This summer President Barack Obama will announce detailed plans for incorporating women into the U.S. armed forces’ ground combat units. This alteration of one of the basic norms of civilization has passed strangely unremarked, at least compared with the redefinition of marriage. Yet it defies both science and millennia of human experience, and it ought to prompt some national soul searching about the roles of the sexes in national security.
Two quite different views tend to dominate the debate over women in combat. Proponents of the change — feminists and their allies in the government, the Pentagon, and the media — view this as a question of equality. As long as women are prohibited from engaging in the essential act of a soldier — ground combat — they are condemned to second-class citizenship in the military and in civilian society. Equality, in their view, is the supreme goal of public policy. If a cost of achieving it is the diminution of the efficiency or even effectiveness of our combat forces, so be it. They won’t quite come out and say this, but it is the unavoidable conclusion of their reasoning.
U.S. Senator Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY), chair of the Senate Armed Services Subcommittee on Personnel, is a champion of this view. Putting women in combat, she says, “will strengthen our country both morally and militarily” and will “create promising opportunities for the brave women who serve our country, and the families that stand by them. By officially opening combat roles women will be able to advance their careers to the senior ranks and increase the diversity of our military leadership.”
Opponents of opening ground combat units to women, when they speak up at all, stick to the pragmatic point that women are incapable of meeting the physical and psychological demands of sustained ground combat. Since the evidence for this position is overwhelming, the argument is that opening ground combat to women would compromise the primary mission of the military — fighting and defeating our enemies. This argument is frequently couched in terms of regret: We all wish, obviously, that we could accommodate women’s laudable ambition to serve their country in this way, but the unpleasant reality is that it’s just not practicable.
The debate about sending women into combat raises larger questions. Both sides avoid them, but they are perhaps the most important ones. What kind of society sends its women into ground combat? Do we want to be that kind of society? Is sending our daughters, wives, and mothers into combat good for women, for men, or for children? To a certain kind of feminist it is repugnant to ask these questions. We don’t ask if we should send men into combat, so we shouldn’t ask if we should send women. People who have blinded themselves to the profound and wonderful differences between the sexes are not open to a discussion about the consequences of those differences, and perhaps there is nothing more to say to them. But those people should not set the terms of the public debate. The American people need to stop pretending that sending women into combat involves questions no deeper than how far they can carry a seventy-pound rucksack.
Between September 11, 2001, and July 2013, 141 American servicewomen were killed in the line of duty in Afghanistan and Iraq. Nineteen of those women were mothers of children aged 18 and younger. By comparison, 16 women were killed during the Vietnam War, and six were killed in the first Persian Gulf War. Now women will be asked to shoulder a much heavier burden. More mothers of young children will be killed and wounded in war than ever before. And all young women will eventually be subject to the draft. This radical policy change erases the boundaries of sex and normalizes the exposure of women to lethal violence. Meet the real war on women.
Two consequences of the Obama administration’s new policy reveal its savagery with special clarity. The first is the moral certainty that female prisoners of war will be subjected to sexual crimes that will make their captivity even more horrifying than men’s. The same people who decry sexual harassment in the barracks shrug their shoulders at the prospect of American servicewomen’s falling into the hands of the world’s most depraved misogynists.