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The Poor Debate over Women in Combat Roles



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On Mother Jones, Adam Serwer calls out conservatives for their “silly freak-out” over yesterday’s announcement that women will now be considered for “combat roles” in the military. I should admit that I’m not entirely sure what I think of the issue, and I am unqualified to pass judgement on whether the military will be improved or diminished by the move. (This, I think, is the only important question.) But one thing I am sure of is that the way the issue is discussed on the left is generally unhelpful. Serwer talks of the previous system being one in which women were “denied access to certain career opportunities” and he references the predictable ACLU lawsuits to that effect. The media more generally has taken to reporting that a “ban” has been lifted. This is linguistically nonsensical. There was no “ban” on anything. The military is not the state of nature, in which women’s natural desires were thwarted by law. Women were no more “banned” from fighting in combat roles than I am “banned” from serving in the CIA because I’m not an American citizen. There was military policy, and this has now changed. (And changed far more than Serwer’s suggestion that “Panetta’s announcement” merely “ensure[s] [women] are recognized for” their existing service.) 

This passage, from Serwer, stuck out to me:

The Daily Beast’s David Frum, appearing on CNN, also raised a misguided objection to the new policy. Frum claimed that servicewomen will face sexual violence from America’s enemies and therefore shouldn’t be allowed to serve on the front lines:

The people we are likely to meet on the next battlefield are people who use rape and sexual abuse as actual tools of politics. In Iranian prisons, rape is a frequent practice. Women are raped before they are executed. In Iran, in Pakistan, in Afghanistan rape is a conscious tool of subjugation and it is something women will be exposed to. In the name of equal opportunity they will face unequal risk.

It’s true that women face the danger of sexual assault if captured. The same could be said of men. Frum’s objection seems somewhat selective; women in the US military are more likely to face sexual assault from their comrades in the service than they are to be killed by enemy fire. Perhaps that’s less sensational than the thought of scary foreigners violating American women, but it’s a more urgent threat.

Oh, well that’s okay, then. As long as our female soldiers are being raped by Americans, then lets go for it. This, it shouldn’t need saying, is not an argument in favor of women in combat roles; it’s an argument that puts in order of importance the manifold problems that go along with it. It strikes me here that Serwer is so keen to dispel Frum’s suggestion that foreigners might do barbaric things that he completely loses sight of what he was trying to argue in the first place. This, alas, is typical of the wider conversation. All earnest skepticism is immediately dismissed with talk of civil rights and latent misogyny, neither of which is appropriate to the topic.

Surely, it can’t be too controversial to suggest that the dynamic might change if men and women are routinely fighting together in combat roles. This isn’t a nice possibility, but reality is under no obligation to be nice and reality rarely bites so hard as it does in a warzone. Heather Mac Donald, who is staunchly against the idea, suggests:

Only someone deliberately blind to human reality could maintain that putting men and women in close quarters 24 hours a day will not produce a proliferation of sex, thus introducing all the irrational passions (and resulting favoritism) of physical attraction into an organization that should be exclusively devoted to the mission of combat preparedness. 

Perhaps Mac Donald is right. Who knows? But it is interesting that at no point in his post does Serwer object to such criticisms nor argue that putting women into combat roles will be good for the military. Instead, he concludes that:

Most men cannot meet the necessary mental and physical requirements for service in combat. Any woman who can meet those standards should not be denied the opportunity because of an arbitrary gender restriction. Moreover, removing the restriction is not about celebrating militarism. The military has long been a path for historically disfavored groups to claim the full benefits of citizenship. Justifying discrimination against blacks, gays and lesbians, or women becomes much more difficult when they’re giving their lives for their country. 

I’m not quite sure what it is that women might gain domestically from unrestricted integration into military “combat roles.” (Or, for that matter, how relevant it is.) Presumably, Serwer is alluding to the usual tosh about “equal pay.” But I suppose he has has a point: The army is the one place in which women will be absolutely guaranteed to get “equal pay.” All objections withdrawn. Sign them up, Colonel Steinem!



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