Where Logic Meets Love

Why I'm Glad the Ground-Combat Ban Was Lifted

Tuesday, January 29, 2013

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Why I'm Glad the Ground-Combat Ban Was Lifted | Faith Permeating Life

A big announcement was made last week, yet I've seen very little attention given to it across the corners of the blogosphere and social media that I frequent.

The Army announced last week that it was eliminating the rule preventing women from serving in ground combat. This is an important change because, while there is still plenty of gender inequality in all kinds of professional fields, the military is one of the last few holdouts in the United States where people can actually be prohibited from taking on a particular role solely because of their biological sex. The lifting of the ban on ground combat means opportunities are now open to women that were not before.

I want to talk about this not only because it's an important milestone in American history but because the debates around this issue so poignantly capture the problems with certain beliefs about gender roles and gender essentialism.

(Note: For the purposes of this post, I'm going to use the word "women" to refer to those who are assigned as female at birth, because that's how it is used related to this particular rule. As I've explained before, biological sex is not always clearly defined, and the gender of one's brain doesn't always match the gender of one's body.)

The primary reason for prohibiting women from certain roles in the military is that on average women tend to have less physical strength than men. This fact is not disputed, but it's vital to realize that we're talking about averages -- generalizations about all women vs. all men.

Here is a basic statistical truth: The fact that there are statistically significant differences between any two groups does not tell us anything about an individual in either group. That is, we may know that there is a statistical likelihood that when any given woman is compared to any given man, he will have more physical strength. But this does not tell us with certainty what a specific woman will be capable of doing.

So the argument that "Women should be kept out of combat because it's a biological fact that they're weaker than men" is logically unsound. How most women are, on average, does not tell us how all women are, and therefore making a rule that applies to all women does not follow.

The new rule now says that any area that wants to continue to exclude women must provide justification for doing so, and I've seen the Navy SEALs cited most often as where this might happen because of its physical demands. But a blanket ban still doesn't make sense.

To explain why, consider the corollary to the argument about women above: "Men are stronger than women; therefore, all men are fit to be Navy SEALs." We know right away that this isn't true. Any man wanting to fill a particular role must be able to prove that he has the physical strength, endurance, stamina, etc. to be able to fill that role. He doesn't qualify solely as a result of his genitals, right?

So it makes sense that the same should be true for women. Assuming a clear and consistent standard, even if women are statistically less likely to be able to meet this standard, this doesn't mean that a woman who is able to meet the standard should be prevented from taking on the role solely as a result of her genitals. (Or chromosomes, or however you want to define biological sex.)

(If this changes, and the standards are lowered to allow more women to qualify, or quotas are introduced so that a certain number of women must be given certain positions, I can understand concerns about that. But at the moment we're talking only about the lifting of a complete ban on women taking on certain roles.)

This situation is a great example of a pervasive problem in how we conceptualize groups of people. Essentially, we run into problems whenever we make arguments that sound like this:

"Because most [members of a certain group] are/can/have [some common characteristic, ability, or choice], ALL [members of this group] should be required to / prohibited from [some opportunity or action]."

This is particularly a problem when our "Most X people..." statement isn't even based in fact, but in assumptions, stereotypes, limited experience, historical precedent, or other faulty sources of evidence. So now we're putting restrictions or requirements on other people not even because of how they are, but how we think they are.

So yes, regardless of my feelings about war or the military, I'm glad that this ban has been lifted so that women who want these roles and are capable of fulfilling them are able to do so. As the Defense Secretary said, "Not everyone is going to be a combat soldier, but everyone is entitled to a chance."

What do you think?


  1. "So the argument that "Women should be kept out of combat because it's a biological fact that they're weaker than men" is logically unsound. How most women are, on average, does not tell us how all women are, and therefore making a rule that applies to all women does not follow."

    Yes, this is a bad argument.

    But just because one bad argument is put forward doesn't mean there aren't some good ones.

    The biggest problem with women in combat isn't that the women can't do the job, it's how the men react to them. The men are more likely to protect the women at the expense of the mission. Losing a woman is terrible for morale.

    It is not just our men to be concerned about, but the enemy. Enemies may see surrendering to a woman as humiliating and fight to the death rather than give up, leading to a greater loss of life on both sides.

    Considering that even without the ban, 90%+ of combat troops will be men, it's a lot of risk for little benefit.

    Fortunately, the military still has the good sense not to allow coed combat units. It appears women will be in all-female units. I have my doubts as to whether these units will ever actually see combat.

    I understand your opposition to sex discrimination, but there is a lot more going on here.

    1. If men are truly so skewed in their views of women that they would disobey orders to "protect" them or otherwise treat female soldiers differently than male soldiers, that's a problem that lies with the men and their views, not with the women. Keeping women out of combat because of how men see them is right in line with a whole bunch of other problematic arguments about gender relations; e.g., men can't "handle" seeing attractive women, so women need to change their behavior and/or dress around men.

      To me, these kinds of hypothetical arguments about how men would react to having women in combat sound extremely similar to the hypothetical arguments given for why Don't Ask Don't Tell shouldn't be lifted: Having openly gay soldiers would "distract" other soldiers, etc. And those fears turned out to be unfounded once DADT was actually struck down.

      Also, for a long time there was a ban on women in submarines because people had these notions that men wouldn't be able to handle being in a confined space with a woman for that long, or it would turn into some kind of rampant sex-fest. That ban was lifted a year ago and the supposed consequences never manifested.

      We can't use these kind of "what if other people react badly" arguments to limit people's opportunities.

    2. "We can't use these kind of 'what if other people react badly' arguments to limit people's opportunities." Well-said, Jessica.

    3. Combat arms isn't about "opportunity".

      It is about killing people. With brutal efficiency.

      The military is NOT a jobs program.

      There were plenty of very good military reasons for lifting DADT. What are the military reasons for lifting this ban? I don't see any.

      And if there are no MILITARY reasons for doing it, it should not be done. Period. Full stop. End of discussion.

      I am familiar with all sides of this argument. I have a friend who is an male infantry officer and another who is a former female Air Force officer and they have very heated and opposite opinions on this.

  2. Great post! This is pretty much exactly how I feel about it- and I get kind of angry reading opinions in the newspaper about how "women don't belong in combat" and they cite the "women aren't as strong as men" bit as if that's the end of the argument. Dude, nobody's FORCING women who aren't physically qualified to go to the front lines. I'M certainly not willing to join the military and go to the front lines. But I bet there are other women out there who want to and who are strong enough, and there's no good reason to restrict them.

    1. That's exactly it -- we can't conflate "some women" (or even "most women") with "every woman," or we end up making very bad arguments.

  3. My stepmother was in the first group of women officers in the army corps of engineers. She has talked about these issues some, pointing out that keeping women in supply roles has never been the same as keeping them out of combat, since the first rule of tactics is to attack the enemy's supply chains. And meanwhile the division kept women from the career opportunities that men had.

    On the other side, I have serious doubts that we can keep it a matter of individual choice. If there is a differential between how many women wind up in combat and how many men, someone is going to start agitating about that. And if there was cause for the draft, it would be inequitable to draft men and not women. We can keep obliterating distinction after distinction, but how do we know when we have come to a distinction that actually serves some value? Will the world in fact be a better place when there are no recognized distinctions between being male and female? Will it even reflect reality anymore?

    Truth is, there have through human history been a few exceptional women who found a way to serve at the front lines in combat. But our society has no room for exceptions. We can only keep drawing up newer and more convoluted rules.

    1. Queen of Carrots, it's good you brought that up. I heard the matter of the draft mentioned on a radio talk show yesterday. The opinion being presented was that if women want the privilege of voluntary combat duty they should also accept the responsibility of mandatory combat duty (registering for the draft). I think the speaker was comparing apples to oranges by insinuating that drafted means guaranteed ground combat on the front lines; in reality people can get drafted into a variety of positions both at home and overseas, from cooking to manufacturing weapons to operating computer systems to combat itself. So, while I agree that true equality should involve requiring women to register for the draft same as men, I disagree that the issues are somehow related. Even if the Army had not lifted the ban on women serving in ground-combat, I still would have thought it would make sense to require women to register for the draft.

    2. But if you are drafting women but exempting them from frontline combat unless they want it, while assigning men to it arbitrarily--then it's not equality.

  4. Personally I don't think women are necessarily any worse suited for combat than men, if as you say they fulfill the physical requirements for the job. I am glad women are now able to make this choice; however, I don't think it's a good choice. Kind of similar to my feelings on (dare I bring up an even more controversial subject?) abortion. Women should be free, and we should also use our freedom responsibly. But I realize my opinion on this is heavily shaped by my personal interpretation of Christian ethics, and each woman's decision must be shaped by her own ethics.

    1. This is why I say that my being glad the ban was lifted is separate from my feelings about war generally; I think it's perfectly legitimate to have concerns about the military or the way our country conducts war or any of those things, but I don't see a reason those should be gendered concerns.

  5. I think it's perfectly legitimate to have concerns about the military or the way our country conducts war or any of those things, but I don't see a reason those should be gendered concerns.

    Exactly. I'm raising my son to believe that being a conscientious objector is an honorable choice but also to believe that our cousin in the Marines and his friend's mom in the Army (both of whom served in Iraq) deserve our respect for doing difficult jobs.

    Years ago I had a college student assistant (in a workstudy position) who was a criminal justice major and really wanted to be a police officer. She was 4'9" and cute and had been the cheerleader on top of the pyramid in high school. She passed a test in which she had to climb over a 4-foot, then a 5-foot, then a 6-foot wall in just a few minutes--all that jumping practice and hip flexibility made up for her small stature. She became a U.S. Capitol security officer. I think it's great that she can have that job. If some bad guy isn't intimidated by her, well, he just might be taken by surprise!

    By the way, this news was thoroughly covered by the traditional newspaper that I read.


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