Readers respond to reports of mistreated Iraq war vets. Plus: Were Lawrence Summers' comments justified?

By Salon Staff

Published February 19, 2005 10:01PM (EST)

[Read "Behind the Walls of Ward 54," by Mark Benjamin.]

Thank you so much for publicizing the (lack of) appropriate treatment for soldiers with PTSD at Walter Reed hospital. The Army's evading the issue by claiming that these soldiers' condition is not due to the trauma of war just sickens me.

In 1974, my father-in-law, Charles Levy, published a book called "Spoils of War," about the struggles of Vietnam veterans, especially those who would now be diagnosed with PTSD. He also testified before the Senate about the issue and was attacked for criticizing the U.S. military by exposing its "dirty laundry." The United States was in deep denial about what an (unpopular) war could do to "our boys." We all know now the consequences suffered by Vietnam veterans because of this denial.

At the start of the Iraq war, I read this book, and was immediately struck by how little has changed in the past 31 years. Though I was doubtful, I hoped that the military had caught up with the standard of care for soldiers traumatized by war. The article you published today shows that my hope was mistaken; the denial continues.

-- Ann Muir Thomas

Our senators and representatives frequently cite the number of GIs killed in the war, but rarely do we hear about the tens of thousands who return unable to contribute to society as they once did. Bush won reelection on the backs of these soldiers, who have fought bravely while the reasons for their fight have been changed so whimsically. If we are to have any dignity as a nation, we must treat those who defend us with the utmost respect and care, rather than as the discarded waste of a war gone awry.

-- Rob Poggenklass

If this much harm is being done to soldiers who can eventually leave Iraq and get treatment, however inadequate, imagine the harm that is being done to the Iraqi people who have no escape and no treatment for either the physical or mental damage that is being done to them and their nation. We are creating a nation of angry PTSDs.

-- Thomas Krala

[Read "Summers' Simplistic Stereotyping," by Kirsten Powers.]

If a woman had said that women make better teachers than men because they possess an inherent empathy that men lack, the majority of those attacking Summers today would likely nod their heads in tacit agreement. Summers suggested that women might have slightly different mental aptitudes in certain areas and that this might be a reason (not even the primary reason) that women are underrepresented in certain fields. Summers looked at the information -- there are fewer women in the sciences -- and said that perhaps some (not all, not most) of the discrepancy could be explained by small, almost negligible, differences in ability that become magnified looking at outlying cases.

Summers' remarks may very well be used as a justification for discrimination against women. If (and likely when) that happens, it is certainly lamentable, but Summers is only responsible for what he actually said, not for the misinterpretations of others. Women are different from men, and to endeavor to treat women the same as men is to do a disservice to women, men and "personkind." I believe in equal rights and equal consideration, but to say that the idea that women and men are slightly different in certain capabilities is not even open for discussion is irresponsible and will hinder any attempts at creating a legitimately equitable society.

-- Michael Foody

As a New York Times contributor who spent more than a week poring through international math-test scores and a wide variety of statistical comparisons between the career trajectories of male and female scientists before writing an extensive data-driven front-page treatment of the Lawrence Summers' controversy, I must respectfully object to Kirsten Powers' dismissal of the newspaper's "irrelevant" coverage with her offhanded reference to one article's mention of "sex differences in green spoon worms."

It feels a little like, oh, I don't know, a certain university president casually proposing that most gals just can't do numbers.

-- Natalie Angier

I am a woman who recently graduated from Caltech as a math major, and I'm currently getting a Ph.D. at MIT, so I have a lot of experience with respect to men's and women's abilities at the top science and engineering schools in the country.

When I started college at Caltech, I greatly wanted to believe that after passing Caltech's high (gender-neutral) admissions standards, the men and women would have equal abilities. While I have no hard evidence to support my observation, time and time again I got the nagging feeling that this just wasn't the case. Although there were plenty of absolutely brilliant women who could hold their own against the top men in their departments, the women seemed to struggle more on average and did indeed disproportionately choose the "softer" sciences such as biology and geology. Far fewer than 30 percent of the top students in math and physics were women.

Could social factors account for this? Sure, but most of the girls in my generation grew up free from all but the most subliminal discouragement from doing hard science. It would be hard to argue that the social factors could account for such a visible difference.

All this proves is that Summers is not obviously wrong. And in the spirit of scientific inquiry, we should at least spend some time investigating all tenable hypotheses before dismissing them out of hand.

As far as I can tell, Summers was merely pointing out that genetic differences might be a cause of the continued underrepresentation of women. We are all born with different abilities -- that's a fact. And genetic inferiority in some abilities is in no way demeaning. Women are clearly genetically inferior to men in many physical abilities. Does acknowledging those differences disparage us? No! But Powers implicitly asserts that having lesser abilities means we are lesser people, and that idea is much more dangerous than Summers'.

Powers also suggests that if there were scientific evidence to support Summers' view, fragile young girls would be in danger of being hopelessly discouraged and give up on science. But science clearly shows that genetics is at best only a partial predictor of true ability. We should keep telling all young people to keep reaching for the stars, but that doesn't mean we should pretend genetic differences don't exist.

In this debate, we are muddling the worthy goal of removing non-merit-based discrimination by trying to achieve the impossible goal of complete equality. We should just acknowledge our differences and let the best man or woman win.

-- Jialan Wang

I majored in engineering for two years at a California state university. Given my experiences in the field, I do not find it at all surprising that Summers would make such a sexist statement. I, and many of the other women in my major, had various experiences of sexist attitudes held by male professors.

I had one teacher tell me continually that I had a hard time with dynamics because "boys spend their childhoods falling out of trees and riding their bikes down hills, so they have a better intuitive sense of this sort of thing." Unfortunately, because the majority of teaching positions worldwide in engineering are held by men, I'm afraid that many female students receive similar comments. It's kind of a Catch-22 -- until more women are in the fields of science and engineering, it will be harder for women to get into those fields.

-- Julianna Montgomery

Kirsten Powers misses the point Larry Summers was trying to make, or at least the point he should have made. Differences in the sexes may indeed account for the failure of women to excel in certain fields. And that points to a lot of missed opportunities. On average, it's pretty clear that women think differently from men. And isn't "thinking different" a component of innovation? How many women (and men for that matter) who were turned off by the standard math and science education might have answered questions that have stumped all those men in academia? After all, the story goes that Einstein himself failed math class. What if that had been enough to persuade him to use his genius in art or music instead?

Education in this country tends to assume there is one way people learn. Sure, that way changes with the weather, but the fact is a lot of talent goes to waste because it doesn't fit in the boxes we call school and work.

-- Rob Formica

I was in agreement with Kirsten Powers' opinion piece on sexual stereotyping until near the end, where she says, "I am part of the first generation to be told that girls can do anything boys can do." First of all, I'm not sure that the statement is factually correct. When did her generation begin?

I can recall being told as a child in the early 1940s that girls were just as smart as boys and that I couldn't depend on being male to get me by. Maybe I was just lucky with my parents, but Ms. Powers' comment undercuts for me the valid point that she made in her column: We do better when we treat people as whole people and not focus on part of the characteristics that make up individuals.

-- John Heron

I'm starting to be irked by the misrepresentation in opinion pieces like that of Kirsten Powers. Every news piece I've read agrees that Summers was restating a variety of views presented at the conference about why women are less prevalent in the sciences; every news piece I've read agrees that what he said was calling for more investigation. I agree with Ms. Powers that our culture marginalizes and limits women as they try to do the jobs to which they feel called. Continuing to attack Summers doesn't help that situation. All the attacks do is distract attention from working toward gender equity.

--Matthew Griffin

I've been reading Salon for three or four years now and seen my share of liberal bias, but this was one of the worst offenders. The article purported to be about Lawrence Summers' comments that perhaps one of the reasons women did not occupy 50 percent of the faculty positions at elite universities was due to genetic factors, yet the author used most of the column length to rail about Carly Fiorina's dismissal and the media's response.

While that may have been a valid article on its own, the two have very little relation to each other. A better story to focus on in regards to Summers' comments would have been the many academics who dismissed his comments out of hand because they dealt with a controversial subject, without giving it the benefit of the scientific inquiry it deserved.

There is nothing wrong in acknowledging that men and women are different, and trying to understand how and why should be a goal of science.

-- Alan Rambaldini

Thank you for your essay, Ms. Powers.

I have noticed that those who most loudly decry the stereotyping of women in business are also quite willing to use stereotypes of nurturing communicators in order to tout the supposed benefits that women bring to the workplace. I wonder how people manage to not notice the hypocrisy?

You are correct. Real equality will come when people learn to accept that when women fail, it's not necessarily because sexism has victimized her. And if society punishes a man who fails, then a woman in a similar position should not be treated as if she is less deserving of punishment on account of her sex. I've noticed that many self-described feminists aren't very enthusiastic on advocating more equality in those areas.

-- Linney Uston

Has Kirsten Powers read the transcript of Larry Summers' speech? She seems to be complaining about some other speech.

Powers writes: "Until they can cite a supporting body of evidence, Summers and others shouldn't make comments that disparage all women."

I defy anyone to find in the transcript one instance of a comment disparaging to all women or to any subset of women. The worst thing that Summers suggests is that women's mathematical and scientific "ability" is less variable than men's. Is that offensive? Disparaging? Where does Summers cite women's inherent lack of ability, as Powers contends he does?

Summers is getting a bum rap. He goes out of his way to qualify almost everything he says, to remind his listeners that his intent is to provoke them to think about various possibilities, and to point out where he believes more research could provide real insight into the problem of underrepresentation.

Evidently, Summers has been apologizing profusely. That's too bad. He's the one who deserves an apology.

-- Brad Bartley

Salon Staff

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