Women in War

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.

  1. http://www.military.com/daily-news/2013/04/10/heavy-loads-could-burden-womens-infantry-role.html
  2. though if so, it is hard to see why so many different societies should be so similar in this regard.

Sacrament in Medieval and Modern World

A former professor once commented to me that she thought she really only learned something well when she had to teach it.  I understood what she meant when I taught my own course on the Middle Ages.  One of the key ideas in which I was interested was that of “worldview”: how did people of the past see the world and how did their world-view differ from the modern one?  What did the world mean to them as opposed to the moderns.  I knew about some aspects of this going into the class, but one that struck me part of the way through the class was the concept of “sacrament” in the medieval mindset.

The seven sacraments familiar to Catholics today were clearly summarized and discussed by the twelfth-century theologian Peter Lombard, whose discussion became the textbook to which all later medieval theologians would refer and which was never really disputed.  The sacraments also became the object of so much popular enthusiasm that in some places crowds would rush from one Church to another in order to see the key moment when the priest raised the host and proclaimed “hoc est corpus domini.

Much of the reason Peter Lombard’s discussion of the sacraments was never really challenged until the Protestant Reformation, and much of the reason for this popular acceptance is that the notion of sacrament must have simply seemed natural to medieval people given their world-view.  To them the material world was the sign or symbol of a higher spiritual one.  The material world was thus a meaningful place, a place that had its meaning written into it by its maker.  Matter concealed a higher spiritual meaning.  One example in this lay in how people read scripture.

Medieval Catholics considered several different senses of scripture.  Scripture had its literal sense- the plain meaning of the words, but it also had three symbolic senses.  The literal sense hid below it a more spiritual meaning; the literal became a sign of the spiritual.  Hence, the story of Jonah was not merely the story of a man swallowed by a whale,  regurgitated by said whale on a beach, and who then successfully (and unsurprisingly) called the people of the local city to penance.  Rather, the literal sense was the sign of, or pointed to, a higher spiritual one: that is, the death of Christ, His lying in a tomb for three days, and His subsequent Resurrection.

To a medieval this was natural: scripture, though written by human authors, was inspired by God, so it made sense that a higher spiritual meaning should be concealed by the literal words.  The same was true of the world.  The world was made by the hand of God, so it was not surprising that matter might conceal a higher spiritual reality.  The Incarnation must have seemed perfectly proper to men with such a view.

Also unsurprising would have been the notion of sacrament.  To them, a sacrament was a material sign with a hidden spiritual reality; it looked back to Christ’s Passion and conferred grace.  To a medieval, with the view of the world having its meaning written into it by God, it would have been perfectly normal that matter should conceal sanctity, that unleavened bread might conceal (below its accidents) divinity.  This view would have been natural to them, not in the sense that they probably consciously thought about it much, but in the sense that they swam in it like a fish in water.  This was why they ran from church to church, in a rush to see matter become divine.

Not so in the modern world.  In a world that is “disenchanted,” in belief if not in fact, there is little room for sacrament.  Matter cannot be a sign of higher realities if there are no higher realities.  Even many Catholics struggle to appreciate it; where the medievals were fish in water, the modern Catholic is more like a land animal learning to swim.  Even if his conscious beliefs are different, the background he swims in is too often that of the secular worldview with which he is continually bombarded.  If sacrament is to make sense to a modern world, then something of the older medieval world-view must be recaptured and the culture changed.