Amazons in Love and War

There are Catholics – men and women (but mostly, I suspect, men) – who take literally Paul’s position in Ephesians 5:22: “Wives should be subordinate to their husbands as to the Lord.” I suspect some of these men will also cite the treatment of women in Islam under the strictest applications of sharia as examples of the inferiority of the Muslim versus Christian understanding of the relationship of the sexes.

This is not to say that many men now (or ever) adhered to the formulation of the so-called “horse-and-buggy” doctor of Kansas, Arthur E. Hertzler (1870-1946), who invented the dubious proposition: “The only way to keep a woman happy is to keep her barefoot and pregnant.”

For most of us it would be enough in the 21st century if folks would simply value women as women themselves wish to be valued: some as stay-at-home mothers of many kids, as working single moms of a single child, or as unmarried career women. That’s not exactly a manifesto for sexual equality, but it’ll do.

At this point in time (as for all time before), only a woman can conceive and give birth to a child, and that difference is an essential one. God alone knows what the future holds in this regard, but for now the biological roles of men and women in reproduction remain distinct.

In the past when we were wont to evoke “the weaker sex,” it was not so much a statement of any psychological, moral, or even physical superiority of men as it was an awareness of a woman’s potential vulnerability. To be sure, most men are physically stronger than most women, but the real separation between the sexes is most clear when a woman is pregnant. Then she is most in need of her husband’s protection.

I offer all this as prelude to some observations about the announcement last December by the Secretary of Defense, Ashton Carter, of the full integration of women into elite combat units of America’s armed forces.

Women currently constitute just over 15% of the Armed Forces; their numbers are highest in the Air Force (19%) and Navy (18%), lowest in the Army (14%) and Marines (8%). Women are represented at even higher numbers overall in the services’ officer corps: nearly 17% of Lieutenants, Ensigns, and above are female.

Joan of Arc by John Everett Millais, 1865
Joan of Arc by John Everett Millais, 1865

There is no doubt whatsoever that there are women capable of becoming – just to pick the most elite of the elite – a Navy SEAL. That doesn’t mean we should expect to see a woman become a SEAL anytime soon, because the historical rate of failure in Basic Underwater Demolition/SEAL (BUD/S) training among men is about 80 percent.

But given the sort of physical training many women do these days (consider the top female competitors in CrossFit, who combine strength and endurance training at world-class levels) there are surely a few good women who could endure the mind-and-body-blowing 24-week BUD/S program. Ditto the Army and Marine infantry.

But would these women warriors be welcomed by their brothers-in-arms? I posed that question to two recent veterans, one a soldier, the other a Marine. Both men, former combat officers, were more sanguine than I’d have expected. The soldier, younger than the Marine, was rather more optimistic.

To him (hereafter I’ll call him “Soldier” and his USMC counterpart “Marine”), my expressed concern about sexual tension in the close quarters of combat is overblown. Combat is actually not conducive to romance. And were some romantic situation to arise, Soldier believes managing it – even suppressing it – is a leadership issue.

Marine, who is a few years older, agreed – but only up to a point. He does not doubt the capability of women to fight, but he is less certain that even the best officers will always be able to effectively handle the added problem of men and women being . . . men and women. And he notes that Secretary Carter’s decision was made even though the Marine Corps’ own study indicated that sexually integrated units are less effective that all-male units.

But both Soldier and Marine were adamant about one thing: combat-readiness standards must not be lowered to accommodate women. Soldier told me:

I refuse to speculate as to whether or not the women who [recently] earned their [Ranger] tabs were given special treatment. If the Ranger Instructors allowed them to graduate, then they passed, and that’s really all that matters. That they even attempted the school is more than can be said for the majority of men in the Army. In any case, Ranger School is a leadership course above all and, although it is undoubtedly physically taxing, it is more about mental toughness and endurance than anything else. It’s obtuse to argue that women are wanting in those areas.

Marine is, again, largely in agreement, but worries that standards will be lowered and that, in any case, there is a testosterone-based hierarchy in elite units that may isolate female members. God help the woman who is the “weak link” in her unit. And Marine is especially concerned about the motivation behind sexual integration, which has little to do with either readiness or effectiveness:

The current focus of the White House is to enforce progressive thinking.  The military has long been a place to enact social change, because [Service people] have to follow the rules (unlike in the private sector). But the military is fundamentally about putting our best people together to protect our country and ultimately kill our enemies. This should be the focus and the only focus.

It remains to be seen whether or not this socio-political motivation will well serve the men and women who hereafter will be on the front lines together. But see we will. When our modern-day Amazons lay dying on far-flung battlefields, we’ll see.

Brad Miner is the Senior Editor of The Catholic Thing and a Senior Fellow of the Faith & Reason Institute. He is a former Literary Editor of National Review. His most recent book, Sons of St. Patrick, written with George J. Marlin, is now on sale. His The Compleat Gentleman is now available in a third, revised edition from Regnery Gateway and is also available in an Audible audio edition (read by Bob Souer). Mr. Miner has served as a board member of Aid to the Church In Need USA and also on the Selective Service System draft board in Westchester County, NY.