Politics & Policy

Soldier-Girl Blues

U.S. Army rifle range at Fort Jackson, S.C.
Where was the national conversation about women in combat?

What if, during the presidential campaign, Mitt Romney had accused President Obama of wanting to let servicewomen serve in combat? After all, Obama had hinted as much in 2008. What would Obama’s response have been?

My hunch is that he would have accused Romney of practicing the “politics of division” or some such and denied it.

#ad#In any case, wouldn’t an open debate have been better than putting women into combat by fiat? You’d think the folks who are always clamoring for a “national conversation” on this, that, and the other thing would prefer to make a sweeping change after, you know, a national conversation.

Instead, Defense Secretary Leon Panetta announced the change on his way out the door. And Panetta has been lionized even though it wasn’t really his decision to make. If the president didn’t want this to happen, it wouldn’t happen. Perhaps Obama let Panetta run with the idea, just in case it turned out to be a political fiasco.

The good news for Obama is that it hasn’t been. Absent any informed debate, polls support the idea. Indeed, the Republican party has been shockingly restrained in even questioning what is a vastly bigger deal than the lifting of the half-ban on gays in the military — “don’t ask, don’t tell.” The mainstream media have celebrated the milestone and largely yawned at the skeptics.

Most lacking from the coverage is any attempt to explain how this will make combat units better at combat. Instead, we’re told that gender integration is necessary because without combat experience, it’s hard for women to get promoted.

Lifting that glass ceiling is an understandable, even lofty desire. But what does it have to do with making the military better at fighting?

My point isn’t that women should be kept out of all combat roles. Indeed, as many supporters of the move are quick to point out, women are already getting shot at. “In our male-centric viewpoint, we want to keep women from harm’s way,” Ric Epps, a former Air Force intelligence officer who teaches political science, told the Los Angeles Times. “But . . . modern warfare has changed. There are no true front lines; the danger is everywhere, and women have already been there in Iraq and Afghanistan.”

True enough. But does anyone believe such changes are permanent? Will we never again have front lines? Or are the generals simply fighting the last war and projecting that experience out into the future?

Heck, if we’ll never have wars between standing armies again, we can really afford to cut the defense budget. Something tells me that’s not the conclusion the Pentagon wants us to draw.

It is a common habit of many liberals and self-avowed centrists to preen about how they don’t deny science and evolution the way conservatives do. Well, on this issue, it is the opponents of women in combat invoking the scientific data that confirm a fairly obvious evolutionary fact: Men and women are different. For instance, at her physical peak, “the average woman has the aerobic capacity of a 50-year-old male,” notes defense intellectual and veteran Mackubin Thomas Owens in a powerfully empirical article in The Weekly Standard.

Another evolutionary fact is that men act different when around women. This creates challenges for unit cohesion and fighting effectiveness.

The three most common responses to such concerns are that countries such as Israel and Canada let women in combat; advances for women can’t be held hostage to sexist attitudes; and there won’t be any lowering of standards, so only physically qualified women will be in combat.

As to the first point, Israeli gender integration is often wildly exaggerated. And the Canadians have neither the capacity nor the need for a large standing army.

The latter arguments don’t strike me as particularly reality-based either. Sexist attitudes alone aren’t a justification for anything. But we’re not talking about misogyny here. Proof of that is the fact that the military already practices gender-norming (giving women extra points for being women) in many instances. Will there really be less now?

Obama’s decision hasn’t stifled the debate, it’s merely postponed it until the day Americans see large numbers of women coming home in body bags, alongside the men.

Jonah Goldberg is editor-at-large of National Review Online and a visiting fellow at the American Enterprise Institute. You can write to him by e-mail atJonahsColumn@aol.com, or via Twitter @JonahNRO.©2013 Tribune Media Services, Inc.

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