Serious people won't pay attention to you if your only objection to women serving in combat if you just say, "No sir, I don't like it!" So people with dated ideas about what women can do are forced to invent objections that look at least superficially rooted in fact, instead of sexism. Closer examination reveals they are dumb.
Wednesday's reports (made official today) that the Pentagon would end the ban provoked a lot of reactions from pundits. I also have friends who served in the infantry in Iraq who joined some truly epic Facebook threads, with reactions ranging from "I'm just worried how many of my brothers might die before this PC policy is found to be flawed" to "I guarantee I can find a stronger more competent woman than [redacted name of less competent soldier] any day." Credit where credit's due: the Army guys had better thought-out worries than the pundits. But the opinions of pundits get more attention than soldiers', so let's look at their concerns.
Women will get hurt in war.
This case was made by Tucker Carlson, founder of The Daily Caller and a man not known to be a reflexive anti-war peacenik."The administration boasts about sending women to the front lines on the same day Democrats push the Violence Against Women Act," Carlson tweeted. "Feminism's latest victory: the right to get your limbs blown off in war. Congratulations," he added. We are surprised that Carlson would imply that it is never right or honorable to sacrifice your life for your country. New York's Jonathan Chait points out that Carlson is holding Obama to a very tough standard: "You know who else was hypocritical about this, by Carlson's definition? Harry Truman. He favored anti-lynching laws to keep black people from getting killed in the South, but he also forced the military to let them get killed in combat."
Men will instinctively try to protect women and put themselves in danger.
"The screams of women, they have a big psychological effect on men. A woman just has a different pitch," former Marine Carlos Laguna, who served to tours in Iraq, told Fox News in December. "If we're in a firefight and a woman is shot or lost her arm, male Marines like me would want to stop and help. It's our nature to help women."
It might be true that men have an instinct to help women. But a major part of military training is getting men and women to reverse the normal human instinct to, when things blow up all around you, get the hell out of there instead of do the fighting the military paid for. In fact, the military has spent quite a lot of money figuring out how to quell all kinds of natural instincts. In addition to the instinct of "not wanting to get shot at," there's also the instinct one might call "don't kill people." As Scientific American's John Horgan explained in 2010, "Surveys of WWII infantrymen carried out by U.S. Army Brig. Gen. S.L.A. Marshall found that only 15 to 20 percent had fired their weapons in combat, even when ordered to do so." Marshall argued that the average Joe had "an inner and usually unrealized resistance towards killing a fellow man" and would avoid it if at all possible. In On Killing, Dave Grossman, a former Army lieutenant colonel and West Point psychology professor, wrote that Marshall's findings were backed up by reports from World War I, the Civil War, and other wars. The military overcomes this with lots of training of body and mind. ("What makes the green grass grow? Blood! Blood makes the green grass grow.")
Women don't have the killer instinct.
Neither do most men. See above.
Women aren't strong enough.
Again, I am going to break some news here: Not every soldier in combat arms is huge. We imagine them all to be jacked like Wolverine, since we so often refer to them as superheroes. There are short guys, there are naturally less strong guys, there are bad runners. Some women might not be able to fireman-carry the biggest men, but neither can the smaller guys.
To pass the Army's PT test, you get a score based on the number of pushups you do in two minutes, the number of situps you do in two minutes, and how fast you run two miles. Slow runners compensate by running up the score in the strength tests, and the less-than-burly make up for it by running really fast. If you fail the weight test you can make up for it by passing the tape test, which measures the ratio of the circumference of your belly to that of your neck and shoulders. These tactics to get a passing grade will get you certified to serve, but it should be noted that none of these things match up very well with what you actually have to do in combat.
Women have periods!
People don't make this case much any more, because it is offensive. Newt Gingrich hinted at this in 1995, when he said "females have biological problems staying in a ditch for 30 days because they get infections." This case is made by Kingsley Browne in the book Co-ed Combat: The New Evidence That Women Shouldn't Fight the Nations Wars. Browne sites surveys in which women deployed in war zones felt unclean; he argues their anatomy creates an insurmountable burden. Here again I'm going to break some news: Men also pee. Men have anuses. Men have genitals. Men have balls, covered in delicate, sensitive skin. Men get rashes. Men get crotch rot. Men get "desert dick," although there is some conflict on the Internet about what that slang refers to.
Men don't want to poop in front of women.
The Wall Street Journal published an op-ed by former Marine infantryman Ryan Smith arguing that women shouldn't be in combat because the conditions are too miserable. During the 2003 invasion, Smith says:
"Many Marines developed dysentery from the complete lack of sanitary conditions. When an uncontrollable urge hit a Marine, he would be forced to stand, as best he could, hold an MRE bag up to his rear, and defecate inches from his seated comrade's face....
It is humiliating enough to relieve yourself in front of your male comrades; one can only imagine the humiliation of being forced to relieve yourself in front of the opposite sex."
I dunno, an infantryman once regaled me with a 15-minute story about this one massive turd -- "thick as a Pringles can" -- he pooped out in Iraq. This other guy told me about the time he pooped out an orange turd and then a dark brown turd, one right after the other, and he supposed it was related to eating Fritos. Maybe the Marines are classier than the Army, but there didn't seem to be that much embarrassment to admit the existence of poop -- and I wasn't "one of them," but a mere wife.
This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.
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