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Women in Combat, Men in Society

In the movie “I, Robot”, there is a scene in which Will Smith’s character is explaining what his beef is with robots.  Apparently, he was in a car accident that sent him and another vehicle, this one containing an eleven year old girl, careening into deep water.  A robot comes to their rescue;  seeing that it can’t save both, it makes a calculation about the relative value/worth/rescuability etc of the two individuals, and chooses to save the Will Smith character, who says, with bitterness, something to the effect, “It was the wrong choice.  A human would have known that.”  (If anyone can find a clip of this online, I’ll post it).

I was thinking of this scene when I heard that the Obama administration was going to allow women in combat.

Now, I suppose that there are many women who think that this is a fine thing.  A real advance for their gender, and so on and so forth.  I haven’t checked the blogosphere, but I don’t doubt it.  I think there are some who think its great but will choose not to avail themselves of the ‘opportunity.’  I think there are some women who think it is a bad idea, for reasons similar to the ones I’m about to mention.

You know, on the one hand, I kind of like the idea of having American women in the military and being allowed access to the full spectrum of military activities.  I think of the Amazon warriors, and I think to myself that it just makes sense that American women should be kick-ass.  In fact, many of the women in my Birth Pangs series are kick-ass.  (This is not gratuitous language;  this is probably the most accurate description of them.)  It is not so much what this decision says about women that has me thinking but what it says about men, and what their orientation towards women will be from it.

I was in Washington DC for the pro-life March and ran my concerns by a Marine I was visiting with.  I put before him this scenario:

Let’s say that a particular skirmish required sending soldiers into grave danger.  This seems to be a likely kind of thing to happen on a regular basis.  Would it matter, I wondered, to the officers, if the soldiers being sent possibly to their deaths were women, rather than men?

The Marine thought for a moment, and thought that probably the officer could overcome the (natural?) inclination to not want to send women to their likely death.

I think he is probably right, but I find that to be more unsettling than comforting.


Or consider another scenario:  Let’s say that by some stroke of misfortune there were two groups of soldiers suddenly thrust into deadly peril.  One group was composed of male soldiers and the other composed of female soldiers.  In the judgment of the soldiers coming to their rescue, only one group could be saved.    On the egalitarian basis that is driving this issue, I suppose that there would be no way to choose between the two groups.  My feeling is that if the male soldiers were saved, though, they would feel as the Will Smith character did, “It was the wrong choice.  A human would have known that.”

Ironically, this move which ostensibly elevates the status of women seems to me to potentially diminish the humanity of men and women alike.

The scenario I just described made me think of the Titanic, and the traditional virtue of “women and children first.”  On the modern, egalitarian basis, what grounds could there be for such a virtue?   Why should the life of a woman be considered of more value than a man’s?  And why choose the child over the adult?  Society has invested far more in the adult and would lose that investment it the adult died.  On the view that men and women are essentially interchangeable, surely whether or not we save one and not the other must be decided on other grounds, such as (and here I only produce examples proffered by people such as Ezekiel Emanuel and Cass Sunstein) their continued utility for society, how much society has invested in them to that point, how many quality adjusted life years they have left, and perhaps if their burden on society outweighs their productivity.  I’m just spit-balling here.  I’m sure that the real experts on measuring the relative worth of individual humans will be able to come up with some more refined policies.

And yet, I have the feeling that no matter how rationally such policies are applied, it will leave both men and women grappling with a hard to define, but definitely real, emptiness.  It will gnaw at their souls and breed discontent.   It is not that the woman’s life is of a higher value than the man’s, and that’s not what the man is thinking when he chooses to remain aboard the sinking ship so that the ‘women and children’ can go to safety.   It is in his nature to wish that if death comes upon him–as it inevitably will–at least it will be in the cause of saving some other person.  It may very well be that he might be able to blot out from his consideration the gender of the person he wishes to save, or die trying to save, but I strongly suspect that if he chooses the man, and not the woman, he will not be happy with himself.  And I think most men, if they are the one saved, while a woman or child was allowed to die, would be pissed.  Again, I’m not being gratuitous.  I think this accurately conveys how most men would feel.

I don’t think that the women being saved, while men die instead, feel that their lives are of a higher value, either.  It is evidently a distinct part of a woman’s human nature to resonate with being treated with dignity and respect–that is, like a lady.  If someone dies for them, it affirms that they are indeed precious, more precious than the most costly jewel.  I think I’ve only run across one or two that objected to me holding the door open for them.  I suspect that they might be able to rationally process the fact that their lives were of the same kind of value as a man’s, and so, when that man’s life was saved, and theirs forfeited, it made perfect, logical sense.  But I think they, too, would feel that in actuality, some kind of affront to reality as it really is, had been accosted.  And I doubt very much that if they chose a man or another woman to live, and allowed a child to die to save that man or woman, they would sleep very well at night.

Allowing women in combat seems to me like it could be a pyrrhic victory.  In seeking to elevate women to the status of men, it threatens to deprive both men and women of unique aspects of their humanity.   In seeking to elevate women, in this case I have the strong suspicion it will actually lower them, and with them, men.  It seems to me more of a victory for the bean counters, who would just love to pretend that men, women, and children, old and young, healthy and disabled, can be reduced to non-human factors such as their future utility and overall burden on society.

And that does not seem to me to be any kind of victory at all.   There is such a thing as getting exactly what you ask for, and not liking it very much once you have it.




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    • Timaahy on January 31, 2013 at 5:43 pm

    Interesting post. Just a couple of thoughts…

    You haven’t really touched on why a marine (or any man, for that matter) might feel squeamish about sending a woman to her likely death. How much of it is due to an honest appraisal of her probability of success, and how much is due to an ingrained stereotype of the delicacy of females? That is, how much of his squeamishness is actually legitimate, and how much has been learned?

    We touched on this briefly a while ago, on that discussion about the “genderless baby”.

    Re: the Titanic, it’s also interesting to note that it wasn’t just “women and children first”, it was “rich white women and children first”. Were those two adjectives also relevant in the life-saving hierarchy?

    Have you seen Starship Troopers? 🙂

    • End Bringer on January 31, 2013 at 8:52 pm

    “We touched on this briefly a while ago, on that discussion about the “genderless baby”.”

    As I recall most of your argument consisted to the effect of ‘I’ll just let psychiatrists tell me what to think like a good koolaide drinker *because I apparently can’t tell the difference between those born with dangling genitalia and those without myself.’

    “Were those two adjectives also relevant in the life-saving hierarchy?”

    And what? You’d let them drown if they were white and rich then?

    “Have you seen Starship Troopers?”

    Have you read the book? Interestingly it was one of the first works that helped inspire the whole ‘exosuits’ and such you see in later Scifi.

    * – Not so much the argument, but the subtext stood to reason.

    • Timaahy on February 1, 2013 at 12:59 am

    Haha, oh End Bringer… you so smart.

    Any sentence you commence with “As I recall” isn’t worth finishing.

    And what? You’d let them drown if they were white and rich then?

    These kind of arguments are so pointless. I can simply respond with (and put on your most idiotic voice for this) “Oh so you’d just let the poor black people drown then?”. SJ’s point is around perceptions of worth. I’m simply highlighting that we haven’t always been very good at it. Do you need me to use smaller words?

    No, I haven’t read the book, and I didn’t realise there was a book. But way to ignore the point.

    • End Bringer on February 1, 2013 at 3:30 pm

    “These kind of arguments are so pointless. I can simply respond with (and put on your most idiotic voice for this) “Oh so you’d just let the poor black people drown then?”.”

    Depends on how many of them were men. Though such scenarios often do remind me of this little tidbit:


    “SJ’s point is around perceptions of worth. I’m simply highlighting that we haven’t always been very good at it. Do you need me to use smaller words?”

    No actually, perceptions of worth in determining who lives is a uniquely liberal/secularist/progressive consideration. Especially when that worth is in regards to society. SJ’s point is actually around the reality of the differing aspects and behaviours regarding the separate genders, and how such policies may wind up damaging the dignity of both.

    “No, I haven’t read the book, and I didn’t realise there was a book. But way to ignore the point.”

    Considering how dumb the military (and society at large) was portrayed in that film, that really wasn’t the best example to get your point across. Seriously, read the book.

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