Today the crew of most Navy ships includes women. That would have been unthinkable in my day. Apparently more than the way we think has changed. Not only are women accepted as crew members, the destroyer USS Decatur has a female captain. Meet Commander Shanti Sethi, commanding officer of the Arleigh Burke-class guided-missile destroyer USS Decatur (DDG 73).
During wartime sailors live a more pleasant existence that soldiers who may be constantly under threat of enemy fire, wearing the same clothes for a month or more, sleeping in a foot of water in some stinking jungle hole, with all the normal creature comforts a distant memory. By contrast, sailors on board ship have a warm bunk to sleep in, daily showers, clean clothes and three hot meals a day. It’s a life of luxury by comparison. So I guess if women are equal to men in every way, and are to be considered fully capable of enduring all the hardships of front line combat, serving on board a Navy ship will be a piece of cake. After all, a modern destroyer is not even designed for close combat with the enemy. These high-tech war machines are capable of detecting the enemy many miles distant and delivering kill shots at that distance as well. A fierce battle can be conducted without either side ever catching sight of the other. Who needs men? Women can push buttons on keyboards as well as men, maybe a lot better than men. All of the other functions on board ship are also about as gender neutral as one can imagine. They involve dealing with electronic equipment for the most part, having knowledge of navigation, missile launch control, and maintenance of all that equipment.
The problems will come when a ship like the Decatur is on the receiving end of that same sort of firepower. All the creature comfort advantages that sailors have enjoyed over soldiers in combat disappear in the blink of an eye then. In a battle at sea a ship’s deck and superstructure can become a slaughterhouse with blood running down the deck and human body parts lying everywhere. Survival requires all hands to ignore the carnage before them and to concentrate all of their efforts on maintaining their battle stations to keep the ship afloat and returning fire as heavily and accurately as possible. Past experience, in the Israeli IDF and on battlegrounds around the world, has shown that men have a difficult time bearing witness to the tearing apart of female bodies. It distracts them and demoralizes them. It might be thought that it would strengthen their resolve, and it probably does. But most men cannot help themselves. They want to protect the women they see bleeding and dying before them. They lose sight of their other duties, to the immediate detriment of winning and surviving the battle.
The sort of Naval battle whose story is told in this book, Last Stand of the Tin Can Sailors: The Extraordinary World War II Story of the U.S. Navy’s Finest Hour may be only of historical relevance. But that battle was also fought at a distance. The fletcher class destroyers and Admiral Spruance’s Jeep Carriers never had sight of the Japanese ships they were fighting, nor did the Japanese ever have sight of them. It was one of the bloodiest battles on the high seas in history.
I don’t claim to know how different that battle might have been if half the crew of those destroyers had been female. But I’m glad I was in the Navy 45 years ago, on a fletcher class destroyer just like the ones that fought off Samar Island in 1944. I would not want to be a young sailor today on the USS Decatur. I just wouldn’t fit in.
Maybe the solution is not to get rid of women on board Navy ships. Perhaps we should get rid of men on Navy ships. After all, we see in the current makeup of the Republican leadership in Congress and elsewhere that it is the women with the most resolve to fight for anything.