Gender and Warfare: Foregrounding Politics

Jason Fritz and others have written the definitive blogs about the practical issues of women in combat roles. However, they look primarily at practical concerns–(as they should since it’s mainly a practical issue)–and the root of the debate is really in hidden emotional and philosophical assumptions. Check out this graf from Greg Sheridan’s recent column on Australian women in combat, which I have excerpted at length. While I believe he is completely wrong, he reflects a viewpoint about women and national security is that paradoxically shared by both the right and the left:

Here we come to one of the most bitter arguments postmodern orthodoxy has with human nature: its idea that there is absolutely no spiritual or moral difference between men and women. …This decision represents a further attack on every notion of chivalry. Domestic violence, in Australia as in all other societies, is overwhelmingly carried out by men against women. This is for two reasons. Men are bigger than women and they are much more aggressive.

One of the ways of civilising humanity is by teaching men to control their aggression. Good soldiers are typically very good at controlling their aggression. Part of the training of civilisation is the understanding by men that they owe special obligations of courtesy and protection towards women. Even to utter such a sentence these days is to invite derision and contumely. But is there a single decent husband who does not feel this way towards his wife and his daughters? If your family is assaulted will you send your wife out first to meet the assailants?

Sheridan is making an argument that is categorical rather than technocratic. The specific paragraph comes after Sheridan states that the role of infantry and special operations is to ruthlessly hunt down and kill the enemies of the state, something that he rightly notes that a squeamish media does not really acknowledge. Boiled down to its essence, Sheridan’s point about essential differences argues that women should not ever be placed in a position in which they will use deadly force as a matter of routine, and that to do so is to risk overturning a basic natural law.

I will demonstrate later why this argument is wrong, but I would also like to observe that Sheridan’s point is unintentionally echoed by well-meaning activists who argue that adding female voices into the national security debate will make national security policy more compassionate and less focused towards military topics.

This column touting that women will lead to a more enlightened national security policy is a good example of a viewpoint that unintentionally reflects Sheridan’s paternalistic rhetoric:

Why haven’t we stopped to ask: What would enlightened national and even global security actually look like? Our current administration hasn’t entertained these questions seriously—at least not in a way that has translated into the sweeping policy changes we so desperately need. (Somehow taking my sneakers off at airport security and being harassed about my shampoo hasn’t made me feel safe.) For all of Bush’s good Christian posturing, he has shown little compassion toward the meek in the most dangerous parts of the world. In fact, we’ve alienated some of the most vulnerable with our lingering, messy war—killing, by many estimates, over 100,000 innocents and rightfully enraging others. There’s plenty of bad news here.

The good news is that there are groups of forward-thinking politicians and diplomats that have been on the job, notably the International Women Leaders Global Security Summit. The summit, which was kicked off with a conference last November and will continue through June, is designed to shift the paradigm on the global security conversation.

The writer goes on to note that adding women to the conversation will foreground topics such as climate change, the responsibility to protect, poverty, and human security. But this assumes that women are mainly “value-added” in these subjects and can and should specialize in them. Really?

I’m in a blogsophere where women write about the theory and practice of special operations strategy and cluster bombs. And I read plenty of men who write about nothing but development and aid. Such nuances do not fit with the general thrust of the linked column. The idea that adding soft-security oriented female scholars to the national security mix will make a compassionless (read: male) national security policy more enlightened (read: female) says something paternalistic about gender roles and national security that is just as wrong as Sheridan’s op-ed.

The embedded assumption in both op-eds I’ve linked is that women should specialize in soft security, which is alternatively good or bad but always essentially female, and men are either righteously (in Sheridan’s opinion) or wrongly (in the linked American Prospect article) the ones who handle the guns and the tanks. The major difference is that Sheridan states his point more starkly–and the basic essentialist point both express is that women are more compassionate than men and this compassion is diametrically opposite to male violence. They’re both wrong.

On the individual level, killing is not gender-neutral. Human beings kill for a variety of reasons and often simply because they can. One major reason, as history has shown, is politics. A major constant of history is that human beings are willing to kill and die for politics–which I refer to not just in the meaning of ideology but broadly power over people. Politics, as Clausewitz tells us, is the reason why wars happen. And the distribution of power most of the time has important consequences.

The classic example from the Bible is Judith, who seduces and kills an enemy general to protect the Jewish people from the Assyrians (a biblical “lessons learned” that was not lost on the Mossad). The politics of basic survival demanded that she do so, and she slew the Assyrian commander–saving the men and women of her town from slavery and death. Politics–the politics of the survival of the West–demanded that Europe be wrested back from Nazi control, and the women of the Special Operations Executive killed and died in large numbers against overwhelming odds to accomplish that mission.

There are countless other examples in military and intelligence history of women who fight, die, and kill for politics. This doesn’t make them bad or somehow less enlightened. It makes them human. The sooner we can acknowledge that to fight is to be human is the sooner we can do away with our self-induced confusion about war and gender roles. It is likely that, if not for social taboos against female participation in war, it would be a good deal more common throughout military history.

That, in the end, is why female participation in military operations will be a big deal in terms of social progress but will not change either the logic or conduct of warfare. While biology is important, politics ultimately trumps it and will continue to trump it as long as human beings live in political communities. People fight because they make a choice to do so, knowing that they may die and will likely take human life in the process. Gender roles are essentially historical and will shift with the times, but war is unfortunately eternal.


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