Wednesday, January 23, 2013

Annie, Get Your Gun. Removing The Combat Ban on Military Women.

If the sources have this right, Pentagon chief Leon Panetta is removing the ban on women serving in combat.  Is this progress that a feminist would want to see?

The answer depends on which feminist one asks.  My own reaction is complicated.  First, I would much prefer that we not have wars at all.  Wars kill people, wars leave people maimed in body and in mind, wars cause suffering many generations down the line.  That so many on the Internet seem to love the idea of wars as some type of Internet games or football matches makes me nauseous because the main tool of war is the ending of lives.

But if we are going to have wars anyway, should women be allowed to serve in combat?  This is the second point.  It's not the same as encouraging wars to continue if we let women explicitly participate in combat roles.  Wars will continue whether that happens or not, and to draw a line between those in actual combat roles and those who merely assist them, as far as the guilt for the actual killings go, seems hypocritical to me. 

In any case, the distinction between combat roles and other military roles has become blurred in modern warfare because the front can be everywhere at the same time.  American female soldiers have died in Iraq, in combat settings, when the helicopters they steer are shot down, when a roadside bomb explodes.

Thus, I don't think that removing the ban on women serving in combat makes women much more likely to be killed in modern wars or somehow more the "real killers."  The whole military machine enables the killing.

Third,  advancement in the military is diminished for those who cannot serve in combat.  From a purely labor market point of view, then, the ban on women participating in combat roles means that women are unable to advance as fast and as high as equally competent men, simply because of that ban.

How to judge those three points?  That's where things get complicated, because the three arguments are in very different places in my brain and because they are not actual tradeoffs, i.e, we don't stop wars by banning women from the military or from the combat roles.  We simply create a two-tiered system of professional killing.  So.

What's much easier for me to evaluate are the anti-feminist arguments about women in the military and women in combat roles, in particular.  Astonishingly, they are of two opposite types, and the Evil Enemy:  Feminism, is also of two exactly opposite types!

The older, and still prevalent, anti-feminist arguments about women in combat are that women are naturally and inherently incapable of the aggression that is required, that women are naturally and inherently slower, weaker and smaller than men and therefore will not be of value in military combat, and that men are (perhaps also naturally and inherently) always going to be chivalrous towards women so that female soldiers are a burden-to-be-protected in combat, not an asset.  The anti-feminists also don't think we can mix sexes in the military, and point out military rape as the unavoidable outcome.  How that goes with the chivalry argument is usually left unexplained.  Finally, the anti-feminists say that mixed-sex military troops cannot have the necessary bonding which only works among men.

Feminism, from this angle, is the sorely misguided attempt to force women on the military which would function much better without them.  Feminists are simply blinded to biological differences.

The more recent anti-feminist arguments come from certain subgroups of Men's Rights sites, and revolve around the idea that centuries of male warfare demonstrate discrimination against men and the lower value assigned to men's lives.  The logic varies somewhat, but mostly I read that feminists want to keep women out of the military, safe at home, handing men white feathers if they refuse to enlist during wartimes.   From this point of view, the ban on women serving in combat roles is discrimination against men and a sign of the greater value assigned to women's bodies. 

At the same time, very few of the rants I have read suggests that women should be allowed to serve in the military at all, not to mention in combat roles.  Rather, women should kowtow to men in general because other men are fighting wars or have died in wars.   The function of only-male military service is to explain why all men should have a higher standing in the society than any woman.

The old, traditional take is that feminists are pushing women into the military.  The new MRA take is that feminists work hard to keep women out of the military.  What fun.

Because the two sets of arguments are so different, they require different counterarguments.  The traditional anti-feminists ignore the character of modern warfare which is rarely unarmed combat between two individuals but an extremely technical and collaborative venture where the skills required have little to do with physical strength and body size.  They also ignore the fact that women entering the military are not a random scoop from the general population but individuals who are motivated in a particular manner and who then get the training the military requires.  Neither men nor women with low willingness or ability to fight are likely to enlist in a volunteer military force without gender-based combat bans.  In short, the proper level of analysis is of the enlisting individuals, not of the two genders.

The rest of the traditional anti-feminist arguments are really empirical in nature, i.e., the way to answer them is to watch what happens when military units become mixed-gender, always remembering that training can help in this field, too.  We already have some of that evidence, and while the military certainly has problems with sexual violence, the other concerns of traditional anti-feminists look to me to be relatively minor.  Note, also, that if bonding and cooperation were only feasible in a single-sex groups then almost all civilian workplaces should have failed by now, what with the mixing of genders in them.

The counterarguments to the new MRA views are both extremely simple and totally incapable of making a single dent in the opposition. 

If one points out that the reason why women have not fought in most wars is because they were not allowed to fight in them, one is told that this explicit ban is a sign of how much more women are valued than men.  If one points out that this valuation of women is similar to the valuation of an antique Chinese vase who has no say in how it is handled and that, traditionally, that valuation has not stopped from women dying in giving birth (or from dying as the final round of many traditional wars), one gets...crickets...and then a repeat of the beginning argument.  After several bouts of this, with variations,  the truly odd argument crops up:  It doesn't matter at all if laws have banned women from participating in a vast number of fields of activity.  We can simply assume that all such laws somehow benefited women-as-Chinese-vases, and burdened their owners with more-than-commensurate duties to keep them safe.

This odd argument crops up, because the function of most MRA rants is to defend the traditional status quo, not to change it.  These rants don't want to correct the handicaps attached to the male role.  For instance, an all-male military force is fine with them.  What's not fine is the loss of the privileges that comes with the male role in the traditional division of gendered tasks.

I wrote so much about the anti-feminist arguments to explain why the possible removal of the combat ban on women will be viewed as bad news in both anti-feminist camps.