SmagBoy's Mission Log, Sea Date: Late October, 2009

Hey all. The purpose of this section is to serve as a central hub for any regular blogs I undertake, but also for me to show you a little bit of the real me, not "The Submariner" me. I'm not really that guy. He's a character that I play on Thursdays (a character that I really enjoy--you can read more about him in my post below, titled "The Making of a Submariner"). So, on occasion, I'll publish a story or some pictures, or maybe just an anecdote or two that I hope will be fun or enlightening.

If you don't care for learning about the really-real SmagBoy and just want "The Submariner", no worries! He can always be reached here: Send in your questions, observations, concerns or rants. But be forewarned, as you know, that guy has very little patience for the stupids. You can send questions to me there, too, the non-fictional SmagBoy1 (or "Smaggie" as I'm affectionately known). Don't worry, I'm not nearly as tough as I pretend to be. Fair winds to you, shippers! And enjoy!

Saturday, March 13, 2010

Women on Submarines? Say it isn't so, Abigail Adams!

Greetings All. Some folks asked me recently what I thought about the idea of women serving on submarines.  And fact is, having been a submariner for several years, it's something I've put quite a bit of thought into.  I believe that women should be allowed to serve on submarines.  No question.  I believe that they will prove to be no less capable than men, and, in fact, will prove to be indistinguishable in their abilities.  However, other people believe differently.

Women are weak, they say. Women will distract the men from their duties. Women are not wired to handle the kind of pressure that submariners face every day. Women will be a liability to the submarine force, and, as such, they’ll undermine the mission and the safety of our men.  These are all common arguments made against women serving.  It is not my intent to change the sexism inherent in those arguments with this piece.  Instead, I’ll simply address the objections and then explore some legitimate concerns about women serving aboard submarines (there are some).

Women are weak. Well, sure, some women are weak. So are some men. That’s just a fact of life. Some women are also very strong. Interestingly, on a submarine, strength is pretty much irrelevant. During my submarine days, one of the loudest, most obnoxious sailors that I knew, one who regularly stressed how important it was that women never serve aboard submarines, was so weak that there were several valves in the engine room that he simply could not operate. Further, he passed out not once, but twice, during drills that required moving around not-even-heavy equipment while using emergency air breathing apparatuses. In short, by his own standards, he should not have been allowed to serve aboard submarine. Yet, all you needed to do was ask him and he’d tell you that not only was he a top notch submariner, he was also an outstanding operator. And, fact is, all of his liabilities aside (personal and professional), he was a pretty decent operator. How is that possible?

Well, for the most part, brute strength is entirely uncalled for in the operation of a modern warship. And, it’s certainly no more called for on a submarine than it is on a surface ship, on which women have been serving alongside men for almost 20 years now. A modern war ship is about mental toughness (if it even requires any special brand of toughness at all, which is a subject I’ll address later), not, as you might expect, physical toughness. And I’ve never been given any indication in my years as a human being that women are inherently less mentally tough than men.

Women will distract men from their duties. That’s probably true. If the men are unprofessional and emotionally immature sailors who don’t know how to control themselves in a professional setting. And some don't, I'll admit, but, this is not a characteristic that's limited by gender or age.  And it's certainly not something that should keep professional, emotionally-mature adults from serving.  Nor is it something that a good supervisor can't immediately nip in the bud.  Otherwise, though, working alongside a woman on a submarine is no different than working alongside a woman in an office building, or on the President’s Cabinet, or (imagine this, it may sound familiar), on a surface ship, on which women have been serving alongside men for almost 20 years now. It’s not difficult to do. And, after duty hours? Distraction isn’t a bad thing--for either gender--in my humble opinion. It’s good for morale and keeps the blood pumping.  Now, I'm not talking about cheating on the spouse distraction here!  I'm not talking about a crew that goes out single and comes back coupled and pregnant.  I'm simply talking about professional adults in a tough but militarily-necessary environment making the best of a shitty working situation.

Women are not wired to handle the kind of pressure that submariners face every day. Those of you who are patriotic to a fault and who like to call every person who’s ever served our country a “hero” should probably skip the rest of the article. Seriously, it would do best to skip down to the very last paragraph because I don’t want to disillusion you.

I’m going to let you in on a little secret. Submarining is just a job. It’s not some heroic plunge into the unknown depths with danger at every corner wherein each and every submariner is a hero, cut from the same cloth as Charles Lindbergh or Chuck Yeager. Submariners come in every make and model. We do have some Lindberghs and Yeagers, sure. But we also have some Paul Reubenses, and, fact is, even some skanky, gross, actual real criminals! I once saw a guy taken off the boat in handcuffs for having molested a little girl at his church. He was a volunteer youth pastor there. See what I mean? My point here is that war movies and war lore and John Wayne and Chuck Norris like to paint military men as some sort of incorruptible hero. And they treat war and military service as the grandest of grand activities.  And while submariners have an extra layer of secrecy and mystique surrounding the job because it is, at its core, very secretive, submariners are no different than members of regular society. Nor are other sailors any different.  Nor airmen, nor marines nor soldiers.  If you recognize those who serve as real human beings, then you can understand them as humans, and accept their successes and failures as the actions of neighbors and friends and people, rather than as the mystical performances of demigods or demons.

Now, submariners, on average, are a little bit more intelligent than the average citizen (due to the testing and selection process), but, otherwise, save for not being claustrophobic, they come in every shape, size, color and make up that exists in every town and city in the country. So, the idea that submariners are some sort of rare breed of pressure-hungry, steely-eyed, incorruptibles-with-a-penis is an exaggerated myth. Further, that women, due to their lack of a super-penis, are any less capable than the men is worse than ridiculous. It’s sexist and ignorant of the facts, and the opinion begs the question of its holder, "Have you ever actually served aboard a submarine?  Or even in the Armed Forces?"

Fact is, women are already serving alongside men in most every facet of the military. There’s no legitimate reason why submarining should be an exception. Well, save for one. And it’s purely logistical, and, too, it’s one that can be overcome pretty easily with some minor construction and adult behavior. I’m talking about facilities. Unlike Ally McBeal’s office bathroom, which was harmoniously unisex, most American adults dislike the idea of being naked in front of one another. Since there are essentially only two bathrooms (two stalls, two sinks and two showers per bathroom) for all 120-ish enlisted men on a Trident submarine, dedicating one bathroom to ten or twenty females is not only impractical, it would legitimately cause an issue. As such, I think the solution is to rework the bathroom areas, making the stalls self-contained (no way to see in or out of them) and replacing the current shower curtains with opaque doors with sound dampeners to prevent noise. The sinks could continue as they are. That way, a sailor of either gender could wear a towel, robe, etc., and flip-flops to the head. They could take care of their showering needs and retire to their bunk room without worry of being peeked-in on. This plan would require professionalism, and it will certainly occasionally be abused by some enterprising punk or two, but, for the most part, this plan would work like a charm without limiting facilities to any single group of sailors (there’s another solution for those of you who know the Navy in general and submarines specifically: let the ladies have the goat locker until their numbers are sufficient to rate one of the two heads. But, if you know submarines and Navy tradition, you know how much grief that would cause, so, let’s go with my plan instead, okay?).

There’s another legitimate concern, too. But it’s not legitimate in the sense that it should be considered by the Pentagon when making decisions about the operation of its war machines. It’s a concern about the morale of the wives and husbands of the submariners. As it is, wives of submariners suffer a particularly nasty side effect of their husband’s work. Not only do their husbands deploy without the opportunity for cell phone conversations, video chat, or even e-mail (for boomer sailors), etc., during the entire deployment, but, even when in port, wives can’t visit and tour and engage in the boat nearly in the same way that other military units can allow (they can come aboard, but their movements are comparatively restricted). Submarines are, by their very mission, much more secretive. This means that even when home, the simple question of "how was your day?" can become a walk around national security issues.  And nearly a third of the crew, the “nukes”, can’t show their wives anything about their work, and can't talk too much about it, either, because no one without a secret security clearance is allowed past the engine room water tight door, and the subject in general is a matter of national security. So, taking what is already a secretive situation, one where spouses and significant others feel cut off from a large portion of their loved ones’ life, even when in-port, and then throwing in members of the opposite sex during deployments?! It’ll add some stress. There’s no doubt. And that’s real, and I’m sensitive to it. But, that’s also life. And life is not always easy. And in the end, that issue is certainly not reason enough to prevent women from serving aboard submarines.

Are there other concerns?  Probably.  What about the psychological health of being in such close quarters with members of the opposite gender for so long?  Truth is, though I believe that I've adequately addressed those concerns in a very professional and ideal-world way, long term, I'm not sure what the effects would be.  I'm not a psychiatrist.  Certainly the concern shouldn't prevent women from serving on submarines, but perhaps what it would lead to is segregated submarine crews?  An all-female submarine wouldn't operate any differently than current ones.  More studying should be done on this, but, in the meantime, don't limit a person's ability to serve based on their sexual organs.

I know this piece is cursory. I could write quite a bit of background about what goes into making a submariner in order to help provide perspective. You know, talking about what’s required of submariners, the training, the regimen, but, fact is, I already have. It’s here, titled “The Making of a Submariner”: . Now granted, I myself fall into the mysticism of submarining in that piece--just a little. I’ll ask that you forgive me that lapse in judgment. Even though its non-fiction, perspective is a powerful thing and it sometimes goes awry. I also have a piece about how not to be a submariner, written about someone who is a submariner. It’s titled “Remembering Charlie Hustle” and it’s here: . Hopefully put all together with what I’ve said here, my points will mean something to you. In the end, I have only this to say: submarining does not require a penis. Only a brain.

Note: I encourage feedback and discussion in the comment section below, or, directly at my e-mail address, listed on each of my blogs. I will honor your opinions on this matter and attempt to discuss all points with you in a rational and calm manner.  Also, I added Abigail Adams' name to the title because she is, to me, one of the nation's most heroic women.  Please understand that that does not mean to discredit other equally heroic women, but, her wit and intellect and feisty resolve, though not necessarily appreciated in her own time, inspires me to this day.  If only the founders had listened to her then, this entire blog entry would surely be moot...