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Come Reason's Apologetics Notes blog will highlight various news stories or current events and seek to explore them from a thoughtful Christian perspective. Less formal and shorter than the Web site articles, we hope to give readers points to reflect on concerning topics of the day.

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Tuesday, February 19, 2013

Women in Combat or Women as Victims

One of my most visceral reactions is against those who would perpetrate violence against women. Even when young, movies such as The Burning Bed would cause me to have a strong emotional response. So, when I saw Eve Ensler's "One Billion Rising" events held this Valentine's Day, coupled with the U.S. Senate's passage of the Violence Against Women Act (VAWA), you would think I would be elated. But these events actually brought more questions to my mind than adulation, primarily due to the recent announcement by Leon Panetta to allow women to serve as combatants. It seems to me that these positions contradict each other, even as the same elected officials continue to push for both.

Photo by Israel Defense Forces
Let's look at Senator Kirsten Gillibrand (D-New York) as an example. Gillibrand serves on the Senate Committee on ordering the military to come up with a plan to send women into battle. In so doing, she said "Just like it was wrong to discriminate against service members because of whom they love, it is also wrong to deny combat roles to qualified women solely because of their gender." But such reasoning does not fly. Women simply don't have the upper body strength men do, and they have 30% less muscle mass overall. Now, I know that there are some women who are stronger than weak men. However, this fact is unconvincing for two reasons. One, weak men get stronger through training. Testosterone builds muscle. And those that can't strengthen themselves due to some physical ailment will usually be assigned to non-combative roles. Secondly, women's strength can atrophy faster than men's.  Marine Captain Katie Petronio, who herself has been in combat-type situations, makes this argument.

Beyond the strength issue, there's another big concern in allowing women in the military, and that is that gender matters.  Ryan Smith in the Wall Street Journal did an excellent job in painting a picture of what combat conditions really look like, as he had served as a Marine infantry squad leader in Iraq in 2003. He tells of being enclosed in a vehicle for 48 hours, urinating and defecating just inches away from fellow soldiers, then having to strip with all his comrades while his clothing was burned for decontamination.  Will women feel empowered by such actions? Will men?

Men and women also interact differently.  When polled, 17 percent of male marines would leave the service if women were placed in combat roles, their biggest concerns being "fears about being falsely accused of sexual harassment or assault, fraternization or some Marines getting preferential treatment. They also worried women would be limited because of pregnancy or personal issues that could affect the unit before they are sent to the battlefield." The truth on this matter is we simply don't know what effect a large-scale deployment of women in combat units would have.  There's no data because it has never been done before.

Then there are the larger family issues. According to this report, over 30,000 single mothers have been deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan and about 10 percent of women in the military become pregnant each year. So, female soldiers train and work alongside their male counterparts, but one in ten must be replaced so they can take maternity leave. Does that affect a unit's effectiveness? Add to that the higher divorce rate among female service members and one can see that sex makes a difference on how one processes military situations. These differences will only become more acute when more women are placed in high-pressure combat roles.

Ten months after her Senate proposal demanding women be placed in combat roles, the same Senator Gillibrand is standing before the Senate lobbying for the VAWA. "There is simply no room for partisan gamesmanship when we're talking about the safety of our families," Gillibrand said. "For millions of women and families, VAWA serves as a lifeline to keep them safe." So, Gillibrand seems to think that it is appropriate to focus on the sex of the person when worrying about the safety of women and their children. If such is the case, that standard should be applied appropriately to the question of female combatants.

 It's important to realize that the Violence Against Women Act is calling for special protection for women, that a man attacking a woman needs to be categorized differently than a man attacking a man. If one were to ask why women need such special protections, the reasons listed would be pretty much the same as to those that are offered for keeping women out of combat roles. But folks like Gillibrand want it both ways. On one hand, women can do anything men can do.  Give them a gun and everyone is equal (even though combat is not simply firing a weapon.) On the other, a fight between a man and a woman isn't a fair one, so women need the protection of the law. A woman should never be punched, but its O.K. to put her in a situation where she can be killed.

Equality has never meant that we must erase our differences. God made men and women differently, and this is clear when we look at biology. Gillibrand rallies for keeping families safe, but women in combat works against that standard, not toward it.  It also does nothing to strengthen our military. Remember, the military should first and foremost be concerned with protecting our troops and winning battles. Of course we should do so in an ethical way, but I don't see barring women from combat situations any less ethical than barring asthmatics from the military altogether. If barring women from combat is somehow discriminatory, then we must judge the VAWA legislation to also be so. It is simply inconsistent to hold to both positions.


  1. Good point. I think the leftists are being perfectly consistent with their unspoken view that discrimination between men and women is bad unless it's against men. Also, we need to establish the principle that the military (and police and firefighters, while we're at it) is not a government program to provide jobs for citizens. It exists to fill a certain role and needs to be free to hire the people who can do the necessary jobs and not hire the people who can't. And finally, if we now feel a need to send women into combat, what are we fighting for? What is our civilization protecting anymore?


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