During a recent visit to a local bookstore, a book title caught my eye. It was entitled "Band of Sisters," and was an expose' of women in combat, fighting the war in Iraq. My thoughts immediately went to the debate of yesteryear that wrestled with the notion of my country willingly sending women into combat roles, and wondered what occasion marked the end of that debate. The idea of military women in combat roles seems such a given now as to seemingly leave any arguments against it as archaic as the phonograph. The subject is not merely women serving in the military, for indeed World War II saw many non-combat support roles flawlessly executed by patriotic women. The subject in question is regarding sending women into combat duties, where it is their job to both face potential death and destruction from the enemy and to deliver it to the enemy.
(I realize that by offering the following opinion, I risk alienating myself from friends that hold a more egalitarian view. Hopefully, they will not judge me too harshly for my position.)
It is unfortunate that the debate has seemingly ended, for I consider the practice of assigning combat roles to women among the more immoral acts of current military policy for the United States. Certainly this is strong language, but I do not offer it as hyperbole-for-effect.
Many have sought to argue for and against women in combat based on various foundations. Some have argued for or against based on "capability" grounds. Those "for" argue that women are just as capable as men are in performing the various demands of combat ops. The examples range from a woman's ability (just like a man would) to press missile launch buttons to Demi Moore's depiction of a woman qualifying to serve on a Navy SEAL team in the 1997 film "G.I. Jane." Those "against" argue the sustained physical demands on soldiers and Marines in the combat theater of operations, suggesting that men and woman differ in average strength and endurance for such circumstances. One gives examples to support their position, but then is countered by examples to the contrary.
A similar "back and forth" occurs with the "morale" arguments, debating as to whether co-ed units, squadrons or ships enjoy the necessary combat readiness that they should when also dealing with inter-sex dynamics in close quarters. Examples are offered both "for" and "against" to support the case. Some suggest that combat readiness is compromised because these co-ed dynamics intrude, while others counter (understandably) that military professionalism and discipline can render supposed intrusive inter-sex dynamics irrelevant.
Other categories include the folly of elevating diversity over excellence as a driving value in recruitment (recent articles in Proceedings showcase this discussion), as well as the influencing physiology of the soldier being a factor (pregnancy, menstruation, etc.). Some of the issues make good cases, but ultimately are susceptible to the quagmire of competing examples. Instead of engaging one of these, I choose instead to approach the issue from a position of "aesthetics."
This would seem a strange foundation upon which to argue the traditional normative role of men as voluntary warriors, with the exception being women fighting to defend their homes. Nevertheless, I am persuaded that a sense of creation aesthetics will peer back into history and find that differentiation between the normative and exceptional roles regarding combat duties find the U.S. military's policy to be a stranger invention still. The "aesthetic" argument is that war is "hell"... it is ugly (in its grandest sense). It involves the destruction of an enemy's machinery and personnel until they are persuaded not to fight anymore. For all the virtues that might be perceivable or displayed during battle (i.e. valor, courage, leadership, wisdom, compassion, sacrifice, duty, camaraderie, etc.), the occurrence of war (even when necessary) is ultimately a tragic byproduct of human depravity, the extinction of which is part of the Christan's hope in Christ.
It's ugly because of what it does to the human body.
It's ugly because of what it does to human society.
It's ugly because of what it does to the human conscience.
It's ugly because of what it does to human relationships.
It's ugly because of what it does to the human soul.
By way of contrast, there is great beauty woven throughout God's creation that must be cultivated and championed. Physical appearance is but a sliver of the beauty created by God to reflect his glory throughout all things. Rightly do we see the majestic mountains, the vast plains, the blue oceans or lush forest and gasp, "That's beautiful." However, beauty is also expressed in human relations through gentleness, redemption, forgiveness, joy, love, understanding and service. Beauty is the subtle difference between a house and a home. It's detectable when a child goes to sleep content and loved. It's evident when restraint prevails over rage. It can be "felt" when "all seems right with the world" in the presence of a love one. It communicates the way things ought to be. Being created by God, we intuitively know when something is beautiful and displays a thing the way God created it to be - uncorrupted and glorious.
Antithetically, war is ugly. Therefore, those that prosecute it long to escape it and return to something (anything) beautiful. Historically (both in world and biblical history), "warriors" have been those skilled in prosecuting the ugliness of battle, allowing others to remain behind and preserve the place of beauty. Normatively, these two complimentary responsibilities have been divided along gender lines. Although some men have perversely reveled in war, enjoying its carnage and mayhem, others have legitimately seen it as a necessary service that must be performed and then set aside when completed. The "warrior" goes off/away/afar to war so that others will not have to. As it has been normatively a male role, the men fight so that the women do not have to debase themselves with this bloody, gross and ugly chore. Indeed women such as Deborah and Jael (Judges 4) are seen as the exception made necessary when too few men would fulfill their duty. Indeed it is ugly when the caretakers of those things beautiful in society must leave those responsibilities to make up for a shortage of servants in the field.
But our society does not see it this way. Instead of war being the ugly obligation for which men must become warriors for a time, it is seen as the repository of glories that should not be denied women seeking to assert equal value in society. For the women to maintain the place of beauty to which the men might return after the ugliness of war has ended is seen as oppressing them from enjoying equality. Such has been the madness of devaluing all things traditionally feminine in our society that those tasked with preserving beauty in the world desire to live the same ugly existence as the warrior.
Where is the revulsion traditionally seen when an aggressor has so overrun the defenses of a "fort" that even the women inside must defend themselves? Is there not a wrongness inherent in the guardians of beauty having to soil themselves with the ugliness of battle? Where is the outrage historically conjured when the enemy engages not only the soldiers, but "the women and children too?" Our culture appears to be devolving into one which would instead exclaim, "they attacked the children, but the women should have taken care of it. They're equal after all."
The quest for equality has taken on a foolish pursuit for indistinctness. Supposing that to be equal means to be interchangeable, societal engineers have so devalued those responsibilities tasked to women, that many women now seek responsibilities tasked to men in order to feel valuable. The idea of women as voluntary warriors deviates from centuries of western (and even biblical) history, and represents an immoral devaluing of the beauty that warriors should seek to return to.
I hear the arguments about women being just as capable as men to fight wars, but I have never thought this was a capability issue. I know that one can always find women just as capable of warfighting as any man. In addition, I've heard the "morale" issue raised, knowing that this can be overcome with military discipline and training. The physiology issue can be addressed easily enough in the logistics of personnel needs as well. For me, this has always been a moral issue. Since creation women have (not exclusively, but more than men do) carried the mantle of God's beauty, tasked with reflecting it in their own person, as well as in everything they influence in the home and in society. That our country encourages them to enter the ugliness of war demonstrates two great tragedies: (1) preserving home and culture is now considered "beneath" these women, and (2) their presence in the battlefield might have been made necessary because too few men are willing to fulfill their responsibility as warriors.
I apologize to my egalitarian friends (particularly those women who have already succumbed to the folly of assuming equal value means interchangeable duty) that are offended by my position. My desire is not to slight you personally, but my conviction is that war is an ugliness men should not impose upon women given the chance to spare them of its horrors. To think nothing of bringing women into the ranks of warriors, creating a "band of sisters," is an immoral affront to millenia of both male and female responsibilities regarding war and peace. Let women fully embrace their power to cultivate the beauty of God in the home, in the workplace, in culture and society as a whole, and let men fulfill their responsibility to prosecute war in such a way that its ugliness does not overcome the beauty that must come after.