The Department of Defense has recently decided to open all combat positions to women providing little in the way of evidence or support for this decision beyond the few requisite platitudes about “a more diverse army being a stronger army,” or “we can’t rule out half the population for recruiting.” Indeed, without more evidence for the value of allowing women into combat positions, one cannot help but wonder if there is more of social experiment than practical need in such a move. And one might wonder about the wisdom of carrying on such an experiment in an institution like the armed forces.
On the contrary, there seem to be some strong practical and theoretical considerations against opening combat positions to women. Practically, it simply seems obvious that the average woman lacks the same physical abilities as the average man and the existence of some exceptions does not disprove the generalization. Oft less considered, is that the average infantry soldier must carry a pack of approximately 80 pounds. Even men’s bodies suffer from carrying this much weight and women’s bodies are simply not formed to carry this weight as well as men. Nor is it a question of simply being able to lift it, but the stress on bodily joints and muscles over time where, again, women are likely to suffer more than men. (1)
Surely, it is plausible to doubt the wisdom of putting women in highly physically demanding combat positions for which they are, on average, less physically equipped, and in which they will face additional dangers than men (from captivity, for instance). In fact, if it is true, as some say, that “there are no front lines, anymore,” (a claim I take to be plausible, but far from certain) then the impracticality of women in combat positions actually becomes a reason why women should not be placed in any position in the armed forces.
So much for the practical issues, which are more serious than I have been able to summarize briefly, but I will say little more of them for two reasons. First, because such practical considerations can be found discussed elsewhere with little trouble. Willful ignorance can be the only possible explanation for why they have not been more widely considered. Second, I say less about them because practical considerations, while important, are typically less strong than theoretical grounds if the latter are available. As I think they are, I wish to say something brief about them.
The first theoretical consideration involves recognizing that keeping women out of combat positions is not only, or perhaps even primarily, a question of ability, but of propriety. Placing women in war crosses a line that cannot be undone, and it is one Rubicon that even Caesar might regret crossing. The line is a simple one: violence and who it is proper to do violence against. In a traditional army, violence will be seen to be proper only between men (as long as one admits that some conditions make it proper to wage war). Violence by a man against a woman can, and ought, to remain unthinkable. But if women fight in war, then avoiding this is impossible. Violence between men and women becomes not only thinkable, but even proper. The line is crossed. Whether this is a reflection of changes in society or a cause (and the answer may be both), something important is lost when a woman becomes the proper object of violence. Extreme situations may justify it (if say, one had to stop a female terrorist), but this ought to be exceptional, not normal as in the case of integrating women into the military.
Finally, there is a theological reason why a Christian should be hesitant to support integrating women into the armed forces. This will not be convincing to a secularist who will have to be content with the previous two reasons given, but as most of America still claims to be Christian, this should be convincing to a large number of people.
The reason rests on the complementary notion of men and women- a remark that comes from the Venerable Fulton Sheen. A basic principle of the Christian notion of human dignity lies in the fact that Man is created in the image and likeness of God. But a brief glance shows clear differences between men and women. The secularist would dismiss these as socially constructed (2), but this is less easy for someone accepting the Christian revelation. So if men and women both reflect the image of God, the differences between them make it plausible that they may do so in some different ways (though not necessarily all different ways).
Hence, the remark of Fulton Sheen on parents. Parents both reflect God to their children. The father, he said, reflects God’s omnipotence and omniscience. The father knows everything and the father can do everything. “My dad can lick your dad,” was the old taunt from one boy to another. The mother is different. The mother, according to Sheen, represents God’s mercy. The last plea from every child to his mother is: “don’t tell daddy.” What is true of the father is true for all men and what is true of the mother is true for all women. It is vain for a woman to say, “I do not wish to be a mother, so this does not apply to me,” for all women are called to motherhood as all men are called to fatherhood. If by circumstance or choice, this parenthood cannot be physical, then it must be spiritual. And if one is called to a station or task, then one is called to have the traits proper to that station or task.
Yet it is hard to see how this is consistent with either permitting or requiring women in combat positions. A soldier may project an image of power; indeed, his tasks may require him to. But by virtue of his task, he cannot easily project an image of mercy. To be successful in war, a man may have to accentuate certain masculine traits, but it seems that a woman, on the contrary, to be successful must suppress her feminine traits. The practice of war seems not to be compatible with femininity or the female vocation to motherhood, or call to reflect God’s mercy to society. Yet, if it is not so compatible, then this seems like a reason that women should not be placed in combat positions.
- though if so, it is hard to see why so many different societies should be so similar in this regard.