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Further Reading

SOCIETY: Feature

Mixed Companies

Women in Combat, Feminism & Misogyny

by Robin Phillips

This past January 24, the Pentagon announced it would be rescinding its longstanding policy preventing women from serving in direct ground combat positions. The decision, announced in a joint memorandum, enables women to begin moving into as many as 237,000 combat positions, a process that will not be fully complete until January 1, 2016.

Women make up 15 percent of the United States' military, and while their training prepares them to fight in situations that may be forced upon them, up till now military command has avoided intentionally placing them in direct combat roles.

The changes were prompted by a lawsuit brought by four U.S. servicewomen last fall against the Department of Defense. The plaintiffs were supported in their case, known as Hegar, et al. v. Panetta, by the Service Women's Action Network, a female veterans group, and by the ACLU, which claimed that the women's civil liberties had been violated since they were denied the opportunity to be shot at.

Gender-Neutral Standards?

The decision comes as part of a larger movement to bring "gender neutrality" to the military. But one of the problems with gender neutrality is that military officials do not always agree on exactly what it means in practice. A report put out for the Congressional Research Service last December reveals some of the confusion that surrounds the term "gender-neutral physical standards":

A plain reading of the term suggests that men and women would be required to meet the same physical standards in order to be similarly assigned. However, in the past, the Services have used this and similar terms to suggest that men and women must exert the same amount of energy in a particular task, regardless of the work that is actually accomplished by either. Hypothetically speaking, if a female soldier carries 70 pounds of equipment five miles and exerts the same effort as a male carrying 100 pounds of equipment the same distance, the differing standards could be viewed as "gender-neutral" because both exerted the same amount of effort, with differing loads.

Questions such as these have yet to be worked out. The military will also have to determine what implications these changes have for a potential future draft.

A Gender-Neutral Draft?

In 1973 the United States discontinued the draft, moving to an all-volunteer military force. Nevertheless, a law signed by President Carter requires every man to register with the Selective Service System when he turns eighteen. This enables the government to know who will be available should a draft ever be needed. If the United States were to find it necessary to call a draft in the future, it would likely differ from all previous drafts in that the military might not merely be seeking man-power, but also woman-power.

Tommy Sears, executive director at the Center for Military Readiness, told Fox News that the changes announced last January could obligate the U.S. government to draft females into combat roles, should the draft ever be reactivated. "Once you allow women into combat, you are then essentially ordering all women to fight," he said. "There are interest groups for women who will actually make it a point to see that that happens."

When asked about these possible ramifications, Leon Panetta, Secretary of Defense at the time, didn't rule out females being drafted for combat roles, but simply replied, "That's not our operation." He went on to say, "I don't know who the hell controls Selective Services if you want to know the truth. . . . Whoever does, they're going to have to exercise some judgment based on what we just did."

The Fairness Thing

If one looks at the arguments put forward by those who have been pushing for the inclusion of females in the draft, it is hard to avoid some disturbing implications. For example, consider the words of former Senator Chris Dodd: "I think if you're going to have registration it ought to be across lines here. You don't just ask one gender to bear the responsibility. So in my view that [drafting women into the military] would be the fair thing today."

Think about those words for a moment. If Mr. Dodd is correct that it is wrong to ask one gender to bear all the responsibility, then, logically, young women who are drafted should have equal representation on the battlefield. Indeed, if the logic of equality is fully accepted, it seems arbitrary to allow women to have the option of not serving on the battlefield when the military isn't prepared to extend the same option to men who get drafted.

Or again, consider the words of former Senator Mike Gravel:"Of course women should go into the draft if we have a draft. They should register also. What's the difference?" That, of course, is the key question. In a society committed to affirming that there is no real difference between males and females, it would be sheer discrimination for any future draft to conscript men into combat positions but not women.

Panetta himself has recently said, "If members of our military can meet the qualifications for a job, then they should have the right to serve, regardless of creed, color, gender or sexual orientation." But if this principle is accepted, there is no reason to suppose it should stop merely at the right to serve. Wouldn't we also have to say that women have the same duty to serve as men, in both combat and non-combat positions?

Now perhaps the United States will never need to call another draft, and this will be a moot point. But if (God forbid) the country ever does find itself in the position of needing to conscript citizens into military service, the philosophical and political framework for drafting girls as young as 18 into combat roles will already be in place.

Ramifications of Women in Combat

The January decision, of course, was not about drafting women into battlefield situations, but merely allowing those women already serving to assume combat positions if they wish to. However, it is imperative that we think about this issue not only in terms of the immediate issues at hand, but also in terms of where it could lead once the underlying principles are accepted.

Despite comments made by General Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, that putting women in battle will strengthen the military, there are many reasons why we should be concerned about women serving in combat roles, and more than a few reasons why we should be horrified at the thought of a future draft forcing girls to fight.

In our current voluntary system, the women who choose to become soldiers tend to already possess the characteristics of strength and toughness. But it would be wrong to expect all American women to put themselves in that situation, not least because it would violate the conscience of many conservative Christian women who hold views about role differentiation.

Furthermore, many American men—and not just religious ones—would rather die than see their wives, daughters, and sisters forced into a situation where they could potentially be captured and sexually abused by the enemy. Any draft that obligated girls to go into combat positions would thus be seen by many men as an assault on their womenfolk, and this could have far-reaching civil consequences. In the worst-case scenario, it could cause civil unrest, even violence, particularly among America's Christian and Muslim populations.

Consider the same problem from the perspective of a male soldier. Putting women into battlefield situations could create additional risks to a fighting unit because of the instincts that many men have to protect women. We already know that being overly protective of certain soldiers can sometimes compromise the integrity of battlefield operations. We can argue all we want about the instinct to protect women being a hangover from our society's "sexist" past, but nevertheless, the instinct exists, and the fact that it is a reality means that it needs to be taken into account by those who engineer military policy.

A number of other practical problems also present themselves. One soldier I talked to told how his unit was always short of personnel because so many of their females got pregnant following deployment. According to Time magazine, 58 percent of hospitalizations among active-duty female troops are due to pregnancy and delivery. This is a complicating factor—and expense—that tends to be ignored by those who construe the issue as a straightforward matter of fairness and non-discrimination.

Misogyny or Liberation?

I close with a more philosophical point, but one that is almost always overlooked in discussions of this sort. The principles behind the move to allow women into combat roles hinge on some of the same assumptions held by misogynist societies that cruelly subjugate females. Individuals and societies that are abusive towards women typically assume that a woman's significance is determined by her role. In such contexts, a woman's value is determined by what she does, not who she is.

Those who believe that women have been victims of the military's sexist policies also typically assume that a woman's worth is determined by what she is able to do, as well as by where she is situated in the social strata. According to this mindset, women's worth has been marginalized by military policies that, until last January, discriminated against would-be female combatants.

But this mindset is just as wrongheaded as that found in misogynist cultures. Whether a woman's role is characterized by subjugation (as in misogynist societies) or by the lack of any gender-specific boundaries (as in societies tinctured by feminism), it is regarded as the basis for determining her personal worth. Both systems wrongly insist that personal role is correlated to personal worth. Recognizing this fact has led Bible scholar Raymond Orlund to suggest that feminism and male domination are merely two sides of the same coin:

Ironically, feminism shares the very premise upon which male domination is founded, namely, that my personal significance is measured according to my rung on the ladder, and my opportunity for personal fulfillment enlarges or contracts according to my role. By this line of reasoning, the goal of life degenerates into competition for power, and no one hungers and thirsts for true fulfillment in righteousness. No wonder both male domination and feminism are tearing people apart.

If women are eventually drafted into combat positions, will this be the ultimate triumph of male domination or of feminism? It's hard to say. But the reason it's hard to say is that this is one of those topsy-turvy situations in which those who want to protect women from the horrors of battle (and from possible sexual exploitation if they are captured) get accused of being anti-woman.

Just as the feminist community has never been able to reach a consensus on whether pornography is denigrating or empowering to women, it appears that feminists are also divided on whether it will be liberating or empowering to force American girls into the line of enemy fire in the event of another draft. Actually, that's looking at the matter optimistically. The worst-case scenario is just as likely: that there will be no cogitation on the question at all, and the whole feminist community will simply embrace the "empowerment" of a gender-neutral draft as unthinkingly as they have embraced the recent decision to allow girls and women onto the battlefield. God help us if it comes to that. 


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