The Pentagon's decision to end its ban on women in combat is a triumph for equality and common sense. By opening infantry, artillery and other battlefield jobs to all qualified service members regardless of sex, the military is showing that categorical discrimination has no place in a society that honors fairness and equal opportunity.
It is typical of the Times specifically and liberal opinion in general that it leads with the political angle and adjusts any strategic questions accordingly. The Times views the military as one more goody to be distributed and is not much interested in the question of whether putting women in combat roles will actually make the armed forces weaker or stronger.
As it happens, I delivered a paper this summer on this very topic. I began with a general analysis of military virtue. Here is a bit of my paper.
Courage, understood both as steadfastness in defense in the face of great peril and a readiness to exploit opportunities by going on the offensive, is for good reason recognized as the key military virtue. This implies, of course, that one can recognize when it is the right time to retreat, or make a stand, or attack; accordingly, prudence is a military virtue in generals and, to a lesser degree, in all military officers. Prudence is not obviously a virtue of the soldier in the line, as the integrity of the army requires that the soldiers act as units in a larger whole rather than as individuals. Thus moderation and justice, as Plato's Socrates understood them, may be seen as key military virtues. Moderation exists where authority is obeyed. Justice exists when each part of the whole does its own specific work.
That, it seems to me, is how to begin thinking about the question. What capacities do we need in our persons at arms? The above focuses on psychological virtues but there are also physical virtues to consider, reading virtue here in the larger Greek sense.
In human populations, as in other species of apes and a wide range of other mammals, males are larger and stronger than females. Males have an advantage in stamina and are more resistant to injury. The explanation for this is uncontroversial among theorists who rely on Darwinian mechanics. For human males as for chimpanzees, the frequency of successful mating is generally proportional to reproductive success. The more females to which a male gains access, the more offspring he is likely to sire. The reverse is not true for females. As a result, males directly compete with one another for mates and the competition is often violent. Certain elements of physique that enhance military virtue are thus selected for over very long periods of time.
It seems clear that women on average will be less fit than men for the physical rigors of combat. However, less fit doesn't mean unfit. Modern weapons do not, for the most part, depend on upper body strength as previous military technologies did. Whether women in general are capable of the demands of combat service can only be determined by testing them.
Unfortunately, testing requires honesty and here I see a problem. Commentators on Fox News took the President at his word. Let women compete in military training and let those who demonstrate fitness serve accordingly. That strikes me as the obviously sensible approach. It is not the approach we will take.
The question of rights and equality will trump any concern for military effectiveness. If too many women fail to meet reasonable standards for combat fitness, then the standards will be lowered. This is what has always happened in the past and it will not change. Women are going to be integrated into combat units in numbers that please the President and Congress, regardless of who demonstrates fitness for what.
Plato's Socrates was in favor of military training for women and so am I. I think that any woman willing and able to serve in combat should be allowed to do so. I think, however, that women should be held to the same standards as men. I think there is very little chance that that will happen so long as we put rights talk above a concern for an effective military.