The Globe and Mail published an article today by Margaret Wente titled Women In Combat: Let’s Get Real.
While I don’t have the time or resources presently to do a fact-by-fact check on her account of women in the military, I think there are some glaring errors in her reasoning that need to be pointed out.
The main argument that Wente makes against allowing women to serve in combat positions is that women are, on average, weaker. She writes:
Men are better fighters because they are bigger and stronger and can endure far more physical punishment before they break down.
The average female soldier is “about five inches shorter than the male soldier, has half the upper body strength, lower aerobic capacity and 37 per cent less muscle mass,” Stephanie Gutmann, author of The Kinder, Gentler Military, wrote in the New Republic. “She cannot pee standing up … “
Even accepting Wente’s one-source argument at face value, this is no reason to ban women from combat. Just because women are on average weaker than men does not mean that every woman is weaker than the weakest men allowed to take on combat roles, the standard you would need to prove to justify full exclusion. An obvious point, but one that needs to be made.
A blanket ban cannot be predicated upon an ”average weakness” for two reasons. First, it’s inefficient and harms the military. Soldiers are already selected for these roles an individual basis after thorough strength and stamina testing. If you allow everyone to apply but keep the admission standards the same for men and women, you wind up with the strongest candidates at the end.
Second, a blanket ban based on average makes no sense in any other context because it’s inherently discriminatory. If, for instance, men consistently averaged higher GRE Quantitative scores than women, would she ban women from engineering programs? If men, on average, wrote significantly better columns on military issues, would she be comfortable excluding women from the application process?
This concern about discrimination is amplified by the fact that in the US military, it’s almost impossible to reach the highest positions without experience in combat units. An exclusion at this level has broad repercussions for women across the military.
Here’s another problematic argument in this article:
In the real world, few enlisted women want to be on the front lines.
I do resent this kind of generalization without any attempt to source it or consult with a female soldier. But again, even if this were the case, it wouldn’t call for a ban on applicants, and I think this only weakens her case about women’s presence compromising military efficacy. If demand is so low, what’s the impact?
This article in Slate casts further doubt on her claims.
Her third argument is that women’s presence could distract men, so we should exclude women! (Sadly, an all-too-familiar argument these days.) She writes:
Men serving next to women also exhibit a counterproductive battlefield trait: protectiveness. They want to carry women’s gear and keep them out of harm’s way. As one male soldier told the Journal, “That brother-sister protective thought was always in the back of your mind.”
If this is true (which is questionable given military training procedures), then maybe we should train male soldiers not to do this. Do we really want to exclude women because men patronize them?
But wait, Wente has a response to this:
Outside the developed world, [Riva’s note: Always a good place to start looking for tips on gender policy] women do not take equal roles in war alongside men. There is a reason for this.
In countries like France, Germany, Finland, Denmark, the Netherlands, Norway, Sweden, Australia, New Zealand, Israel and Canada, women do take on these roles. These may be good places to start looking for data on the impact of women in combat before writing another column.