Myths are powerful things. Tales of female warriors exist in cultures around the world, often serving as unifying national symbols. These women are notable in part because they defy the general expectation that women are noncombatants. Their exploits unify in part because they exemplify both masculine and feminine ideals.

Until the present day, however, women warriors have remained isolated figures. We are now in the midst of an unprecedented change in the role of women in our armed forces, a change some view as long overdue.

The debate over women in combat roles has both moral and practical dimensions. On the pro side, the moral argument is about equality and non-discrimination: there is no ethical justification for barring women from any military job, and harm may be done to women if they are denied key battlefield roles. The practical argument tends to emphasize that women are already fighting and dying, so it is inconsistent to keep a gendered combat ban in place. It might also contend that the testosterone-driven environments of all-male units can be heedlessly reckless, and that the presence of women brings a civilizing balance to action that must be principled, not just passion-fueled.

On the con side, the practical argument is based on evidence that physical differences between men and women make large-scale integration of women into combat units harmful both to female soldiers and to mission effectiveness. It might point to the example of Israel’s armed forces. The moral argument is more nebulous, even offensive to some: a society that allows women in combat has given up a piece of its moral armor.

These arguments against women in combat may be open to charges of gender essentialism, but the case is more complex than that. Drawing on the just war principles of discrimination and proportionality, the argument can be re-cast into a conflict not between pro-feminists and anti-feminists, but between two deeply held American values: equality and justice.

Whether or not to send women to the front lines is a case for jus in bello, or right conduct of war. It raises two major ethical challenges to the pro side. The principle of proportionality states that the evil caused by the army wishing to fight justly must not be greater than the evil it aims to interdict. Although this can be interpreted as “the evil our side causes to the other side must not be greater than the evil the other side causes,” there is reason to interpret this principle more broadly: the total evils caused by war, including losses to one’s own side, should not exceed the evils perpetrated by the wrongdoers if left unchallenged.

A well-armed American soldier, male or female, would likely prevail over a more poorly equipped opponent. Yet side by side with a man of equal training and resources, a woman is still more vulnerable to certain evils. By virtue of being a woman, she is far more likely to experience sexual violence. We know that some of our enemies—those who do not abide by the same conventions of war—routinely use rape as a weapon of war. Women on the front lines, then, are vulnerable to this type of attack. Moreover, it is not a stretch to imagine female prisoners of war as targets for methodical, repeated rape.

Can we justify this risk in the name of equality alone (rather than defense against an existential threat)? Heeding the principles of justice in wartime, it may be that a nation should not knowingly send a more vulnerable population to war when it could send a less vulnerable one instead. A war in which some soldiers face rape as well as bodily injury or death is a war that has an increase of foreseeable harm, and therefore would be less just.

Not all enemies will engage in mass rape, of course, but that does not mean the moral risks of women in combat disappear. Jus in bello also requires discrimination in the prosecution of a war: non-military targets and civilians must be avoided at all costs. This principle has been codified in the international conventions of war, and to violate it constitutes a war crime.

What happens, then, when a soldier on the opposing side who has been schooled in the rules of non-combatant immunity is faced with soldiers drawn from one of the primary groups traditionally designated as non-combatants? That soldier may be reluctant—on moral grounds—to fire upon or otherwise harm that female soldier, and the hesitation may cost him his life.

Even more pointed: In deliberately and systematically placing women in the front lines, would the U.S. essentially be “fighting dirty,” like the army that surrounds a military target with civilians to deter attack?

There is also the larger, more troubling question of whether removing women’s traditional non-combatant status might have the effect of legitimizing violence against women more broadly, a problem of global proportions. Those who support fully integrating women into combat roles would do well to consider whether equality is best served by “sending a message” of equality to American women, or by making women legitimate targets of male violence. We must choose our myths carefully.

The Christian tradition has argued that even in warfare, the duty to love one’s neighbor (who may be one’s enemy) is not abridged. Just war thinking suggests that sending both men and women into combat may not uphold that duty: neither the duty to love one’s neighbor who is a member of our own armed forces, nor the neighbor who is serving in the opposing army.

Debra Erickson holds a Ph.D. in Religious Ethics from the University of Chicago. She is co-editor of the forthcoming volume: In Search of the Ethical Polity: Critical Essays on the Work of Jean Bethke Elshtain.

Photo Credit: Walkyrien by Emil Doepler, an illustration for Walhall: Die Götterwelt der Germanen by Wilhelm Ranisch (published in 1905), via Wikimedia Commons.