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...


  1. That was a wonderful piece, and an excellent suggestion to solve the facilities conundrum at the same time! ;-)

    And interesting in that I never realized just how few facilities there were.

    Thank you for sharing! I'm afraid I have nothing to add to the discussion. :-S

  2. Smaggy: very good treatment of a very touchy subject, my friend. Your experience on the Ohio shows here.

    I might invite you to continue this direction, as well. Opinions are worthless things, really, except as a means to generate gentle discussion to all-out war, and you do damn good work.


  3. My take: Women multitask better than men. Women are smaller than men and comsume less food, water, and oxygen. So if women are s=distracting to men on submarines (which I personally don;t believe) then ... get ready for it ... Make ALL submarine crews be comprised of only women!

    For that matter, do the same with tank crews. It gets crowded and hot in there, and women are smaller and consume less, and (generally) don't smell as bad when they get all sweaty as men do.

  4. Thank you, Libby! If any questions come up later, though, of course, feel free to ask!

    Schuyler, thank you, kind Sir! My experience on the Michigan, too, is helpful here as, when I went to sea with her once, there were extra bunk spaces added for shipyard workers for post system maintenance testing (only for just a week), but, they included females. A female JAG officer also deployed during that time to make sure all was kosher, and, amazingly, we all survived! :-)

  5. Greetings CoolOne. As for women, their size, smelliness and consumption, I would tend to agree with you regarding those observations, but, would disagree with the need. There is plenty of room aboard submarines (honestly, there is) and there's plenty of room for supplies. And men have been stinking up those things for years with only smelly clothes to show for it. ;-)

    Now, I wouldn't dare speak to tank crews. That may or may not be an entirely different story, but, as for submarines, I don't think gender (or any of its characteristics) are significant in determining fitness for serving aboard, and serving well.

  6. Smaggy, what a neat post! I'm so glad you're a supporter of the female gender!

    I had a friend who was the cook one year at the Antartica permanent expedition at a place where it's too cold even for penguins. You know the one that made the news when the expedition MD diagnosed herself with breast cancer and performed a preliminary surgery on herself and it took quite a while for a plane to be able to land to rescue her (obviously one tough cookie!). I thought about my friend when I read your other essay about Charlie Hustle and that damned cook. Ian's experience was different. He said everyone loved the cook because food becomes very important when locked indoors for months at a time. And Ian was a very personable chap who liked to please people so he could be relied on doing his best.

    They were cooped up but they did have a rite of passage you couldn't have on a submarine: you had to run out of the shelter/structure in regular clothes (or was it naked, I can't remember) and run right back in before you died ....

  7. Excellent points, Smag, and said with much erudition. Thank you.

    **Fast. Silent. Deep. Deadly.**

  8. Hey Cool: "My take: Women multitask better than men. Women are smaller than men and comsume less food, water, and oxygen."

    Um. You never met my ex wife, did you?

    She could only think of one thing: making my life hell.

    She was 5'1', but she could out-eat me, you, and the Green Bay Packers defensive line. Water was a non-issue, I guess. Still, just walking in a room, she could suck the air right out of it until everyone present went into rigor.

    The anti-Christ. She'd just blow all the tubes, send the nukes to their targets, and bug out in time for a pedicure.

    Other then her? Oh, hell yes! My wife would be an awesome submariner! My sisters, too!

  9. Hi Smag! You raise some great points here. I'd love to see this posted somewhere the people you quote at the beginning of your thoughts might read it. What could their honest, fact based objections actually be? I know my father, a homophobe of long standing, would read what you have written and say that it proves that no one who is gay should be on a submarine, at least not one with the current bathroom situation. That is just an aside, but I am curious, as I have to listen to my father occasionally, about whether the current showering situation caused any problems on a submarine with regard to sexual orientation? It does seem to me that since some people out there must feel as downright terrified as my father is of the possibility of someone of the opposite sexual persuasion seeing them nude that your idea for revamping the bathrooms might be good policy anyway?

    Regardless, thanks for an educational post!

  10. Greetings Kati! Well, food certainly *is* important on a submarine, but, sadly, some cooks don't care about their job very much. And you'd be surprised what one can stomach down when one is hungry. Sounds like Ian, though, was liked by his mates and he liked them in return! That would make things so much nicer. :-)

  11. Hey skoorbza! No, thank YOU! :-)

  12. Bella, truth is, I don't have an answer for your father. Given national statistics, there were certainly gay sailors on the submarines upon which I served. There was never a single incident due to this fact, however. Frankly, I knew one sailor to be gay, and, well, I'm guessing he didn't really find a bunch of paunchy, sweaty, smelly men all that appealing! But, I don't want to speak for him. Maybe he did? But, from my perspective, he was an incredible operator. And great shipmate.

    Further, it should be noted that we, Americans, are sort of interesting regarding the human body as far as the "modern world" is concerned. As you're well aware, in Europe, many beaches are topless and many are even entirely clothing-optional. Brochures and public advertisements have naked models if the setting is appropriate, spas are co-ed, so are the public pools, which even have hours set for nude bathing (all of this includes children, by the way). So, I think it's only a individual's sexualization of the naked body that causes the problem, not being gay or straight, male or female.

    If, for example, I was serving with women and I accidentally saw a woman naked (let's say her robe slipped), while I might enjoy the momentary sight (hey, at least I'm honest, right?), I'm certainly not going to then be compelled to rape, abuse or in any other way cause her any problems. Perhaps that's the answer to your father? Does he find himself or other men so irresistible that a normal person's good senses would be overcome by their naked form and then fell the need to rape or otherwise abuse them? ;-)

  13. Ah, Smaggy, you make my heart melt with such wisdom and I do believe you have hit upon all the asinine reason's the experts spout about why women should not serve! Kudos'!

    I am one person whom upon hearing about our policy of "don't ask, don't tell" was so incredulous with disbelief and anger that I almost blew a gasket! Are we as American's not living in the same world during the same time is now 2010....hello...old bastards...sorry but that is who I blame! There is that generation of men who are of the "woman are to be seen and not heard" ilk that I want to dance on each of their graves with glee for I am certain the world will be a much better place when they are gone...along with their gender bias, their homophobia's, all their narrow thinking. I don't, and will never understand how my being a woman somehow undermines their feeling like a manly man? That somehow they are less than if I am equal to? Guess if they begin to understand the equal to it somehow blows their John Wayne image...oh, John Wayne already blew that didn't he?

    You know those boys, those boys in charge who when WWll ended didn't give our Woman's Air Force Service Pilots a ride home, they had to pay their own way. It took 65 years for those brave female pilots to be recognized for service to their country. I am embarrassed for the men in charge that could not let themselves do the right thing for our American women, they were someone's mother or daughter or sister. And I'll never believe it was some kind of oversight, it was intentional, it is very telling about what women still have to deal with.

    This may sound odd but if it was not for the issue of having a physical exam, how do you really know from the exterior view what gender someone is these days? Years ago I had an enlightening experience when I was a bank teller, I directed a customer... to over there where that man is standing...then my co-worker nudged me and said, ah, that is not a man, he/she is a regular customer and if not for my seeing their ID I would never even know? It opened my eyes that somehow, someday we will have to come to terms with being a gender free society. How are you going to tell? Unless you are my old biology teacher who sticks in my mind, we were sexing a frog and I'll never forget the line that he said that day to the class, that has stuck immobile in my brain for all these years...OK flip her over and see what you've got!

    I find myself occasionally seeing people who I've no idea what gender they are. Don't you?

    Remember the Saturday Night Live skit with Pat....there are a lot of Pat's out there. Isn't it time for humans to move beyond gender issues or are we going to "flip 'em over and see what you've got" and what if they have both genitals, what the hell are you going to do then?

    Maybe I was born ahead of my time. I simply tire of the expert morons spouting their nonsense to the masses as if they had a if I was less than.

    Bastard's! Sonsabitches! How's that Smaggy I'm trying to grow into my more snarky side and you were so constrained so I thought I'd add a bit of Smag to my ending?

  14. Excellent ending, Debbie! :-) And yes, as I've mentioned in my other non-fiction pieces, submarining is generally about capability not rank. And, I would say that philosophy should extend to gender, sexual orientation, religious preference...anything and everything that (some) people so readily use to discriminate. To me, if you can do a job, and do it well, then you're qualified. It doesn't matter if you have a penis, a vagina, both, neither. It matters if you can do the job. Period.

  15. I don't think this is much different than the attitude I encountered while getting my Master's degree in Civil Engineering. I was one of only two women in the engineering program and I had professors tell me I didn't belong. Apparently you have to have air cooled gonads to understand and apply engineering principles. Here it is 34 years later and nearly half of the engineers I deal with are women.

    Katy - that's the 200 club - you and your buddies sit in a 100 degree F sauna, naked of course, then run out to the pole in -100 degree F weather, someone takes your group picture, then you run back into the sauna. My ex's friend did that when he over-wintered at the South Pole.

    Nice article, Smagboy.

  16. Greetings Evelyn. Thank you for that perspective. And, I'm glad to hear that women are entering the field more and more! It's good to hear because, frankly, the idea that women can't understand mathematic principles, you know, because math is hard, is ludicrous. But, stereotypes weren't meant to be easily overcome I guess. I'm just that it's happening.

    Cheers! :-)

  17. Did anyone else hear, on the much trusted National News, that in school females are now scoring better in math than the males are in reading? A shift is happening.

    I am sure that there is another study though that will show something entirely different!