Friday, January 25, 2013

Women in combat

I don't know when I've felt more conflicted about a news item than I do about women being allowed into combat.  I've been reading debates on the topic since the story broke (which, by the bye, is a waste of time, no one has anything new to say) and I don't feel any better about it.

On the one hand, since I was about seventeen and actually considered the topic, I've been strongly opposed to women in the military.  I think all the Tolkien and Lewis had rubbed off on me, and I was getting annoyed at how fantasy novels always make their heroines take up swords and be as tough as any man.  It felt -- counterproductive.  If the best thing a woman can hope to do is beat a man in single combat with swords, we're basically all screwed because 99% of us can't do that.  I preferred fantasy novels in which women were mages, clerics, wise women, healers.  Those were things I felt I could identify more with.

Here, let me embarrass myself with an excerpt from a novel I was working on in college:

            “Why must I stay while you go?” she demanded. “I am not the weaker for being a woman.”
            “It is not a matter of being weaker.”
            “Then what is it?”
            Rademard paused. “War is not about fighting alone; it is also about killing. I have killed men before, and I will kill men again soon. It is a soldier’s duty to deal death and to put himself in danger of death. It is this that I fear for you.”
            “I am not afraid of dying,” she said, bitterly.
            “Dying could not hurt you as killing could. Don’t you see that killing someone else would be killing your own heart?” He paused a long moment, then said at last, quickly, “For it could be tender, if it would, and to weigh it against your sword would be to weigh gold against dust.”

Eek.  Embarrassing.  My worship of Tolkien is kind of obvious.  Anyway.

I do believe that war dehumanizes.  I believe that getting yourself into the mindset where you could kill someone else is bad for you as a person, that it reduces your compassion and gentleness.  You can't simultaneously be a ruthless killer and have that affect no other aspect of your life.  Obviously I don't want women to undergo this.

The trouble is, I don't want men to, either.  Men rock babies to sleep.  Men kiss boo-boos.  Men need to take compassion into account when making decisions from deciding wages for employees to voting.

The argument "but women are MOTHERS and we can't deploy mothers away from their children!" is a good one also.  I firmly agree.  On the other hand, who says children don't need their fathers?  Being a military child myself (though my dad was in the reserves and not deployed at all for most of my childhood), I know a lot of military families, and I think every single one of them has suffered through having an absent father.  We already know that absent fathers are bad for children when they're growing up.  The fact that they are killing people in far-off lands doesn't have some mysterious ameliorating effect.  It's also incredibly hard on their wives, who have to do and be everything for the family -- while also handling military red-tape, being available to Skype in the middle of the night, and worrying themselves sick about their husbands.  No wonder many military couples divorce.  It's a wonder to me that not all of them do, and a sign of the amazing relience and inner strength of military spouses.

I would not join the military myself.  I also would not encourage my husband to do so.  In fact (and I'm going to catch flak for this for sure), I told him when we were dating that if he had any dream of joining the military, he should tell me right away so I could find a different guy.  I wanted an actual FATHER for my children, one who would BE THERE.  The military would not have allowed him to do that in the way I felt my children would need.

My kids are both very attached to their dad, and they now BOTH cry at goodbye almost every morning.  When John is gone for a week, the atmosphere suffers.  Marko whines a lot and asks for his dad many times a day.  He demands to be "took wif" and insists that Daddy is coming back not on Friday, but tonight.  I am sure if John were gone for six months, he'd get used to it ... but I doubt the relationship they have now would still be the same when he got back.  Kids need you when they need you, not six months from now.

But -- I can hear you saying -- someone's got to defend our country.  And yes, this is so.  (I personally believe a much smaller military that focused on defending our borders rather than policing the globe would defend us just as well, with less hardship on individuals and families, to say nothing of all the money it all costs.)  But let's stop pretending that nonstop warfare is good for men and bad for women.  It's bad for everyone.  It can only be justified by extreme need.

I am tired of being told that a term in the military will "make a man" of a boy, that you learn all these "manly virtues" there.  What virtues can you learn in the military?  Hard work?  Send the boy to work on a farm.  Courage?  Send him to Alaska to fish; he'll earn good money and face danger on a regular basis.  Self-discipline?  Self-discipline is something you can only teach yourself.  What you learn in the military is externally-applied discipline which will wear off once the young man gets out of the military.  Obedience to authority?  This is a nation that believes in self-government and personal responsibility -- I want my sons to disobey unjust laws.

I'm not sure I believe in the concept of "manly virtues" at all.  Virtue is virtue.  There may be some virtues which come more easily to women and some which come more easily to men, but if so, it seems we'd better learn from one another to acquire all the virtues we can.  If courage doesn't come easily to Sally, she shouldn't shrug and say, "Well, I'm a girl so I'm not supposed to be brave," but just screw her courage to the sticking point and go kill that spider or mouse or whatever it is.  If it's not easy for Dan to put himself in someone else's shoes, he shouldn't say, "All that sympathy crap is effeminate anyway," but instead take a long look at his mother or his wife and figure out how to be as compassionate as she is.  There are no cop-outs for virtue because of gender.  I think that's part of what St. Paul meant when he said "In Christ there is no male or female."

The absolute worst arguments against women in combat are those complaining that our whole nation will be "feminized" if women are allowed into the male-only zone where men can be REAL MEN and get muddy and cuss and ... whatever it is they think women shouldn't be doing.  If you want boys to grow up to be real men, make sure their dad can be around while they're growing up.  Sticking a rifle in their hands and shoving them into a trench isn't going to magically do it, even if there are no women around.

Okay, I take that back.  The worst argument of all is, "Women have periods, and there is no possible way to reconcile this with trench conditions."  Dude, they have pills for that now.  I am not interested in taking those pills, but then I am not interested in joining the military either.  Neither issue is one I feel needs to be legislated; it's a matter of individual choice.

Other terrible arguments include this one: "Any woman of reproductive age could be pregnant at any time.  We have to treat her as potentially pregnant at all times, and she has no right to bring innocent people into a war zone inside her uterus, therefore women should never be in war zones."  By that logic, women should not be allowed to drink, receive X-rays, or ride in motor vehicles.  The fact is we now have the ability to find out pretty darn quickly if a woman is pregnant.  Pregnant women are always sent home if they request it.  And in any event, care for her unborn child is the mother's responsibility, and no one else's.  No one may restrict her rights of free movement or medical care to protect her baby.  A mother is a person first, and not merely a vessel -- and I say this as someone who is unabashedly 100% pro-life.

Or this one: "When women start coming home in body bags, maybe people will rethink this."  Guess what?  Women have already come home in body bags.  Men are dying over there all the time.  Kids--even babies, female babies if that matters--are turning up as "collateral damage." What is it going to freaking take before we say, "Enough, we are not going to win this one and it isn't worth the cost"?  Who is the one coming home with no limbs or no heartbeat isn't the point ... the point is that we are sending off the "best and the brightest" and even those who come back aren't coming back the same.  WAR IS BAD.  Is this one justified?  Why are we not asking this question?

Here's the deal.  Women are already dying in combat.  They are already being captured by the enemy and brutally raped (and so are men, if you didn't know this).  They are already being deployed away from their babies -- even single mothers.  They are already getting raped by their comrades-at-arms.  They are already suffering permanent damage to their health (and so are men).  The only thing that has been held back so far is the ability to serve in the kind of combat situations that get you promoted.  That just seems a little sexist to me!

Mind you, I don't want to see women in the front lines.  I don't want to see them in the military at all -- it's not really a friendly place to women.  I also don't want men to be on the front lines so much, because I don't want this nation to be at war so much.  But preventing women from serving wherever they want to and are qualified to on the grounds of "their nature is different" or "we're afraid they'll get hurt" is just paternalistic.  Set the standards as high as you like, and if the work is really such that women can't do, they won't make it in.  But if they do make it in, you're just going to have to adapt.

And that's my two bucks on the subject.  (Price raised due to inflation and my inability to be brief.)  What do you think?


Ellen Mady said...

A couple of thoughts:
1. I agree with you that NO ONE should have to be at war or engaged in combat, man or woman.
2. I do believe, however, that the experience of war, particularly hand-to-hand combat could be more psychologically damaging for women - there IS a difference in feminine and masculine psychology, and feminism can't get around that. We may be equal, but we're not the same, and doing the same things, making the same money, carrying the same amount of weight is never going to make us a man, any more than staying home, bottle feeding and comforting crying kids can make a father a mother. There is an essential difference in our nature, and it's more than a physical one; our spiritual and physical natures are very much united, and the physical differences in some way represent spiritual differences as well. Society's mistake is not to admit that there are differences - that's obvious and can't be denied - it's mistake is insisting that one nature (masculine) is better, or superior. This social assumption drives women to compete in ways that might go against their own nature in order to prove equality, which they now confuse with sameness. Anyway, all that to say that I do think combat and violence can be more traumatic for women than it is for men.
3. Even thought I think most women would be more traumatized and negatively affected than most men, I don't think that means that the law has to forbid them. I'm fine with the general policy being that women aren't in combat, assuming that it's due not to the idea that women aren't capable, but out of respect for them. That's different, however, than forbidding them by law. If a woman is as capable of the requirements as a man, and wants to be traumatized (or somehow thinks she can go through it without being traumatized), I don't think there's a reason to legally prevent her. If I were a relative, I would definitely try to dissuade her, but in the end, it would be her choice. I think the government is dictating an awful lot that really doesn't need to be controlled one way or another by the law. Instead of controlling people by too many laws, why not educate them so you're confident they have what they need to make good choices, and then let them make their choices? I do believe that there is an objective truth - somethings are always wrong, but there's also a lot in the middle where people could differ in opinion, choice and action without either being completely "right" or completely "wrong."

Anonymous said...

Anyone in a war zone is potentially in combat; this just legislated as "okay" something that was already happening. So personally, at this point, I think debates on the topic are moot.

As an example, EOD techs are not officialy in combat roles, but they go out on front of the "front line", so...

...nevertheless, a more peaceful world would be a good things.

Anonymous said...

thing, not things


Sugar Coater said...

I have very strong feelings on this one and most people would jump on me with both feet.

I worked in law enforcement for 37 years. In that time I saw many women come and go as police officers and female agents. My litmus test, if you will, was this: If my husband were out on the street with this woman, could she PHYSICALLY defend and protect him from a dangerous criminal? Nine times out of ten, the answer was NO. Not only that, I don't care who you are, women are NOT as physically strong as men, and with VERY few exceptions don't have sufficient upper body strength to carry body armor, shield, gun, flashlight and all the other things an agent has to carry.

Besides, a woman and a man THINK differently and react differently to situations. I'm sorry if lots of you don't agree, but I've seen it. I myself, when on the street or handling prisoners, HAD to physically FIGHT. I didn't like it, but I was only fighting other women mostly. The guys handled the guys and were always right there.

God made us different for a reason. We aren't men, don't think like men, don't act like men, don't have the upper body strength of men. They can't have kids, and we can't do 200 man pushups. FOR A REASON. Oh well, rant over. :) Wow, if this sounds sexist, sorry. But it's how I have seen things.

Belfry Bat said...

Actually, SC, neither is all the paraphernalia good for the men. Patrolmen these days often retire with their lower back quite ruined by the bat-belt+car-seating combination.

So, anyways... Sheila, what exactly is wrong with paternalism? Or, more properly: is it so inconceivable that what you call paternalism is a bad habit with ancient roots in some genuine virtue of paternal care? Isn't the Titanic order "women and children first" the proper way to do things?

Sheila said...

SC, the average man may be stronger than the average woman, but I'd rather have you at my back in a fight than the average man, and that's just a fact. You've got grit that a lot of people don't have. Are you an outlier? Sure. But policies are for everybody, not just an average.

It seems to me that if you keep the standards EXACTLY the same, women will not qualify for the kinds of jobs that require that kind of super-grueling physical ability. So there's no need for a policy, you know what I mean? But you yourself know that there are some places in law enforcement -- and the same for the military -- that it's very helpful to have a woman to handle the women. I mean, what if a pregnant woman goes into labor and it's up to the agent to deliver the baby? ;)

Belfry Bat (oh, your confusing names!) there are two kinds of male protection of women. The first is the kind that says, "After you, madam. I will board the lifeboat once all the women are aboard." I have no problem with that. That's more a matter (in my opinion) of choosing NOT to use your superior physical ability to your advantage against those with less, and a woman would do the same to a child, or an able person for a disabled person. The second kind is, "I don't CARE if you want to get on that lifeboat, I will knock you down and CARRY you onto it, because you are a vessel of LIFE, dangit!" That's not respect. That's making someone else's decisions for them based on your opinion of the appropriate way for them to live their life.

"Paternalism," in my mental dictionary, is when the government acts like your parent and makes decisions about what you should be doing for your own good. I don't like it. The government's job is to decide what you may be required to do for the common good (as it does when it sets standards for physical strength for soldiers). The rest is up to the individual, to decide if they have the inner qualities that make that choice right for them.

Ellen, I am of two minds about what you said. On the one hand, the differences between men and women are obvious. On the other, they seem to exist along a continuum. I know some girls who are more macho than some men. I know a girl who used to sleep in camo pants and dreamed all her life of being a Marine (which she now is), and I know a guy who spends an hour getting ready in the morning every day because he has to look his best. Obviously there is a difference, because each of them is an outlier, but can we really say we know the nature of man and woman so clearly that we can dictate what ALL men or ALL women should do or not do?

Since I've been married, I've realized more and more that most of the differences between me and my husband are based on temperament, upbringing, and to some extent on the male or female culture each of us has spent our social time in. To some extent, we each are unusual because I have four brothers and he has seven sisters. But over and over again, I see that this or that difference is because I am highly sensitive and he is not, that he is more introverted than I am, or that I have spent more time with the kids than he has. He is the one the kids pick when they are hurt. On the other hand, he is the one who would pull the trigger against someone who was attacking us, whereas my choice would always be to grab the kids and run.

It's something I'm still hashing out in my mind. There are differences. But are they so quantifiable that we can make a rule for everyone? Every time I read an attempt to quantify those differences, I find myself coming up with dozens of counterexamples.

I agree about the law though. I would discourage a woman (or man) I knew from entering the military for a multitude of reasons, but that doesn't mean I want the law to manage everything for me.

Sugar Coater said...

Today, that baby I helped deliver is *GULP* well into his 30s. :O

Some memory... and thank you for the compliment. :)

Anonymous said...

Unfortunately, GEN Dempsey has already talked about lowering standards for the most demanding communities, like special ops, so that "enough" women will be able to meet them. Will this make our military more effective, or less?

Sheila said...

That's actually not my primary concern. Theoretically an effective military would be great; theoretically it also should focus on defending our own territory rather than policing the world. In real-world land, how effective our military is is the least of my worries. In the words of a friend of mine, "it's the tick on the butt of the dog that is peeing on your bed."

Anonymous said...

Well, obviously, it is not the least of my worries.

Sheila said...

I was wondering why you said "obviously," considering you were anonymous, but then I finally figured out what those initials stand for. Oh yeah. Love you.

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