Commentary

How words are used in military culture to describe strength and weakness

The words before you are part of years-long conversations and personal observations. I enlisted in the Army at the age of 17 just over 24 years ago. I am the daughter of two hardworking and loving parents, the sister to three incredible brothers, a graduate of the United States Military Academy, a senior jumpmaster, the holder of three master’s degrees, a strategic intelligence officer, and a lieutenant colonel in the United States Army. My service in the Army offers me a life that makes me proud of my individual contributions to our nation.

The Army is an elegant beast. Aggression and violence are its method, and its purpose is to protect. There is an elegance, a precision in its violence. A soldier is the moving spirit of this violence. To protect well, one must possess power. A soldier is an expression of power. Power matters in all facets of our existence. Darwin illustrates this phenomenon. Weakness is the natural enemy of power.

What is it about weakness that interests me? Nothing. But weakness is interested in me. I live with the unwanted shadow of weakness every day. I do not know this shadow, but it knows me. It latches onto me through our words — some vulgar — the use of which we intend to describe weakness.

These words — or more precisely accusations — include “princess,” “bitch,” “Sally,” “Nancy,” “girl,” and “pussy.” You hurl these words against a person who you know is weak and do not want on your team. They could be physically weak, mentally weak, or possessing a weakness of courage or of character.

Men and women equally use these words to denote weakness. They are part of our common vernacular, though obviously we use the more vulgar of the words less openly. Unique to these words is that they are all female gendered. Therefore, whether we realize it or not, they are an attack on or a segregation of the feminine. Conversely, words and phrases that denote power, such as “manning,” “manpower,” “man-up,” “grab a pair,” and “put your big boy pants on” are understood or are descriptive of the masculine. Their use and socially understood meaning are not unique to the military.

We do not want weakness in our professional or our personal team. We train ourselves and our organizations to either remove a weak link, or to segregate the link to the point of irrelevance.

There is a “joking,” as in not written into policy or regulation, but a quite real expectation that all women attending the Army Basic Airborne School will be the first jumper out of an airplane at least once during the school. For context, being the first jumper is nerve-wracking for most people. You are the only person standing for roughly a minute staring into air about 1,000 feet above the ground and you are about to jump out of a seemingly safe aircraft into this empty space. Each successive jumper after you walks to the door and must exit the aircraft immediately, essentially jumping blind. The “joke” is to train the fear out of the women. As someone who has parachuted over 30 times, I can attest that everyone is at least a little nervous before jumping out of an aircraft. But from the beginning, we expect that only the women are the weak link.

When we speak of a soldier, we intuitively sense that we are speaking about a man. When we speak of a soldier who is a woman, we linguistically qualify her and thereby cognitively detach her from the soldier-team. She is a “female soldier.” She is rarely just, “soldier,” the expression of power. She is an extract of power, a potential source of weakness.

A person asked my advice prior to taking command of an infantry battalion on how to “make the female soldier’s part of the team.” This was the first time soldiers who are women served in a unit he commanded. I settled upon, “but they are already a part of the team. The Army already made that decision.” Without any malicious intent, he had cognitively separated the women from what he understood as power, his soldiers who are men.

Leaders have a duty to understand words; what they mean, and what they mean. Our choice of words affects our thought processes, and thereby influences our actions. Our culture — national and in the military — accepts that words that are uniquely feminine are a description of weakness. We accept that a woman is an extract of power, not the expression of power. In this existence where power matters — and it always does — we risk an environment that is permissive of physical and mental violence intended to either remove or to isolate this weakness, i.e. the woman.

As a nation, we understand and agree on a broad social level that the developed, though not factual, meaning of some words are vile and have no place in our language. Take the previously common words used to address African Americans, as an example. So, too, should we move away from attacking and segregating women with the words we use to describe weakness.

Lt. Col. Francesca Graham is a 2004 graduate of West Point. She is a strategic intelligence officer, holds three master’s degrees, and is a senior jumpmaster in the Army airborne community. She has deployed multiple times in support of contingency operations to Iraq.

Editor’s note: This is an op-ed and as such, the opinions expressed are those of the author. If you would like to respond, or have an editorial of your own you would like to submit, please contact Military Times managing editor Howard Altman, haltman@militarytimes.com.

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