The Pentagon’s recent decision to lift the longstanding ban on women participating in combat roles has been met with a torrent of criticism. Unsurprisingly, some arguments against the change in policy are better than others.
Those arguments that are lacking have the same underlying deficiency: a tendency to rely almost entirely on appeals to the physical differences between men and women. The common thesis in this type of opposition to placing women in combat runs along these lines:
The core concern is the physical differential between men and women. Combat duty is strenuous and physically demanding, and I’m not the first person to notice that men and women are built differently.
Such arguments are further substantiated with anecdotal evidence, including accounts of physically-fit women who were nonetheless unable to endure the exacting bodily toll of life in the infantry. If the physical strain was too much for a woman who was among the most physically fit females in the Marine Corps, then clearly all women should remain banned from combat. Or so the theory goes.
The problem is that such reasoning is fallacious. While most women are, in fact, physically unfit for infantry duty, such a premise is only capable of supporting an argument against allowing a woman in battle only insofar as she is physically ill-suited for the rigors of battle. Indeed, the same type of criteria should be used when evaluating a man’s combat capabilities. Therefore, this type of argument does not build a comprehensively convincing case for keeping women out of combat because they are women.
Stringent standards are currently in place that would bar anyone from serving in the infantry if he was not physically capable. Unless these standards change, which military officials suggest is unlikely, women would have to meet the same physical requirements that men have had to meet before they could be cleared for combat duty. Therefore, if it’s the case that all women are, in fact, physically incapable of the rigors of service in the infantry, they will inevitably not meet the standards currently in place. But then why the insistence on banning women from combat duty? Isn’t there a de facto ban already in place?
The reality is that, although women are clearly physically different than men, a truth that renders most of them ill-suited for combat, a small number of them are, most likely, capable of meeting the physical requirements for entry into the infantry. On what grounds could anyone possibly exclude such women from combat duty if the only recourse is to say that women aren’t physically capable of infantry duty when they just proved they are? Clearly, justifications for banning women from combat that rely primarily on generalized differences in physical ability crumble in the face of such a scenario.
A more appropriate critique is one that appeals to more than just the physical. Joe Carter’s article for First Things, entitled “Battles are Ugly when Women Fight,” is an excellent example of such an argument, although Mr. Carter refers to it as more of a “lament” than anything else. The title of the article refers to a passage from C.S. Lewis’ The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, a story that persistently reminds us that its wisdom is for more than just the kids. The relevant text is as follows:
Peter receives a sword and a shield, Susan receives a bow and arrow and a magical horn that will summon help whenever it’s blown, and Lucy receives a dagger and a magic vial that restores the health of anyone injured. Later, before the White Witch’s army, Father Christmas tells the sisters that he has given them these weapons only so that the girls can defends themselves “in great need…for I do not mean you to fight in the battle.” Lucy is offended, believing her bravery is being questioned, but he tells her, “That is not the point…battles are ugly when women fight.”
The difference in focus is immediately noticeable. Lewis doesn’t say that “battles are lost when women fight” or that “battles are not as efficient when women fight.” There is no attention paid to the abilities of women combatants or the outcome of conflicts in which they participate (indeed, Lucy may very well be a more effective warrior than the songbirds and small rodents that make up Aslan’s followers). Instead, Lewis focuses on the nature of these conflicts, by appealing to such abstract concepts as “ugliness,” and therefore to the standard of beauty. Ultimately, Lewis, and subsequently Carter, are making a case against women in combat based on the perceived incompatibility of the nature of women and the nature of war. (It should be mentioned that Lewis’ literary account of female warriors is mixed—after all, Orual of Till We Have Faces was an especially capable combatant. Though, perhaps, the ethics of Glome are not as elevated as those of Narnia.)
Of course, an argument that cites such a lofty concept as the nature of the sexes has no place in modern American political discourse, an arena where relativism is the only absolute and the few metaphysical terms that seem to carry any weight are “equality” and “choice.” This is an unfortunate reality that Carter recognizes all too clearly:
My views are [hopelessly out of touch], I’m afraid, and I suspect there are others as well, both men and women, who think that when the creator made us “male and female” he meant for there to be some distinctions in roles. Men, for example, were created to be self-sacrificial protectors of the family, and by extension, of the nation. Forcing women into that role will not lead to more freedom but rather to less equality, more violence toward women, and a general degradation of humanity. As Lewis said, battles are ugly when women fight. But societies that send their women off to war are even uglier.
Carter says that placing women in combat situations is lamentable. I, admittedly, do not have the depth of understanding on this issue to definitively agree (or disagree) with him. But what is clearly worthy of our lament is the absence of serious ethical discussions about policy within mainstream American discourse, a deficit made evident by the fact that a predominant counter-argument to the proscriptions of progressivism is not that they violate objective standards of truth and goodness, but that they don’t make for “effective” policy.