The Direction of the Current Debate

Saturday, June 1, 2013

We may legitimately anticipate how the women in combat issue may eventually play out. After insisting that female soldiers must meet the same rigorous physical standards for front line combat units as do men, in time–and perhaps in not so long time–we will begin to hear that these demanding requirements are somewhat ossified and now arbitrary in our postmodern, high-tech world, or can be adjusted for gender considerations without impairing a unit’s combat effectiveness, or that female aviators or ship officers have proven that gender has become irrelevant in their own combat situations, and thus by extension, ground combat units should follow suit.

Following necessary alterations in current physical standards, Army and Marine officers will then be obliged to consider whether female participation in their particular ground combat units are proper reflections of the Pentagon’s efforts to ensure gender diversity. And there will probably then follow subtle pressures to ensure gender equality.

The issue is reflective of a larger debate within American society about whether the military by its very nature is somewhat different from other civilian institutions and therefore at times exempt from their protocols, or it should conform exactly to the norms adopted by the rest of the 21st-century federal bureaucracy. Also implicit in the discussion is a certain liberal disconnect. At times, progressives distrust the supposedly militaristic and authoritarian nature of the armed forces, yet also find the Pentagon’s ability to enact liberal social policy by fiat, bypassing cumbersome congressional debate, quite attractive–whether in implementing new policies about homosexuals in the military or the current policy change about women in combat.

There is also another implicit assumption: the high-tech, professional American military is deemed so competent and superior to rivals that it has the luxury to embark on social experimentation. We supposedly enjoy such a margin of error that if we discover in time that the presence of women in wartime combat units imperils fighting efficacy, the downside will not be such to imperil the mission–or at least be countenanced by the resulting social benefits as defined by government officials and Pentagon bureaucrats.