There is something terribly wrong with opening direct combat positions to military women. I have known this since I was six-years-old.
Remembering back to then, I can recall with spotty clarity watching an old black-and-white feature film about the sinking of the RMS Titanic. I was horror-struck as the ship slipped slowly under and terrified passengers raced for the few lifeboats. My responses to certain scenes still stand out: how my mind raced at the depiction of many men voluntarily remaining on deck to allow women and children into the life boats; how something like moral-shock accompanied the spectacle of crewmen beating back a few other men who tried to rush ahead of the women and children; and I remember well the scene when an old lady gave up her seat so a man out-of-control-with-terror could squirm aboard and save himself. I didn’t know the word “coward” back then, but, even so, I knew something was not the way it was supposed to be.
There are many arguments against the decision announced by Secretary of Defense Ash Carter on Thursday lifting all sex-based restrictions on women serving in combat arms units. Some of these will be featured in these pages over the next few days. Others have already been made elsewhere, many by Marines (for starters try these by: Mac Owens, Lauren Serrano, Katie Petronio, Jude Eden, Grant Castleberry, and Mike Fredenburg). These arguments deal with durability over sustained combat and infantry training or deployment, rates of injury or non-deployability, attrition, sexual and relational dynamics, hygiene, fraternization, and much else that draws attention to the substantial (and substantive) ways in which men and women – contrary to the fashion of the day – are simply not interchangeable.
But for now I want to get back to that little boy learning about noble bearing and cowardice in a darkened TV room. As the son of a mother, the husband of a wife, the brother of a sister, and the father of a daughter, what I most lament about this foolish decision is the change it will require, or permit, of American men. This change will largely be one of character or, more precisely, it’s erosion.
We can see this by first recalling that while Christian ethical reflection rightly asserts that the end of war is peace, this goal is necessarily achieved, in the last resort, through breaking things and killing people. The job of the United States military is to win the fight with as few casualties as possible, qualified only by considerations of proportionality, discrimination, and mission effectiveness. Mission effectiveness – our ability to meet the tasks necessary to win the fight – will be compromised if the fighting man in a combat unit has preferential concern for the fighting women around him. Military commanders – from the top strategic planners down to the fireteam leader executing tactics – must always be cognizant to not waste the lives of those in their command but they must always be prepared to spend them.
But to do this effectively in a co-ed combat unit will require the men in those units to abandon the virtue of gallantry – they will have to disabuse themselves of the masculine selflessness of chivalrous respect that – time out of memory – men have recognized they owe – owe – to women. Men are simply hardwired to place themselves between women and the beasts. I didn’t learn this fact by watching how men behave toward women on a sinking ship but, rather, watching how men behave toward women on a sinking ship allowed the articulation of something already tacitly within me. I began to learn how the impulse might manifest.
Last week, gallantry was clearly manifested in San Bernardino for all to see when Shannon Johnson threw his body between Denise Peraza and the terrorists and shielded her from the bullets that killed him. He needn’t have done that – there’s no particularly logical reason he ought to have given his life for his co-worker. But he did – he gave her his spot on the boat. And we perceive his action as deeply noble – as evidenced by the tremendous attention it has garnered. Notice, too, that had this been reversed, we would have felt that something was amiss. While there is always something noble in anyone who gives their life for another, we surely would have felt that they had swapped roles, that he ought to have died for her. We might have felt there was something distinctly abhorrent in his letting her take the bullets, that he ought never to have allowed her to give up her seat on the lifeboat.
This is not to say that women are not strong, patriotic, or brave enough to serve and sacrifice. Of course they are – and many have and in moments of crisis it is required of them: as when things go to hell in a war zone and non-combat units are drawn into the fight or back home when a mother protects her children against predators. In moments of national crisis when there are real threats against the continued existence of the political community then it might become a matter of all-hands-on-deck and women, too, will be called up to the front lines. This is why I have no issue with women acquiring whatever level of combat training they are able to achieve. Readiness is all. And because we live in a world in which the worst can happen, we raise our daughter, just as we do our son, on stories of courage and sacrifice and with expectations of devotion to duty and to other-centered acts of self-donation – all that the lioness might be drawn out of her and martial virtue made habitual.
But, meanwhile, if things continue to progress as they are then it will not be only moments of existential crisis that women are called to the pointy-end-of-the-spear. Virtue is hard-won for sinful human beings. If you give a sinner permission to abdicate their duty, you cannot be surprised when they do. Men, as human sinners, are continually torn between self-preservation and self-donation. But if as a society we begin to cut back on expectations that men display gallantry, then many men will all too eagerly oblige. Because opening the door for women in combat takes away any excuse to not enroll women in the draft, we might someday face the abominable spectacle of men watching the lottery numbers with quivering nerves and secretly hoping that anyone – even her – might be sent into combat in his place. Any nation whose men feel free to abdicate the moral habit of placing themselves between women and the beasts is a nation that has already become beastly.
Even today, if there were a real, actual need for a woman to be assigned to a combat unit, it could only be because a man has said, “Go in my place.” Even the prospect of such a milquetoast spectacle should be stomach-churning. That it might now be a reality can only be perceived for what it is: a truly titanic shame.
Marc LiVecche is the managing editor of Providence and is Scholar on Christian Ethics, War, & Peace at IRD
Photo: Pfc. Cristina Fuentes Montenegro, 25, one of the first three female Marine graduates from the School of Infantry-East’s Infantry Training Battalion course, and native of Coral Springs, Fla., left, and Pfc. Julia Carroll, 18, one of the first three female Marine graduates from the School of Infantry-East’s Infantry Training Battalion course, and native of Idaho Falls, Idaho, stand at the position of parade rest during the graduation of Delta Company, Infantry Training Battalion, School of Infantry-East at Camp Geiger, N.C. Nov. 21. The graduation of 227 students marked the first class of Marines to include females. The class was part of the Marine Corps’ research effort toward integrating women into ground-combat military occupational specialties. (Official U.S. Marine Corps photo by Lance Cpl. Justin A. Rodriguez/Released)