Monthly Archives: October 2015

Testosterone: The Military’s Real Enemy

Two stories in the news this week made me impatient to see women holding more senior positions in the military, and not for the usual reasons. Sure, women have leadership skills and technical expertise, and deserve a shot at those jobs. But the biggest reason of all, and why we can’t wait any longer, is because of something women don’t have. Testosterone.

This pesky little hormone is a troublemaker. Its link to needless violence can be traced back to Cain and Abel (note they were brothers, not sisters). Ill-advised sexual encounters and venereal disease have plagued armies since the beginning of time. British soldiers during WWI were over five times more likely to be hospitalized for syphilis or gonorrhea than from trench foot, the war’s signature ailment.

In today’s military, testosterone is clouding the judgments of men who really should know better.

The first is Lt. Gen. Robert L. Caslen Jr., the superintendent at the United States Military Academy. He recently defended the school’s boxing requirement despite overwhelming evidence about the downside of repeated blows to the head. That’s right – every male cadet who graduates from West Point must spend a semester receiving and delivering rounds of minor brain trauma. Concerned mothers and the school’s Board of Visitors (chaired by a woman) are pushing for change but meeting resistance. In fact, the superintendent is doubling down on his machismo by considering making female students take boxing, too, as they do at the US Naval Academy.

West Point has documented 97 concussions from boxing during the last three academic years. When students are unable to complete the course due to too many concussions, they are forced to repeat it later. If that seems perfectly rational, maybe you’ve had too many concussions.

The next example of testosterone run amok comes from Senator John McCain, speaking on the senate floor about recent developments in Syria. As a former naval aviator and chair of the Senate Armed Services Committee, he should know that while he may not like the fact that Russia is flying combat missions in Syria, it was actually a good thing that they alerted us to their actions so we could avoid an international incident or accidental loss of life.

With hormonally-fueled bravado, McCain said that rather than complying with the Russians’ request, we should tell them, “We fly anywhere we want to, when and how we want to, and you’d better stay out of the way.” Which sounds more like something one toddler would say to another than how seasoned diplomats should communicate.

This kind of provocation, if he really meant what he said, is reckless and dangerous. But it’s not unique among the men in charge of militaries. No doubt Vladimir Putin’s actions are being fueled by a similar level of testosterone (including his habit of posing shirtless).

Defenders of General Caslen and Senator McCain may argue that testosterone is vital to producing a combat-ready military, and that it makes men better fighters. Maybe. But female pilots and soldiers seem to do just fine with the amount they have.

I’ve personally seen examples of testosterone doing more harm than good. During my time in the navy I witnessed many promotions, happy occasions that should be celebrated with congratulatory handshakes but inexplicably involve a gauntlet of punches to the upper arm (where the new rank chevrons are worn). It wasn’t unheard of for a sailor to sustain pain and bruises so severe, they interfered with his ability to perform his duties.

Worst of all is the tradition of “blood wings” or “blood pinning,” where a newly-minted paratrooper receives his insignia by having the sharp pins of the new badge pounded into his chest muscle by his colleagues. This is considered an honor and a rite of passage.

Must we be content with a “boys will be boys,” philosophy, even when applied to people who should have become men long ago? I don’t think so. We need more women in the ranks and at the top, because the fairer sex seems less susceptible to hormonal fluctuations. Let that sink in for a while.

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