Weighing the Wisdom of Women in Combat

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A female Marine training at Parris Island, S.C.

CLERMONT-FERRAND, France — The debate on whether women should be allowed in front-line combat has, if anything, one enlightening quality: it says a lot about the so-called civilian-military divide.

A number of combat-arms units continue to see themselves as all-male preserves immune from the changes of society as a whole, thinking that war belongs to those who fight it, i.e. the men.

Unsurprisingly, the discussion has done little to dispense of the shibboleths of infantry talk about primal male instincts. It has produced interesting pieces like this one, once again suggesting — if only inadvertently — that women would better be left to their kitchens while men do the fighting.

In addition to leaving us once again stranded in this hackneyed Mars and Venus dichotomy, this hardly brings new ideas to the fight.

While a number of commentators have kept fueling the unrest on how far equal opportunities should extend into the last bastions of masculinity, the hunt into sexual assault in the ranks continues to rage unabated. A coincidence?

Probably not.

I don’t feel qualified to adjudicate on the perks and drawbacks of women serving in frontline combat units.

Yet, I can clearly see the soft underbelly of arguments against it, namely the fact they rarely seem supported by unbiased statistical or scientific evidence. And as happens all too often in such emotional issues, defenders of the status quo would like us to think the moon is made of green cheese.

The whole issue has been consistently fudged by mixed assertions, ranging from military effectiveness to ideology about gender roles. While some of them have occasionally indulged in bouts of classical misogyny, most seem to deal with confused and muddled definitions of manhood – or womanhood, for that matter.

They all harbor lingering fears about unit cohesion if women were given ground combat billets. But seriously, what kind of long term experience have we on the subject?

And they all warn about the risk of defeat in battle if the percentage of such billets reached a certain threshold, on which no agreement seems to exist either. Is it 10%, 15%, 25% of women in the ranks?

But the argument scarcely holds water.

Let’s put it bluntly:

Some wars have already been lost in spite of being fought by all-male frontline infantry units, including the last two in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Ground combat, as it is described by the tenants of military masculinity is a ludic fallacy, depicting a characteristic of war that has clearly receded, if not vanished.

We don’t want to see modern warfare for what it is: constantly smudging the line between combatants and non-combatants, between destruction and reconstruction, between local constabulary surgery and massive remote firepower. Close combat might certainly be part of it, but it is no longer a central feature of modern conflicts.

So far, no one has been able to marshal convincing evidence against women in ground combat. We’ve heard countless appraisals based on anecdotal tales and personal experiences, some of them undoubtedly illuminating, but most of them partial, fragmentary and merely throwing some non sequitur into the debate.

None of the traditional arguments withstands scrutiny. Tedious concerns about aggressiveness, physical strength, sexual promiscuity or complex gender dynamics do not constitute, in my view, insuperable obstacles to the inclusion of women in frontline infantry units.

And they won’t.

A lot of issues have already emerged from the deployments of mixed-gender contingents. They will continue to be addressed over a number of practical difficulties as they arise. And they will hopefully settle. Sexual assault is one of them.

There is undoubtedly a deliberate effort from the Senate to address such a serious problem, which is more crucial to unit cohesion than a theoretical “womanization” of frontline infantry.

The nation’s military leaders have been duly grilled to extract unconvincing and somewhat perfunctory answers about their respective policies on sexual misconduct.

A lot was heard about the purges going on in the ranks; a lot less about what those same leaders intended to do to improve the climate between genders.

But there is one thing for sure: civil society will only feel increasingly alienated from the military if the latter refuses to follow the former’s democratic aspirations, no matter how misplaced and “unmilitary” they may seem.

Some male officers say it eventually boils down to the kind of infantry we want. But I don’t think it is a good way of framing the question.

Common people don’t reflect about the future of infantry. But they certainly do about the place of women in society. And the military would gain nothing by pitting their operational requirements against the wider demands of the public opinion; lest they be insincere about narrowing the civilian-military gap.

We are too often left with the disturbing impression that male officers are desperately scrambling around for arguments against what merely amounts to a democratic choice.

Armed forces only reflect what society is and where it wants to go. Officers cannot complain about their growing disconnect from civilians on the one hand, and staunchly refuse to accommodate their preferences on the other.

This is not the way democracy works. People want their military to remain a true and fair emanation of the society they live in. It is not as if they were two separate entities.

Don’t be mistaken: I am not trying to pretend this couldn’t be detrimental to military efficiency. But being socially regressive will do a lot more harm to the armed forces than endorsing women as capable frontline combatants. Besides, it will only make society and the military drift further apart.

If democratic societies – authoritarian ones have no such qualms – are imbued with social progress and want women in the infantry, then fair enough, let them try, so long as they meet the required standards.

And for those among you who think this may be reason enough to discourage them, remind yourselves of New York politician and PR guru Grover Whalen’s wise advice: a pessimist is a woman who thinks she can’t park her car in a tiny space. An optimist is a man who thinks she won’t try.

Julien Mathonniere writes from central France on defense and foreign policy for journals in France, Britain and the U.S., as well as on his Crosstalks blog.