements and be commissioned officers just to qualify for the chance to start pilot training.
Right now, only about 1 in 6 of the U.S. military’s nearly 1.3 million active-duty troops is female. The Air Force has the highest percentage, hovering around 20 percent, whereas the Marine Corps has less than half that. A recent study found female military personnel were 28 percent less likely to re-enlist than men due to concerns related to family planning, child care, sexism and sexual assault (which also feeds a dynamic in which they are underrepresented in senior leadership positions).
In ridiculing flight suits for pregnant women, Carlson inadvertently highlighted the exact kind of situation where the military has huge incentives — and opportunities — to improve recruitment and retention of female personnel.
Even if you, like Carlson, don’t care that women in the armed forces have for decades had to put up with flight suits not designed for their bodies, you might still be interested in persuading more female pilots to re-enlist rather than pursue lucrative private-sector careers. That’s because the Air Force has suffered a shortage in pilots for years — around 2,000 pilots at present, mostly due to inadequate retention. And the Air Force has spent between $1.1 million and $10.9 million to fully train each one.
The service therefore needs to find ways to persuade these highly trained individuals to stay in the service. And for all of Carlson’s jeers, the Air Force wants to retain more of its multimillion-dollar pilots who also wish to become mothers.
Trimming away hassles are one sensible and cost-effective way of doing that. That explains why the Army recently modified its grooming standards to allow a number of conservative hairstyles and adornments compatible with duties, such as wearing nail polish — which is actually used by some male soldiers to protect against chemical exposure and wear and tear in the field.
Even more vital is tackling head-on high rates of sexual harassment and assault and the culture of silence suppressing reporting of such problems that has harmed many women in military services — in some cases, fatally.
Such reforms are merited purely on the basis of fairness and the protection the armed forces owes all of its troops, but the benefits should be clear even if you don’t care about such things. While the old guard bemoans the breaking up of the boys’ club and the costs that sometimes accompany more fully integrating women — for example, redesigning aircraft and submarines to accommodate female crew — they thoughtlessly overlook the opportunities presented by literally doubling the pool of eligible personnel.
The People’s Liberation Army, like U.S. allies in Asia including Japan, South Korea and Taiwan, has deliberately sought to increase the visibility of women in its ranks.
Besides, Carlson’s favorable comparison of the “manly” Chinese military overlooks that the People’s Liberation Army — like U.S. allies in Asia including Japan, South Korea and Taiwan — has deliberately sought to increase the visibility of women in its ranks, albeit not always adroitly. The PLA and other armed forces are motivated both by seeking to improve their image by imitating the United States’ increasing integration of the military, as well as by the human resources benefits.
Carlson seemingly sees any sort of accommodation to female service members as evidence the military is going lax and soft, implying that womanhood is somehow incompatible with the determination needed to serve under hardship and fight when necessary.
He should appreciate that the Pentagon is belatedly looking for ways to treat its female service members better, not only because they deserve better treatment and recognition for the services they have already rendered, but also because the services need the skills they can contribute more than ever.
Sébastien Roblin writes on the technical and historical aspects of international security and conflict for The National Interest, War is Boring and other publications. He tweets @sebastienroblin.