Why Not an All-Female Army?

As noted by Chris Hayes, “the newscycle after the best economic news in years has been dominated by all culture war all the time,” so now the subject is Rick Santorum’s objection to women in combat, and his subsequent clarification that he wasn’t saying women are too emotional for combat but actually that men should be protected from their natural manly urge to protect women, which would totally mess with them when they were in combat.[1] Perhaps he’s never seen Starship Troopers, which as far as I’m concerned is empirical proof that a badass military machine can function just fine with intermingling man and lady parts. Besides, even in the clarified, ‘less crazy’ version of his argument, Santorum’s still saying that women represent an aberration from the male normal and should therefore be subject to different rules of citizenship—whether that’s viewed as a special protection or a restriction. If it were really only that mixed-gender combat units would face difficulties handling their conflicted emotions around each other, and not that women should have a different kind of citizenship than men, then why wouldn’t the next step of the argument be for the creation of female-only combat units?

Naturally, the objection to female-only combat units would probably be that women are not as good at war. This might take the form of essentialist ideas about the proper roles of each gender, or it might be a more ostensibly rational argument that war requires testosterone because it’s a physical activity requiring strength and aggression and the presence of testosterone in males facilitates that behavior. But how accurate, or more importantly, how beneficial is that perception of war? It’s easy to reduce our understanding of war to the basic idea of a contest where the winners live and the losers surrender or die, but isn’t this at least partly because we’re exposed all the time to hyper-masculinized fantasies of war in movies and books and video games that depict war as a never-ending thrill ride of strategy and danger? But that’s nothing but an idealization of war. Here we might remember the old Onion joke about ultra-realistic Modern Warfare 3 featuring “the endless paperwork, [and] routine patrolling a modern day soldier endures” in the field. Or, beyond that, we might remember that, ultimately, the point of war is not actually to kill as many people as possible, or to overpower the enemy with our ferocious manliness—war is what the State does when it believes the best way to achieve certain of its objectives is to force another State (or, if not always another State, another organization of some kind) to give in to its demands. Force is part of this, but even in the case of force, creating the perception of superior power so the other side surrenders is often much more useful than actually killing people, and we probably mostly accomplish this with technology rather than standing on the smoke-filled battlefield and flexing our manly muscles. In fact, I wonder if the masculine fantasy about war actually causes more problems, if it might not sometimes be easier to see the way toward accomplishing the objectives of war if ideas about how to accomplish them weren’t tainted by masculinist desires that our soldiers prove their mettle. Maybe what Santorum’s really trying to defend is precisely the ability to maintain that fantasy. And in that case, maybe the best argument for integrating women into combat units is that our gender stereotypes would make it more difficult maintain the fantasized masculine justification of war. Or, to take it a step further, what would our understanding of an all-female army look like? Would we fantasize about female combat units or even an all-female army differently?


[1] It seems to have gone unremarked so far that his belief that men should be protected from their emotions about women is just another form of the old chauvinist claim that women should dress modestly so men don’t have to be subject to the natural stirring of their base self, or something.

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One Response to Why Not an All-Female Army?

  1. djschwei says:

    This makes me think, in some broad way, of how communication functions at a national level: I think that people don’t make the connection you point out in the fn because many of the people who would take seriously his ideas wouldn’t fundamentally disagree with such a note.
    Consciously not choosing to follow the rhetorical commonplace of “how come we don’t get along anymore?!?”, though, I’m left with the idea of a national discourse of war, in a weird way. I don’t have it with me, but it seems to me that this is either something in The New American Exceptionalism or should be: protecting our virgin lands from those who would ravage it by exerting a masculine drive to war elsewhere. I think you’re absolutely right in considering that the perception of war as a regenerative/ennobling/masculinist activity, and I would take it further and say that it not only creates an unhealthy attitude toward it in the sense of needing to, ah, kick ass to assert whatever it is we think we’re asserting but also allows us to disavow U.S. military interventionism as not being a “real war.” I’m thinking here not only of classical examples – the U.S. has never lost a war because Vietnam was a police action and Korea was… I actually forget the euphemism – but how we think of U.S. military action as centered on Afghanistan and Iraq. Granted that those are where we have the most active duty (hugely), but it also allows us to consider foreign policy as something separate from our military when it comes to Central and South America.

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