November 27, 1999

Dear Mr. Sumners,

        Thank you for your letter, which Del Rey forwarded to me. Dan Cragg and I always enjoy hearing from our readers and I will send this one on to him after I answer it.

        I must say I am surprised. Ever since First to Fight was published more than two years ago, I've been waiting for someone to raise exactly the point you did in your letter. I receive on average about two letters a week, nearly all of them are email rather than "snail mail," yet you are the first person to raise the question of mixed gender combat units in STARFIST. Not even any of the many women who read and enjoy STARFIST have questioned the lack of women in the combat units.

        Before we started writing the series, Dan Cragg and I seriously thought about and discussed exactly that issue. In the end, we came to the conclusion that even though mixed-gender combat units would be the properly politically correct thing to do, it simply wouldn't work in real life and having them would detract from the level of realism we wanted in our books. We fully agree that women have a place in the military, but not in combat units - and certainly not in mixed gender combat units. There are several important things we looked at. Here are some of the most important of them.

        Men and women don't relate to each other the way men do to other men or women to women. There are always tensions, and I don't mean that in a negative sense, between men and women that don't exist between men or between women. There are other tensions, and I do mean this in a somewhat negative sense, that arise among men in the presence of women and vice versa.

        Then there is the nature of the military. It really is profoundly different from civilian life. In the military your boss, that is to say your commanding officer, has authority over you that is undreamed of in civilian life. There is something called "Non-Judicial Punishment," which allows your CO to put you in jail without a court martial. There is an offense called "Conduct Unbecoming..." which means you can be court martialled and put in jail for no criminal offense - even if your CO simply doesn't like your attitude or because you're in his way somehow. In combat your superior, from fire team leader on up, can assign you to do something that will very likely get you killed. None of these things exist in civilian life. Now combine these possibilities with two men competing for the attentions of the same woman - or two women for the same man - and all kinds of potential problems arise. Also, men tend to be protective of women and in combat a man might take unnecessary chances to protect (or impress) a woman where he wouldn't be so eager to protect or impress another man.

        Of course, that's somewhat theoretical as no army in all of human history has had mixed gender combat units (Molly Pritchard not withstanding). So we looked at real-world examples. Some armies, most notably the Israeli Army, have experimented with all-female combat units. They didn't work and were disbanded. Today the US Navy has women serving on warships. Women crew members miss a far higher proportion of cruises than do men because they got pregnant on the previous cruise and aren't back to full duty yet -- this despite the fact that the Navy has very stringent rules about sexual behavior onboard ship. The Air Force, Navy, and Marine Corps all have women fighter pilots. All three of them have suffered discipline problems in their mixed-gender fighter squadrons, some of which were serious enough that they led to court martials.

        You see, the military really can't be compared to a civilian job, it's very different. Combat units can't be accurately compared to other military units because they are constantly preparing to fight. And combat can't be compared to anything else, it is unique in human experience. So while there are women in the Confederation military of STARFIST, there are none in our combat units. Even though we are writing the most speculative form of fiction, Science Fiction, we do our best to be as realistic as possible.

        I hope this helps you understand why there are no women in 34th FIST and that it doesn't turn you off. Dan Cragg and I like our readers and don't like to upset them any more than necessary. Yes, sometimes it is necessary to upset readers, but only when the story demands it. You know, I've been thinking for awhile about posting something on this topic on my website. Maybe I'll post this letter (without your address, of course). If you have access to the internet, my website is at It has an email link so you can email me if you wish.

David Sherman

Back to "Opinions"