Hard Truths about Hard Work

We all tread on thin ground when discussing the lives of others, especially lives that have been as politicized as that of Ambassador J. Christopher Stevens. He was a good friend to some of my good friends. I cannot lay claim to knowing him, though as a former diplomat, I allow myself to feel that I understand some things about his sacrifice.

SOFREP today published excerpts of the late Ambassador’s diary. The portrait it paints is of a committed public servant who willingly faces high stress and threats to his own security. I think it’s important to know that many of the diplomats who are serving now in Afghanistan, Egypt, Iraq, Pakistan, Yemen, and other places feel the same way–just substitute “Kandahar” for “Benghazi” and you’ve got a line from my own diary of fourteen months ago.

Diplomacy is a career in which the whole concept of “work/life balance” can feel absurd. It’s hard to keep anything stable when you’re moving every year or so. I think of the late Ambassador Richard Holbrooke, who died of a heart failure on December 13, 2010, and Sergio Vieira de Mello, the UN diplomat who was killed on August 19, 2003 in Iraq, among others. Their struggles were different, but there is no question that their family lives suffered from their commitment to global service.

While many things are still much harder for women–a love life like de Mello’s would have been the entire story had he been a she–everyone who answers the call of duty makes enormous personal sacrifices. My former colleagues in the Foreign Service do their best to stay grounded within an increasingly chaotic lifestyle. I know that I could not have survived without spontaneous, supportive communities at post and the unyielding support of my family in the States. We all need a place to come home to.

I was hesitant to link to Ambassador Stevens’ story, only because I know that some will feel this publication is a posthumous invasion of his privacy. But if I had been him, I would want the world to know what it really meant to lead a diplomatic mission to a dangerous place. Sometimes, living your call means giving up everything. Not one of us can have it all.

Multimedia Musts: Don’t give up edition

The biggest line from this story on office romances has nothing to do with love and everything to do with the female response to trouble at work:

“And if I had to work harder to prove that my love life wasn’t impacting my work life?” she asked. “Well, so be it. Working harder isn’t the worst thing that can happen.”

Um, ladies? Exactly how much harder do we think we can work?


Speaking of people who work for free, I watched this video of Daily Beast/Newsweek editor-in-chief Tina Brown so I could hear her say, “We don’t have respect for content anymore.” But before getting, there, she made an elegant case for letting go of the idea of “having it all.” Worth a listen.


The brave team at Women Under Siege has released some new data. I can’t summarize it better than director Lauren Wolfe’s Atlantic headline: “Syria Has a Massive Rape Crisis.” Thank God somebody cares.


In more encouraging news, Kate Walsh joins a growing list of actresses (see last month’s NYT Mag profile of Connie Britton) who confess they have been happier and more successful after 35 than before. Sure, they’re actresses. But the barriers they’ve broken are no less real, and I find their continued commitment to their passion incredibly inspiring.


If you’re not a member of Levo League, it’s probably time to join. Their mission is spot-on! You might have missed today’s hilarious and encouraging “Office Hours” with Sheryl Sandberg, but you can catch the video at that link. There’s a bonus at the end: a funny, inspiring ad launching their next initiative: www.levoleague.com/ask4more, showing all the ways we currently settle for less.


I get asked sometimes what all these issues – rape, civil war, and asking for a raise – really have to do with each other. This story from Tbilisi, Georgia by Tara Isabella Burton unintentionally proves my point. The story of a woman trying to get out from under her husband’s abusive hand is a rich reminder of why economic empowerment is so critical for women’s empowerment in every other sphere. It’s also noisy, evocative, and lyrical, a work of literary art in its own right. Well worth our time.

My Girls Are Stronger Than You. For Real.

I’m not going to say that men and women are “the same.” Who would? Who would want them to be? Who would want to limit any nation to the skills and talents of only half the …

Oh, wait.

As I predicted, lots of men who look like they’ve never done a pull-up in their life are up in arms over women’s fitness for combat. Nevermind the inspiring stories of women who have actually served – including where men cannot – and examples of co-ed combat from countries that  don’t suck at war, such as Israel (“women often exhibit ‘superior skills’ in discipline, motivation, and shooting abilities”). Now that everyone’s sounding off about our military weakening due to women’s supposed inability to meet the standards, let’s hear out our allies in Norway:

 “I have to be clear: You have to meet the physical standards, because the job is still the same. It works very well as long as women hold the standards,” added Colonel [Ingrid] Gjerde, who was the commander of Norwegian forces in Afghanistan in 2012. “It’s not a big deal because women who go into these fields know the standards, and it’s not that hard for women to train up to the standards if they really want.” (Thanks to Anna Mulrine at National Geographic.)

There are some standards that you absolutely need to perform a task – like, er, big femurs. Others serve as a proxy for overall fitness – weeding out people who aren’t so muscled-up that they can’t run (true story) as well as people who aren’t so solely focused on cardiovascular fitness that they can’t lift heavy things. But to develop specific muscles to perform specific tasks of the kind we’re all wringing our hands over, people – males AND females – have to train. There’s no SEAL or Special Forces member who was selected because of his God-given VO2max. They worked hard.

However biased some standards may be (I am still mad that one stupid pull-up got between me, 7th-grade sit-ups-per-minute champion, and the Presidential Fitness Award), I am not worried about whether women will meet them. They’ll probably have to train harder than their male colleagues, but they’ll get there. They will continue to serve faithfully until they’ve proven to the rest of the nation what they proved to Dempsey and Panetta: that women are assets, not liabilities, on the battlefield.

In fact, I think we should get those guys “My girl is stronger than you” t-shirts – fitted ones. Maybe it will inspire them to do a few pull-ups of their own.


It’s About Time

Today’s great news: The Pentagon officially lifted its ban on women in combat. The landmark decision comes after years of advocacy and lawsuits, including one brought just this past November. It’s a big accomplishment.

However, as some initial responses indicate, we still have a long way to go in terms of combating public ignorance.

Of the nasty comments already being made about women’s capability on the battlefield, I’m only going to address three:

1) The myth of lower standards. Yes, women have more time to complete their two-mile run and get more points per push-up on the physical fitness test. But when was the last time someone had a push-up-off with a terrorist? Women are actually better suited for surviving harsh conditions, in large part because of their metabolic differences. For years, the U.S. military has struggled to recruit to standard due to rising obesity and poor public education. Embracing women not only widens the pool of recruits, it brings in other important physical skills – like flexibility, endurance, and ability to tolerate extreme heat and cold. Turns out that higher body fat comes in handy sometimes, and not just when bearing children. Who knew?

2.) The myth of the Hollywood battlefield. Nevermind that most women at my Crossfit gym can execute more push-ups in a minute than the average talking head has done all year – the modern U.S. military demands a lot of talents that go well beyond rucking. Ever heard of the “tooth-to-tail ratio”? That’s the number of boots on the ground for every pair folded under an office chair, and it’s still around 10-to-one. So, just as you can’t have a successful career while excluded from combat, nor does playing movie-star soldier merit lifetime taxpayer payroll. American women are already an important asset on the battlefield and in the thousands of desk jobs that are the bulk of the DOD’s work; this just means that they can finally be recognized for all of it.

3.) The myth of men who “can’t help themselves.” Although I appreciate the irony in saying that the same men who “can’t help but protect” women on the battlefield “can’t help but attack” them sexually later on, it simply isn’t true. There are plenty of real men in the U.S. armed forces. Those who really feel that gender segregation is necessary might consider fighting for the other side. Not only does al-Qaeda keep women in their place, I hear they’ve got an impressive stash of porn.

If, on the other hand, you consider this a landmark and believe women in the military deserve better, you can help by supporting the Service Women’s Action Network. Or, you know, watching The Hunger Games, doing Fran at Rx, and getting that overweight, opinionated he-man at the bar to attempt the splits. Some things are just better when they’re co-ed.