Women and Combat

by Michael Nagler, originally posted on Feb. 4, in Tikkun Daily.

Alongside horrifying pictures from the New York Times showing very young boys being trained to fire assault rifles (“Selling a New Generation on Guns”) comes the news, welcome in some quarters, that Defense Secretary Leon Panetta has ordered the military to admit women to full combat roles. I believe that this is not the way to equality.

Some years ago the philosopher Mary Midgley, unconsciously echoing a position Gandhi had articulated decades before, wrote that life “is the whole of which we are parts, and its other parts concern us for that reason. But the language of rights is rather ill-suited for expressing this.”

Over and over again, liberal-minded people have, I believe, been fooled by arguments about “rights” and equality into accepting things that will compromise both. Case in point: cigarette smoking was originally considered inappropriate for women, but in 1929, Edward Bernays, the “father of public relations” (aka advertising and propaganda—Goebbels imitated his work zealously) staged a public relations event in which women at a New York parade lit up their “torches of freedom” and made it just as OK for women to smoke. Yes, we’ve come a long way—but not always in the right direction.

When groups differ we should judge whether the difference is a kind of diversity and cherish it as such, or, if it’s a real disparity we can try to help the worse-off party move “up,” leaving us all better off. But with smoking, and now with militarism, we did the reverse and we will all suffer to that extent. Ironically, given the often-noted connection between violence and the oppression of women, to the extent that we have just added legitimacy to militarism we added to that oppression—in the name of equality. This is what happens when, in our zeal to benefit a given group, we sacrifice the well-being of humanity as a whole—in which that group is of course included.

We could so easily have gone the other way. For whatever reason, women have been by long tradition more associated with the power that comes from compassion than the power that comes from threat and violence; as Mme. Jehan Sadat, the first lady of a happier Egypt, said in 1978, “Women are war’s natural enemies.” Whether that difference came from nature or nurture (I happen to think it was both, but that’s beside the point of this argument), it was an opportunity to decrease, rather than increase the frightening militarization of our culture.

Famous women like Bertha von Suttner, Maria Montessori, Dorothy Day, Aung San Suu Kyi, Leemah Gbowee, and many more women unknown to history—the women who defied the Gestapo and saved their Jewish husbands at Rosenstraße, the Women of Soldiers who boldly took their sons right out of Russian military camps more recently—have shown what power women in particular can mobilize in the cause of life. It is not that this capacity is absent in men—why else would thousands of our combat troops be committing suicide today as the wrongness of our destructive wars comes home to them. But if we were to mine the inspiring examples of these women, tell their stories, celebrate their courage the way we do that of military personnel, and imitate them—finally, if we were to institutionalizethe nonviolence they exhibit the way we have institutionalized violence, we’d be heading in a direction that would uplift humanity.

Recently a female Marine officer who served in Iraq and Afghanistan (and wrecked her body in the process) observed that “there are female servicemembers who have proven themselves to be physically, mentally, and morally capable of leading and executing combat-type operations.” I’m sorry, what does it mean to be morally capable of killing your fellow human beings in a manifestly unjust war?

In 1909, writing his famous tract Hind Swaraj, or Indian Home Rule, Gandhi found himself confronting a call to violence by some of his more hot-headed countrymen. If you throw off the British yoke by violence, he argued, you will have thrown off the essential character of India to do so. You will only create “Englistan” on Indian soil. I’m afraid we have done something very similar by giving women the “right” to kill directly in combat.

Women and children are terribly often the victims of modern conflict. Do we really think it will help to make them perpetrators?