Mothers in Combat Boots

by Mackubin T. Owens

The Human Life Review 23/1 (Spring 1997), pp. 35-45.

Mackubin T. OwensIf you are involved in the abortion controversy, you are no doubt familiar with the idea of the "seamless garment," an approach to public policy that is popular among some Roman Catholics. Advocates of the seamless garment argue, inter alia, that opposition to abortion, capital punishment, and war are inextricably linked. While many are offended by the moral implications of connecting abortion's destruction of innocent life with the legitimate taking of life associated with proportionately administered capital punishment and just war, there is at least a surface logic to the seamless garment and an accompanying affirmation of life that gives it a certain dignity, even in the eyes of its opponents.

Although it has no official name, there is a feminist version of the seamless garment. It links abortion on demand with other "feminist" goals, such as the push to expand the role of women in the military, to include assignment to combat. In contrast to the Catholic seamless garment, the feminist seamless garment is, in essence, an affirmation of death: having asserted the right to destroy the unborn, often for no more reason than inconvenience, the feminists and their ilk now wish to claim a new "killing field" no matter the cost to the military ethos, to normal concepts of womanhood, or to the health of society as a whole. Like abortion, the argument for women in combat claims to enhance the dignity of women, when in fact it denigrates them.

It's no surprise that the same feminist suspects who brought you abortion on demand--personified by former Congress-person Patricia Schroeder--now want to give you women in combat. The fact is, today's political feminism is characterized by a self-centered focus on the individual woman, with no consideration of the consequences beyond her demand for "choice." Advocates of both abortion and women in combat contend that the only point to be considered is the "right" of a woman, or her need to be "empowered."

Naomi Wolf, in her remarkable essay "Our Bodies, Our Souls" (reprinted in the Winter 1996 issue of this Review), provides several examples of this astounding self-centeredness in the case of abortion. She recounts a particularly perverse example from a 1994 account in Mother Jones of a woman's decision to abort her unborn child who was conceived "through her partner's and her own failure to use a condom." The writer, despite a friend's desire to adopt the child, refuses to carry her pregnancy to term. Ignoring her friend's plea, she schedules a chemical abortion. "The procedure is experimental, and the author feels 'almost heroic,' thinking of how she is blazing a trail for other women." When the blood from the abortion first appears, "She exults at this: 'Our bodies, our lives, our right to decide. . . . My life feels luxuriant with possibility. For one precious moment, I believe that we have the power to dismantle this system. . . ."' Concerning the link between the so-called "empowerment' of women and abortion, she cites Laura Kaplan's description of what motivated a pre-Roe underground abortion service: "The activists felt exhilaration at leaming to perform abortions themselves instead of relying on male doctors."

The reasoning of those advocating women in combat is similar: Using "Tailhook" and the Army's recent training-camp sex-scandals at Aberdeen and elsewhere as a wedge, they have argued that the "empowerment" and "rights" of women are all that matter, with no concern for military effectiveness. Sexual abuse of women at Aberdeen, say the feminists, is merely symptomatic of an institutionalized disrespect for women in the military at large, rendering them "second-class citizens." Women will not achieve the respect they deserve until they have the opportunity to serve in the combat specialties that constitute the core of the military. As Eric Schmitt of the New York Times put it (in a December, 1996 story), "Until women are treated as equals, those advocates say, men will continue to mistreat women, and the exclusions block women from advancing along the three main routes to senior leadership: armor, infantry, and field artillery." For example, a female Army colonel told Schmitt that "until you have women serving or having the potential to serve at the highest levels, you'll always have the appearances of a glass ceiling in the Army."

This reasoning is seconded by Senator Olympia Snowe, Republican of Maine: "Every time a woman is excluded from a position [in the military], she is devalued." The equal treatment of women in today's environment is unlikely because, in the words of Ms. Schroeder, the military "is a top down hierarchy, and all males at the top." Thus, according to Barbara Pope, the Assistant Secretary of the Navy for Reserves and Manpower during the Bush Administration, the culture must be changed: "We are in the process of weeding out the white male as the norm."

In the cases of both abortion and women in combat, feminists purport to speak for all women when in reality they represent only a small part of the female population. In the first case, they make the "right to choose" abortion the defining aspect of womanhood while in fact most women are opposed to abortion except in cases where the mother's health is threatened. In the second, they push their agenda despite the fact that most women in the military are opposed to opening combat roles to females.

It is those feminists interested in proving their theories of "gender equality"--and the small coterie of female officer careerists who wish to advance their own professional prospects--who are pushing their women-in-combat agenda at the expense of three other groups of women:

1. the vast majority of military women, especially enlisted women, who do not wish to serve in combat but who would bear the brunt of combat's violence;

2. military wives, whose mental anguish at long separations and the danger to which their warrior husbands are constantly subjected can only be magnified by the uncertainty that arises as a result of their husbands' deploying with women for extended periods away from home and family, and

3. mothers, whose sons (and daughters) will be placed at additional risk if the critics of women in combat are right about the impact of females on "unit cohesion," the sine qua non of success in combat.

The adjectives that Naomi Wolf uses to describe the abortion movement apply here as well. Feminists in pursuit of their agenda and military careerists in pursuit of their "professional goals" demonstrate a "callous, selfish and casually destructive" disregard of these other women.

Motives aside, the likely consequences of the expansion of the role of women in the military, to include combat, will be a U.S. military failure of some magnitude in the future. Thus such proposals must be examined in light of the impact that women have already had on the military and the military ethos.

Anatomy vs. Social Engineering

The problem of women in combat is traceable to the reality of bodies. As Stephanie Gutmann asks in her recent New Republic article, "Sex and the Soldier" (February 24, 1997), "What happens when you try to integrate into a cohesive whole two populations with radically different bodies?" What happens when we examine the female soldier "not in political terms, but in the real, inescapable terms of physical structure?" (This, of course, is not a new problem. Socrates treats this issue in Book V of The Republic. He seems to conclude that the sort of perfect justice associated with the best regime, "the city in speech," is not possible in practice because of differences attributable to physical bodies. Socrates makes constant references to how "absurd" and "ridiculous" the demands of abstract justice would appear if they were put into practice, e.g. if men and women were to train naked together in the gymnasium.)

What are some of these physical realities? Ms. Gutmann offers a partial catalogue: the female soldier "is, on average, about five inches shorter than the male soldier, has half the upper body strength, lower aerobic capacity and 37 percent less muscle mass. She has a lighter skeleton, which may mean, for instance, that she won't be able to 'pull G forces' as reliably in a fighter plane. She cannot pee standing up ... She tends, particularly if she is under the age of 30 (as are 60 percent of military personnel) to get pregnant."

As the Strategic Review (Spring, 1997) points out, these differences have had an adverse impact on the U.S. military at a time when continuing austerity in the defense budget is driving us toward a smaller and leaner force, one that will have to meet its obligations by increased emphasis on competence and readiness. For instance, women suffer a higher rate of attrition than men and, because of the turnover, are a more costly investment. And women are four times more likely to report ill. The percentage of women medically non-available at any time is twice that of men. Obviously, if you are ill, someone must care for you; if you can't do your job, someone else must do it for you. More, only ten percent of the women can meet all of the minimum physical requirements for 75 percent of the jobs in the Army. Women may be able to drive five-ton trucks, but they need a man's help if they must change the tires. Women can be assigned to a field artillery unit, but often can't handle the heavy ammunition.

In the course of a year, at least ten percent (and up to 17 percent) of service women become pregnant. In certain locales, the figure is even higher. James Webb notes that when he was Secretary of the Navy in 1988, 51 percent of single Air Force women and 48 percent of single Navy women stationed in Iceland were pregnant. From the beginning of the U.S. deployment to Bosnia in December 1995 until July 1996, a woman had to be evacuated for pregnancy approximately every three days. As I write, a total of 118 have been evacuated from Bosnia.

During pregnancy (if she remains in the service at all), a woman must be exempted progressively from more routine duties like marching, field training, and so on. After the baby is born, there are more problems, exemplified by today's 24,000 unmarried service mothers, none of whom could fairly be called a front-line soldier. And this is only part of the story: given that sex between military men and women is widespread, numerous pregnancies among military women end in abortion.

These anatomical realities have led the military into some experiences that would be laughable were they not so fraught with danger. As the Washington Times has recently reported, the Army is now circulating a handbook to commanders that confirms the drag on readiness caused by the presence of women in deployed units. "Deployed female soldiers are more prone to injuries and fatigue than men, risk dehydration because of reluctance to use public latrines and should eat two thirds rations to avoid gaining weight. The ... field guide on women's health also lists 'countermeasures' to prevent pregnancies, saying the condition 'disrupts unit cohesiveness.'"

In another example, Inside the Navy has reported that the designers of a new amphibious assault ship, the LPD-17, are examining appropriate "health criteria for pregnant sailors and Marines [!] . . . for shipboard spaces." Such nonsense illustrates the degree to which the nation's military leadership is forced to attend to the unique needs of women, rather than focus on the real mission of the military: to win in combat.

Fairness and the Military Ethos

How has the military responded to the problems created by large numbers of women in the service, now approaching an unprecedented 14 percent--a much higher percentage than any other nation in the world? By essentially discarding the very essence of the military ethos: fairness.

The glue of the military ethos is what the Greeks called philia--friendship, comradeship, or brotherly love. Philia, the bond among disparate individuals who have nothing in common but facing death and misery together, is the source of the unit cohesion that all research has shown to be critical to battlefield success. Philia is described by J. Glen Gray in The Warriors: Reflections on Men in Battle:

"Numberless soldiers have died, more or less willingly, not for country or honor or religious faith or for any other abstract good, but because they realized that by fleeing their posts and rescuing themselves, they would expose their companions to greater danger. Such loyalty to the group is the essence of fighting morale. The commander who can preserve and strengthen it knows that all other physical and psychological factors are little in comparison. The feeling of loyalty, it is clear, is the result not the cause of comradeship. Comrades are loyal to each other spontaneously and without any need for reasons."

Philia depends on fairness and the absence of favoritism. The crux of the problem with women in the military is precisely the issue of fairness. As James Webb recently observed in "The War on the Military Culture" (The Weekly Standard, January 20, 1997), "In [the military] environment, fairness is not only crucial, it is the coin of the realm." The military ethos is dependent on the understanding of all that the criteria for allocating danger and recognition, both positive (promotion, awards, etc.) and negative (courts-martial, etc.), are essentially objective. Favoritism and double standards are deadly to philia and its associate phenomena: cohesion, morale, discipline--elements of the military ethos that are absolutely critical to the success of a military organization.

"Gender Norming" and Double Standards

The fact is that women in the military have generated a series of undeniable double standards which have caused resentment among the men. This in turn leads to cynicism about military women in general, including those who have not benefited from a double standard and are performing their duties with distinction.

There are two primary sources of the military 's double standards. The first is an obvious consequence of current American politics. The second--far more insidious--is the presence of women in the close confines of a ship or a combat unit, which unleashes eros at the expense of philia, corroding the very source of military excellence itself.

The political source of double standards arises from the fact that the desire for equal opportunity is, in practice, usually translated into the demand for equal results. The consequence has been the watering down of standards to accommodate the generally lower physical capabilities of women. In fact, every service has lower physical standards for women than for men. No one can deny that "gender norming" is widespread.

The most revealing example of just how far this gender norming has gone occurred during the original suit against the Virginia Military Institute's policy of admitting only males. Called by the prosecution to bolster its claim that the admission of women to the U.S. Military Academy had not led to any adverse effects, Col. Patrick Toffier, Director of the USMA's Office of Institutional Research, under oath and no doubt unintentionally, strengthened the claim by VMI's counsel that West Point had created a double standard for men and women, and that this double standard had an adverse impact on morale and training. Col. Toffier admitted that the USMA had identified 120 physical differences between men and women, not to mention psychological ones, resulting in an overall program of physical training less rigorous in order to accommodate female cadets.

There is immense political pressure to prevent women from failing to meet even these watered-down standards. This dynamic was at work in the case of Navy Lieutenant Kara Hultgreen, who paid for the double standard with her life (her carrier-plane's fatal plunge into the sea was ascribed to "pilot error"). It was at work in the case of Admiral Stan Arthur, whose career came to an untimely end because he rejected the claim of a washed-out helicopter trainee that her unfavorable flight evaluations were in retaliation for her filing a sexual harassment complaint against one of her instructors. The latter case in particular has made it clear to flight instructors that there is a substantial career risk associated with holding female trainees to the same performance standards as men.

An internal Navy report by Rear Admiral Lyle G. Bien illustrates how the combination of double standards and political correctness has corrupted truth, honor and principle in the naval aviation community. Admiral Bien's report, addressing whether the standards used to qualify women for assignment to F-14 squadrons (the plane flown by Lt. Hultgreen) were lower than for men was, in the words of the Wall Street Journal, "worded with tortured care." Admiral Bien found no one who would admit that special preferences had been accorded women aviators.

"On the other hand, he concedes, after Tailhook (and the ensuing purges that cost so many careers) no officer wanted to appear to block the progress of integrating women into the Fleet. The Admiral noted that naval officers did seem to notice there were different physical standards for women, and special accolades and attention directed to them from officers, from Navy officials and via calls from Washington."

The experience of the U.S. military in successfully integrating blacks is instructive in its stark contrast to the far-less-successful attempt to integrate women. A major cause of successful racial integration was that the services abjured double standards. Charles C. Moskos and John Sibley Butler, in their recent book All That We Can Be, show that the Army was, from the beginning of integration in the 1950s, adamant that merit would not be subordinated to quotas achieved by lowering standards, thus "stigmatiz[ing] applicants by raising doubts about their true qualifications." By following this path, the Army eliminated the "paradigm of black failure"--the notion that blacks cannot succeed unless standards are adjusted for race.

Eros vs. Philia

As dangerous as "politically correct' double standards may be, more dangerous by far are those arising from the introduction of eros into the military environment. Unlike philia, eros is individual and exclusive. Eros manifests itself as sexual competition, male protectiveness, and favoritism. As James Webb observes, "there is no greater or more natural bias than that of an individual toward a beloved. And few emotions are more powerful, or more distracting, than those surrounding the pursuit of, competition for, or the breaking off of amorous relationships."

And as both Mr. Webb and Ms. Gutmann illustrate, "amorous" relations, both consensual and non-consensual, abound. Mr. Webb relates the case of a ship's captain concerned about the disruption caused by sexual activity aboard his sexually-integrated vessel. When he raises the issue with his master chief, the senior enlisted sailor aboard, the latter replies, "Captain, there's f--ing going on on this ship 24 hours a day, and there's nothing you can do about it." And Ms. Gutmann reports the unintentionally ironic statement of an Army spokesman to the newspaper Stars and Stripes: "The Army does not prohibit heterosexual relations among consenting single soldiers ... but it does not provide facilities for sexual relations."

Eros undermines bonding and the resulting unit cohesion. Feminists of course contend that these manifestations of eros are only the result of a lack of education and insensitivity to women. They claim that the bonding argument was also employed by opponents of racial integration. But while racial attitudes are learned and can be changed, relations between the sexes are qualitatively different: the behavior of men around women is something that Socrates would have recognized as "human nature." As one commentator puts it, anyone who cannot distinguish between race discrimination and discrimination on the basis of sex probably doesn't understand the difference between segregating bathrooms by race and segregating them by sex.

All the social engineering in the world cannot change the fact that men treat women differently from other men. This is illustrated by the closest thing we have to a laboratory experiment testing the claims of those who would open combat specialties to women: the Israeli experience.

Women in Combat: the Israeli Case

During the period of the British Mandate in Palestine, an elite, semi clandestine, volunteer Jewish youth organization called Palmach was formed. The ideology of Palmach was egalitarian socialism, and according to the Israeli historian Martin van Creveld, the organization "was sexually integrated to an extent rarely attained by any armed force before or since."

Palmach was essentially a guerrilla militia, designed for self-defense against local Arab attacks. Van Creveld writes that before Israeli independence, Palmach women accompanied men on missions, especially "undercover missons that involved obtaining intelligence, transmitting messages, smuggling arms, and the like." During Israel's War of Independence, Palmach served as the core of Haganah, the Israeli Defense Force (IDF).

Yet despite Palmach's ideological commitment to radical equality for women, the practical experience of the 1948 war, which involved coordinated offensive actions, convinced the leaders of Israel that the dangers of women in combat outweighed the benefits--including commitment to an abstract concept of equality between the sexes. Former Israeli Defense Minister Moshe Dayan said women reduced the combat effectiveness of Haganah units because men took steps to protect them out of "fear of what the Arabs would do to [the] women if they captured them."

What might an enemy do to captured women? We know that female soldiers captured during the Persian Gulf War were sexually abused despite initial denials by the Defense Department. A more harrowing answer is provided by Charles J. Dunlop in his futuristic "How We Lost the HighTech War of 2007: A Warning from the Future." As the "Holy Leader' tells the "Supreme War Council" during a secret address in late 2007:

As you know, this was the first major war in which America deployed large numbers of female combat soldiers. To carry out our plan, our fighters captured a few dozen.

The Americans believed that their nation could endure the sight of women as POWs. Perhaps they were right. Whatever the case, America was shocked by what we did next: We used our infamous Boys Brigade to rape the women, and then to amputate their limbs and burn their faces. Though we let them suffer terribly, we were careful not to kill them ... We then returned the POWs to the Americans. We said it was a "humanitarian" gesture ... However prepared the Americans thought they were to see their daughters come back in body bags, they were not ready to see them returned home strapped to wheelchairs, horribly mutilated, and shrieking in agony.

Traumatized relatives frantically demanded the removal of their wives and daughters from the combat zone, and those demands were swiftly met. But by 2007, women had become so incorporated into the structure of the U.S. military that their sudden withdrawal wrecked the effectiveness of the deployed forces.

The Military Ethos and Liberal Democracy

If the military were "just a job" involving a daily commute to the Pentagon--and if equal opportunity were all that was at stake--it would be hard to oppose opening combat to women. Women have demonstrated their competence in all other areas of society, from medicine and law to business and the academy. But they have done so because of capitalism and technology. Lifting legal barriers against women in the workplace merely ratified the technological advances that have made physical strength less important than intellect. But realities of war render the military different from the society it protects.

Indeed, a liberal democracy faces a paradox when it comes to the relationship between the military and society at large: the military cannot govern itself in accordance with the democratic principles of that society.

Behavior that is acceptable, indeed even protected, in civil society is prohibited in the military. The military restricts the freedom of movement of its members, it restricts speech, and it prohibits certain relationships among members, such as fraternization. It values virtues that many civilians see as brutal and barbaric because, in the words of an anonymous Air Force major, the military "is one of the few jobs where you may have to tell someone, 'go die.' "

If the military fails, the society it protects may not survive. And long experience has taught us that certain kinds of behavior are destructive of good order, discipline, and morale, without which a military organization will certainly fail. The goal of military policy must be victory on the battlefield, a purpose that cannot be in competition with any other, including the provision of entitlements or "equal opportunity." Unfortunately, many of those in positions of responsibility seem to have forgotten this imperative: consider the comments of Secretary of the Army Togo West in 1994. There are, he said, two basic principles governing the Army: "One, that everyone in the country is entitled to serve and should be given it. And two, the Army exists to fight and win the nation's wars." The issue, he continued, is to determine how best "to utilize the available resources to do the latter with the least compromise of the former."

But in fact the ethos of the United States military has served the Republic well. The burden of proof is on those who would use such events as the alleged Army sex scandals as an excuse to expand the role of women. They must prove that the changes they advocate will not further undermine the very purpose of the military--victory on the battlefield. In the words of the military sociologist Richard A. Gabriel, "it will avail us little if the members of our defeated forces are all equal. History will treat us for what we were: a social curiosity that failed."

A final thought suggests itself, however: What kind of a society can seriously consider sending women into combat while men stay home? What sort of society is capable of displaying the depraved indifference to the lives of children evidenced by the desire of some women (and the willingness of some men) to send mothers and (maybe soon) pregnant women into harm's way?

The answer, unfortunately, seems to be the same sort of society that permits one-and-a-half million abortions each year.

I am reminded of Abraham Lincoln's words at the time of the Kansas-Nebraska Act (to extend slavery into new territories): "Our republican robe is soiled and trailed in the dust. Let us turn and wash it white in the spirit, if not the blood, of the Revolution"--which of course began with the Declaration that God created us all with "certain unalienable rights," first among them the right to life.

Mackubin T. Owens is Professor of Strategy and Force Planning at the Naval War College in Newport, Rhode Island, and editor-in-chief of the quarterly Strategic Review. He retired from the Marine Corps Reserve as a Colonel in 1994. He was wounded twice during the Vietnam War and awarded the Silver Star medal. Dr. Owens earned his Ph.D. from the University of Dallas, his M.A. in economics from Oklahoma University and his B.A. from the University of California at Santa Barbara.