On the left, there was a sigh of relief. Why, it was wondered, shouldn’t women be allowed to function in any job that men could? The military was no exception. Women too were able to shoot a gun or drive a tank; there was no reason to treat them as if they could not.
On the libertarian right, there was likewise pleasure. These folks believe that everyone should be treated the same way irrespective of gender. Since the identical rules are supposed to apply to all, consistency demanded that this be the case within the military too.
As to moderates, some of them were not sure that all women had the capacity perform every military task, but if the army was careful and allowed only those women who were qualified for combat to participate in it, they were OK with it.
The feminists, of course, were overjoyed. They insisted that physical strength was no longer needed in combat thanks to modern weaponry. Power steering and push-bottom missiles made it possible for women to do what only men had once done. So let them!
To be sure, some military men argued that upper-body strength retains its importance out in the field. Others, however, maintained that since women are already being exposed to enemy action, it is reasonable to make their new roles official.
So what are we to make of this? Are women just as capable as men when it comes to war? Let us begin with upper body strength. Historically soldiers had to carry about 60 pounds of equipment into combat. This was why when I was in the military so much training went into physical conditioning. To this day, I remember all those push-ups.
But can’t women do push-ups? The answer is that many can. Some women are as strong as men. Nevertheless, most are not. The solution, say some, is to make sure the standards demanded of males and females are the same. The trouble is that the contemporary Army has lowered them so women can meet them.
What then of the other disparities between the genders? For years, feminists tried to prove there were none. Yet there are, in fact, average differences in levels of aggressiveness. Still, does aggressiveness matter in modern combat? No one is talking about that at the moment.
But there is a far larger issue. Allowing women in combat is being treated as a matter of individual rights. Military operations, however, are a team activity. They depend on groups of individuals coordinating their actions so that they can defeat other groups of individuals.
This means that group cohesion is essential during warfare. When morale is low; when there are frictions between fighters, there is a danger that solders will work at cross-purposes. Worse still, if they lose their élan, they may break and run in the face of the enemy.
Will women on the front lines cause men to loose their sense of comradeship? This is no idle question. One of the problems encountered in Vietnam was that men were rotated as individuals, rather than as units, and hence they lost the required cohesion. Are we now asking for a replay of this tragedy?
The United States has not felt in mortal danger since World War II. People therefore feel safe using the military for social experiments. But the military exists to protect us from external threats. It was never designed to be a laboratory for social justice.
Will we one day wake up to find that our lack of concern for sustaining a vigorous military has made us vulnerable to a less finicky opponent? Few people are even conjuring with this question; never mind answering it honestly.
Melvyn L. Fein, Ph.D., is a professor of Sociology at Kennesaw State University.