Women in Combat: We Will Lose This Fight. Let’s Lose For the Right Reasons

It was the summer of 1993, and I remember it like yesterday. I was an 18-year-old boy straight out of high school, and I was sitting on a bus in Fort Jackson, South Carolina. My Drill Sergeant had just boarded the bus. His uniform was crisp, and his glare was all business. It was surreal, like a scene from a movie, only this was real life. He stood there for a moment surveying us, somehow seeming both tense and relaxed. I was in awe. His first words were, “If you are Catholic, pray to Mary. If you are a Baptist, pray to Jesus. Pray to whatever god you love right now. Because in five seconds, you belong to me.” He said this calmly, like Clint Eastwood saying, “Dying ain’t much of a living boy.” I was in the front of the bus, and he was standing in the aisle right next to me. In the five seconds that I prayed, I could just catch a whiff of his aftershave. It was nice. Whatever I had expected of Drill Sergeants, I had not expected them to smell good.

That was over twenty years ago, but my military experience continues to shape who I am. It opened my eyes to a bigger world. I grew up in Alabama in an all-white community. To say it was a new experience to have one Latino Drill Sergeant, one black male Drill Sergeant, and a black female Drill Sergeant would be an understatement. Combine that with the fact that half my platoon was black, and you have the seed for seeing the world in entirely different way. I cannot emphasize enough how much my world changed for the better by working side by side with people of different races. And the company next to ours, with barracks right next door, housed a platoon that was all women. At the time, we trained separately. By the time I got to Advanced Training, our platoon was mixed with men and women. This seemed normal to me at the time. They were soldiers, and I was a soldier. We were trying to be 31Romeos, which is to say that we were Signal Corp.

I have six years of experience in the military. I have served with people of all colors and genders. I am now an evangelical pastor. When I saw recently that women soldiers have now been given permission to serve on the front line of combat, a sense of dread swept over me. Not the dread of unqualified women serving in combat, but the dread of what my evangelical brethren would say about it. So I want to get my shots in here before the war starts in earnest. Evangelicals are going to protest this move, I am certain, and I believe that evangelicals are going to lose this fight. When we lose this fight, I want to lose it for the right reasons.

One of the protests about women in combat will revolve around their physical fitness for the job. Women, it will be argued, are generally physically weaker than men. This is true. Generally. But the fact is, some aren’t. The fastest kid in my second grade class was a girl named Destin. In second grade, it was embarrassing to “get beat by a girl.” So we raced over and over and over. She beat us every time. In my Advanced Training, a few women could outrun me in the two mile run. Not many could match me in push ups, but I was good at those at the time. Still, the women could easily pass any physical fitness test given to them.

Since my Army days, I have competed in many triathlons and two half-marathons; women have beaten me every time I have competed. Some of them could have outrun me if they ran backwards. In short, women are physically up the challenge. They are strong enough for the job, and pretending like no woman could carry an injured man off the field of battle is insulting as a soldier and as a woman, and it is patently untrue. Women match men in shooting, running, working as a team, and leading. Yes, in general, women are physically weaker, and in the outliers, men are going to be faster and stronger, as the Olympic Games demonstrate. But who would argue that a female gold medalist is not “physically strong enough” to be soldier? Surely no one.

The second protest is if women are mentally capable of handling the stress of battle. First, many men are not mentally capable of handling the stress of battle, so losing your mind while people are getting shot and blown up is not something that would only happen to women anyway. Some women won’t be able to handle the stress of battle, but some men cannot handle it either. This is not gender specific. But women are mentally tough. A single mom who handles the daily grind of a full-time job and raising two kids is tough, and most of the time, she is doing that because the dad bailed. He couldn’t take the heat, the responsibility, and so mom does it because she is a fantastic human being. Women can take the stress of battle. They have demonstrated their mental toughness on the job, in the home, and even in actual battle. This objection is an insult; it is untrue, and it does not honor women or the God who made them.

So if women are strong enough, mentally and physically to handle the front lines, what objection do evangelicals Christians have left? Created order? The natural order of things? The first is a religious argument, and it isn’t going to persuade Uncle Sam. We can, and should, argue that God made men as the provider and protector.

But Uncle Sam isn’t interested in our religious arguments, and he shouldn’t be. We are a pluralistic nation. Good arguments might deal with the reality of war—a major one being hygiene. For a fantastic account of why hygiene is true problem in a mixed platoon, read Ryan Smith: The Reality that Awaits Women in Combat. If we have another trench-style infantry war, even more hygiene related issues will appear. If men’s feet were rotting in the trenches and in the jungle due to being dug in for months without access to a proper bathroom, a woman’s monthly cycle is going to be a real problem for her. Is it insurmountable? Probably not. Logistics are also an issue. That is, what happens when a minority of women are mixed with a majority of men in a war time situation? CaPC’s Lauren Rambo has already outlined the very real problem of sexual assault in the military. Women on the front line will not only face danger from the enemy, but also from the men of her own unit. Even if she had a consensual relationship with a soldier, the morale implications and emotional issues involved would make things problematic. Again, these issues aren’t  insurmountable, but these are legitimate things to consider.

Though there are important arguments to be made about the difficulty of women serving with men on the front lines, I am not certain that any natural argument is going to bar them from service. If that is the case, then evangelicals will lose this policy argument. We ought to prepare for that. But when we lose, we do not want to lose as chauvinists; we want to lose the argument as ladies and gentlemen. Is chivalry dead? Perhaps not, but it is dying. Some of it needed to die. But Christian gentlemen, you ought to encourage your boys to respect women, to protect them, and to give their lives for their families if necessary.

In the end, the question is not if women are capable of killing the enemy as members of the infantry. At least, not for evangelicals. The question is if they should, and we ought to be honest that when we say no, we say it because of our faith and our understanding of Scripture, not mere biological differences between the sexes.

About Brad Williams

Brad is the pastor of a Baptist church in a small town in Alabama. Brad has a lovely wife, two children, two dogs, a cat, a turtle, and five bee hives. Besides the incredible fact that he managed to persuade his wife to marry him, he is proud that he served six years in the Army National Guard, managed to graduate college with an English Lit. degree, graduate seminary, and finish the original Bard's Tale as a youngster by making maps on graph paper.

  • http://byzantium.wordpress.com Kullervo

    I think that mixed-sex service, at least among enlisted personnel, severely degrades professionalism. I served in the infantry, and I never once saw a mixed-sex unit of any kind (MP, admin, supply, what have you) where the Joes (and Janes?) were not constantly flirting and playing grab-a**. I am sure that some individual female soldiers are capable of doing anything an individual male soldier can do, but battles are not fought by individual soldiers, so that’s not the question. The question is what effect will mixing sexes have on a unit’s readiness, efficiency and professionalism.

    When the military was integrated racially (and when DADT was lifted), that same concern was raised, but in both of those cases it was an unknown–people thought that having blacks and whites serve together would impair a unit’s readiness. And people thought wrong.

    But with women in combat, we can already look and see what the effect is on non-combat units, and we need to ask ourselves if it’s a good idea to introduce that to combat units, where a lot more is on the line. What do we gain by allowing women to serve in combat units, and at what price? That should always be the question we ask with any change.

  • Ethan

    Chivalry is dead. The last area it was relevant – men are the ones who do combat – was struck down. Nobody does chivalry any more. Everybody is for themselves these days. It’s probably better that way, but hey, for the past 1 million years I gotta say – it was a good run while it lasted.

  • http://goodokbad.com Seth T. Hahne

    Chivalry was the worst. It’s whole emphasis on adulterous, secret, and bizarre flirtations deserved a death centuries ago. Also, far from a million years old, chivalry originated and was popularized in the late eleventh century by French troubadours. Just sayin’.

  • Sven

    I appreciate your honesty. You’re right that the objection is religious and not biological, and you’re right that Uncle Sam will not and should not care for it.

  • Charles W. Baldwin

    “But Uncle Sam isn’t interested in our religious arguments, and he shouldn’t be.” I thoroughly agree with this. But, let’s hear from a female veteran:

    http://hotair.com/archives/2013/01/27/some-advice-on-women-in-combat-from-a-female-veteran/

  • http://www.linkedin.com/in/pgepps pgepps

    Seth, I don’t think you and I read the same works on chivalry, or the same critics of those works. Whatever the merits and demerits of the putative mores of the equestrian classes, and leaving open the as-yet insufficiently explored relationship of chivalric idealism to crucesignati and Reconquistadore idealism (it’s a pretty one-dimensional revision of “chivalry” to argue that because chivalry was not egalitarian it lacked moral idealism, or that because historic knights did many bad things no moral ideal set forth for them had authentic and actionable content), we can still talk about the justifiable notion that a husband should be held spiritually responsible to take self-sacrificing initiative within his family. Sending his wife off to war, or expecting her to be treated as “just one of the troops” rather than as someone he has an irreducible and non-transferrable responsibility for, would *not* be an example of said initiative.

    Having said which, I concur wholly with Brad’s rejection of the “women are weaker” argument in the sense usually offered. As he says, that *on average* men are physically stronger than women and that *at the extremes* men generally outperform women in strength and speed does not at all mean that *within the applicable frame* for an infantry squad, there will not be some significant number of women (like more than one I know) who can definitely perform well enough, and much better than many men (like me and more than a few others I know).

    I think there is one material respect in which it is arguably unwise for *our society* to be making this move *at this time*: the inevitability that the frame “fit for duty” will tend to be adjusted to use up the pool of *willing* and *marginally able* women recruits, rather than to maintain *optimal readiness*. That tendency is bad for the nation’s defense, and still more so for those soldiers who prove unready when the war proves to be less like an athletic event and more like–well, a war.

    May we never have a need to care.

  • http://goodokbad.com Seth T. Hahne

    pgepps, I was more referring to chivalry’s interaction with women via courtly love (and all the lameness that courtly love entails).

  • Amaryllis

    It’s true that sexual assault in the military is a real problem. But, well, if women never went anywhere where assault or harassment was a possibility, they’d never leave the house. Except, of course, that plenty of women have been raped in their own homes, and not necessarily by unknown intruders, so that doesn’t work either.

  • Craig

    Brad Williams, I take it that you are saying that, despite your own religious beliefs, the public policy probably should allow qualified women to take combat roles–because, in our pluralistic democracy, it would be illegitimate to coercively limit this freedom of others when the only justification for doing so would be a religious one (the non-sectarian concerns about hygiene and sex crimes are, as you concede, surmountable). In other words, you reasonably concede that public policy sometimes should depart from one’s personal religious ideals for what such policies might otherwise be.

    Is this a fair interpretation of your position?

  • Brad Williams

    Craig,

    That’s fair, and I would hope that it should be obvious. At least, that policy and one’s religious beliefs cannot always live peacefully. Of course, you still have a voice and a vote, so there’s that. It isn’t easy to always keep those things in balance.

    I might add that the more I research this, it seems like a bad idea for sectarian reasons. Israel’s mixed units apparently suffered three times the casualty rates as other similar non-mixed units, and physical disparities might be worse than I reckoned.

  • Craig

    Brad, suppose that, on a policy issue affecting the important freedoms of your fellow citizens, your sectarian, religious reasons yield a conclusion that conflicts with what can be justified on non-sectarian grounds. You apparently know what the policy should be–it should be a policy that is at variance with what would be the ideal from your own sectarian viewpoint. Shouldn’t you then vote according to what you know the policy should be? Don’t you violate an important norm of civic decency when you do otherwise?

    However obvious this may be, my own experience tells me that evangelicals usually don’t get it. They all-too-often simply vote according to their own religious ideas with little, in any, consideration of whether the policies for which they vote can be justified on non-sectarian grounds.

  • Brad Williams

    Craig,

    People are not mandated to vote on non-sectarian grounds. That’s the caveat. I think that if they are going to win the day, however, they simply have to do more than give religious arguments for their position. If not, they have to be prepared to lose graciously, and they ought to be as clear as they can be for their dissenting opinion.

  • Craig

    Brad, what do you mean by “not mandated”? Do you not acknowledge that there’s a very strong reason of civility to voluntarily limit one’s own deployment of political power so as not to coercively restrict the basic liberties of others in ways that cannot be justified on grounds which they can reasonably expected to accept? This reason of civility is precisely what, in my experience, evangelicals so often fail to acknowledge. This reason–mind you–is not about “winning the day.” It is not a reason of political strategy.

  • Brad Williams

    Craig,

    I completely agree that this is not a matter of political strategy or about winning the day. That’s the point of this post, after all.

    I understand that their is a difference between what is permitted and what “should be.” But civility does not mean that you ought to vote for things, or push for things, that one finds “uncivil.” It is, in my opinion and the opinion of others, uncivilized to put women into the forefront of battle, just as it is uncivil for men to fight for life boats on a sinking ship ahead of women and children. But if the culture is so keen on freedom trumping all other considerations, then we simply cannot rely on such traditionally “civil’ reasons for putting women in harms way.

    So really, what we are talking about is how one decides what is “civil”? Isn’t that what this debate is all about? Christians are informed by the Scripture, and even then it is difficult to parse out what is important enough to vote for and against, or rather, what society should allow verses what is “right”.

    My point is that even if women were exactly like men physically, mentally, and in all other aspects, then women should still not fight in front line combat. The question then becomes whether or not I would, as a voter/solider/whatever, be comfortable allowing it anyway.

    Here’s the problem I think we are having in this discussion, really. It is the implication that not allowing women in front lines combat is somehow “less than civil”. To me, and many others, it is a hallmark of civility for men to protect women. I think it is abundantly evident that this is the case. So to say that we are somehow being less than civil by protesting others who would thrust them further into harms way is a bit annoying.

  • Craig

    But civility does not mean that you ought to vote for things, or push for things, that one finds “uncivil.”

    Of course, but perhaps there’s a typo.

    We can debate about what the word “civility” means, or what is or is not “incivil”, but this would be highly tangential and counterproductive. I specified a particular reason and I called it a reason “of civility” only for two reason: 1. to distinguish it from reasons of strategy, and from distinctively sectarian reasons; and 2. to follow standard usage in academic literature on this topic. What’s important is not the term, but the precise reason that I specified. Here it is again, stated without the word “civil”:

    Do you not acknowledge that there’s a very strong reason…to voluntarily limit one’s own deployment of political power so as not to coercively restrict the basic liberties of others in ways that cannot be justified on grounds which they can reasonably expected to accept?

  • Jamie

    I have a couple more objections, as 24 year old female evangelical Christian.

    I agree that menstrual cycles present a problem, but it’s more than just with hygiene. Menstruating increases the risk of anemia, which coupled with poor nutrition (which is very possible in combat zones) and intense exercise, could be a serious problem.

    Sexual abuse is also a huge issue, especially considering how much it could amplify the already existing psychological trauma from war. It’s also made much easier by women’s overall physical weakness compared to men and by their having increased physical stresses (like anemia).

    I also see long-term consequences to this ban being undone. The next step is to include women in drafts, which leads the way for not allowing women in the military to get pregnant. It’ll limit families’ ability to choose when to have children and to choose to have the mother stay home to take care of the children.

  • Jamie

    One more objection –

    Where godly men are, there will be chivalry. There will be men in mixed units who are distracted from their primary goals during combat because they have a stronger urge to protect the women in their units.


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