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.