I grew up: fully convinced that I was inferior to no one; assuming that anything I wanted to achieve was possible; and blissfully unaware that the world outside did not always reflect these beliefs, that inequality lingered everywhere, and that many people had ideas about superiority and inferiority, and what other people could and couldn’t do. Before Operation Desert Storm, it never crossed my mind that women were not allowed to serve in combat, and when I found out, I thought it was incredibly stupid. If women wanted to serve their country, to risk their lives in tribute to that service, why on earth would they not be allowed to? Why should men have to bear that alone? It was hard for me to wrap my mind around it.
More than two decades after I first considered it, the issue of ‘women in combat’ still stirs up a lot of emotions in people, specifically the emotions that make people defensive. I could say this about many, many issues, but getting defensive is not productive here. Nor is name-calling or jumping to extreme conclusions. I think that those who oppose allowing women the same opportunities as men are wrong, but we need to be able to realistically face and discuss the legitimate questions and concerns around it. I think it is possible to acknowledge that these issues are real without allowing them to dictate our decisions.
The latest round of discussion was kicked off this week when the Pentagon, having wrapped up a nearly yearlong review of the issue ordered by Congress, announced the easing of some of the restrictions on women serving in combat roles. To a large degree, this change simply formalizes what has been a reality for some time. Women can now be formally assigned to battalions in certain roles where previously they would have been in those same roles but ‘attached’ temporarily. Women are still not permitted to hold certain MOS’s, including infantry (or: what most people think of when they think of troops in combat). Many see this as one small step toward the inevitable result of women being permitted to serve in any role in the military.
Here’s the part where I defend Andrew Exum (probably not surprising since I like and respect Ex) and…(probably not someone I’m likely to find myself defending very often) Rick Santorum? Yes, Rick Santorum, too.*
Santorum was asked for his thoughts on the loosened restrictions. Here’s what he said:
In the immediate aftermath of these comments, there was a general uproar as people understood Santorum to be arguing that women are too emotional to handle combat. There were some good reasons for thinking this: 1) We have all heard that tired old sexist excuse before, on this very issue, among others; and 2) Santorum did not do a very good job of saying what he was trying to say. See, that’s not actually what he meant. [I'm making no judgment here on whether or not Santorum is generally sexist, just addressing this particular statement].
Santorum made two points and, like it or not, they are both legitimate concerns. First, what he meant when he spoke of the emotional challenges of having women in combat was something like men’s protectiveness toward women. Second, in the follow-up interview, he also mentioned the average difference in physical abilities that exists between men and women. I’m stating this up front: I don’t think either of those is actually a reason to deny women the opportunity to pursue, e.g., a career in the infantry, or in a tank crew. I do think both points are worth unpacking a little.
Some men would have a harder time seeing women hurt or threatened in combat than other men. This is hard to refute. It’s ‘women and children first,’ or chivalry, or manners; or on the flip side, it’s condescension, or infantilization, or minimization. Whether it comes from a place of honor or a place of diminution, and whatever you want to call it, there’s no denying this could be an issue for some men. That being said, so what? It is incumbent on those men to be grown-ups, to be professionals, and to get over it and do their jobs. People adapt. Men will see women in different roles more often, they will become accustomed to it, the culture will change. The more common it is, the more normal it will become and the less of a potential issue it will be. In the meantime, we can rely on training and professionalism to carry people through.
As to the second point, the plain truth is that on average, men are bigger, faster, and stronger than women. It’s biology. This is not to say that all men are bigger and stronger and faster than all women – that is clearly not the case – but the average woman when compared to the average man will have more limited physical abilities. Plenty of people have expressed concern about women’s ability to meet the physical standards required to serve in a MOS like infantry. This issue, too, is quite simple to address: if they don’t meet the standards, they don’t get in. This shouldn’t be about getting a 50/50 breakdown of men and women in your infantry platoon; it should just be about women having the same opportunity to be a part of that platoon as a man. This might well mean that only a minuscule number of women will make it to the front lines in these roles. So be it. The standards should be maintained at a level that prioritizes the maximum safety and effectiveness of the unit. Maybe there aren’t many women who would have both the desire and the ability to serve in this capacity, but those who have the desire should certainly have the opportunity to demonstrate whether or not they have the ability.
There are any number of other details and questions around this issue that are worth discussing (the career advancement issue that partly informs this debate, for one), and perhaps I will come back to some of them in a later post, but in the interest of keeping to the discussion of the day, I will leave off here. Granting women the opportunity to take on any and all ‘combat roles’ will require something of a culture shift, but it is really just part of a larger cultural shift that has been ongoing in society for decades. I think it likely that it will happen, and I don’t doubt that it will continue to be contentious until it does, but in the meantime, it doesn’t make for useful discourse when supporters of equality pretend that all of the questions, customs, and attitudes of opponents don’t exist, or dismiss them outright, any more than it helps when opponents resort to rank sexism or condescension to try and make their case. Here’s hoping that public debate of this issue will continue, and that it will be more civil than not.
*It should be noted that Santorum made these points as part of an argument against women in combat, while Ex has repeatedly stated that he favors equal opportunity.