The More things Don’t Change

Yesterday during my daily primary source re-review, I came across an old newspaper article that had a lot of resonance.

Last November, one of the army commanders in Iraq, Major General Anthony Cucolo, created a firestorm when he announced that any woman under his command who became pregnant could face court martial.

The actual directive was that any woman who became pregnant or anyone who impregnanted a woman (causing her to be redeployed out of the region) would be punished. Cucolo’s justification was that pregnancy leads to a loss of troop strength, and he needs all the personnel he can get. See CNN coverage here and ABC’s coverage of congressional response here.

Now, on the one hand, I know there are plenty of people who agreed with the basic idea: losing personnel while trying to achieve military goals is a problem. On the other hand, his directive is problematic because it would have disproportionately affected women. Even if it was supposed to also cover the men who impregnated them, that’s harder to control. In Laura Browder’s When Janey Comes Marching Home (website here, but link to book here), Browder mentions a retired military physician who was deployed to Iraq. Although one of the other directives is “no sex in the war zone,” the physician kept condoms on hand and issued birth control to servicewomen (something else not technically permitted). So first of all, even if it’s banned, sex seems to be happening in the war zones – and Cucolo’s pronouncement suggests that maybe he was seeing a pattern of pregnant servicewomen that led to what he perceived as a personnel problem.

But if it’s easy to identify a pregnant servicewoman, how do you pinpoint the father?  That’s where the problem comes in. Unless you can find a way to ensure that, for every servicewoman court-martialed, there’s a man court-martialed with her, then I think you have a problematic policy. Given the media and congressional responses, it seems I wasn’t the only one to think that. (And I don’t buy that self-reporting would work: this is a military where approximately one in three women experience some form of sexual assault. In 2007, more than 2,000 men were investigated on charges of sexual assault, and only 181 of them prosecuted. Moreover, if Cucolo’s worried about personnel losses, would he really have discharged the men who impregnated his servicewomen? That would have only reduced his troops further.)

I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about this incident in the past eight months, and it’s been more than a little influential on one of the chapters of my dissertation. You can imagine my interest – but not real surprise – when I discovered a 1981 article on a similar topic. The New York Daily News website archives only go back to 1990, so I’ll give you the highlights:

24 June, 1981, page 7, headline: “General attacks Pregnancies, Urges abortions for all 1st-term women soldiers”

Lt. Gen. Julius Becton, commander of the U.S. Army’s VII Corps in Germany, believes that first-term soldiers who get pregnant should have an abortion or be discharged from the Army….Becton said that ‘a rather persistent complaint’ of officers in his 88,000-person command was about women soldiers getting pregnant.”

Becton’s theory was that because abortion was legal, it was a good solution to personnel losses that affected readiness. The Pentagon, apparently did not take his comments “with much enthusiasm.”

And it wasn’t even Becton’s first time drawing attention to his opinions: earlier that year, Pentagon officials also learned that “male and female soldiers in his command were sharing latrines.”

I have no information other than that article, and Becton wasn’t really creating a policy like Cucolo was. I guess that means nothing really happened, at least in official terms. Still, it was a pretty striking reminder of how women’s bodies remain a central focus of national defense issues – and that Cucolo’s idea, frankly, wasn’t all that new.

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