Thursday, January 24, 2013

Women in the Military

Like my partner John, I've been planning to break the recent (years-long) hiatus in blogging. I have a lot of things I'd like to comment about, and I've long appreciated having a semi-anonymous venue to talk about things that interest me. In recent history, social media has become dominant - which explicitly indicates a complete lack of anonymity.

While I really do stand by everything I say, overtly, anonymously, or not, there's a big difference between what I want to publish on social media, to all my personal friends directly, and pretty much only to them, vs. what I'd like to throw out to the internet community to stand or fall on its own merits, independent of any explicit attribution.

I guess I'm eager to have anonymous interaction, based purely on the merits of the ideas proposed or circulated, as opposed to having people judge me as a person based on what they read into what I say or post on social media sites. In this sense, I guess I'm saying I like the blogging format better than more intimate social media for serious intellectual exchange. On the other hand, our little blog here has a pretty limited following, as very few of my readers here know me from anywhere other than the internet and I don't associate any of my overt personal social media accounts with my blog posts.

On the other hand, the world has changed. I don't have nearly the time I used to have for writing blog posts, and I miss it. The "blog" community is less dynamic than it used to be, as many people have shifted to other venues for online interaction. That's too bad as it's a great format for exchanging serious ideas.

So... with all that... some actual content...

Today the Department of Defense announced a policy change opening most (maybe all? it isn't clear...) combat billets to women. This announcement was pretty abrupt and surprising - there was no discussion, no hearings, no political debate about it in advance. It is very unclear exactly what it will mean, apparently to everyone, including most of the US military, who did not know it was coming.

The abrupt shift, however, was not without quite a bit of foreshadowing. DOD has steadily evolved its administrative policies on assigning women to combat support roles, in large part because they simply needed women to fill empty billets. Women have served, by all reports heroically, in many combatant roles in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Many military units would be rendered non-mission-capable if they suddenly lost all the women in their ranks.

I served many years in the military and had quite a bit of experience with women in the service. There were a number of issues associated with women serving in various positions, most of which were not significantly different from issues faced in the civilian world.

The integration of women into military jobs has pretty closely paralleled their integration into civilian jobs. Before the 1970s, there were few women in "tradtionally male" professions. That changed rapidly after the advent of "women's lib" in the 1960s (ignited by Betty Friedan's The Feminine Mystique in 1963), to the point where they today dominate many previously all-male professions, as well as a majority of institutions of higher education. Their integration into the military has lagged a few years behind the experience in the private sector, but the trend is similar.

The military, however, is very different from the civilian world in quite a few major, significant ways. First there is a great deal of personal sacrifice and intimate personal interaction that comes with the territory. The military tortures its own people for training (if you accept the MSM definition of torture), although those training programs have been substantially moderated over the years, since the admission of women. The military routinely (especially in recent years) asks its people to volunteer to sacrifice themselves, often in horrific, and sometimes in senseless ways.

There's nothing to say that women can't be asked to sacrifice themselves horrifically or senselessly, just the same as men, and many have done so in recent years. While there was, until recently, a general social attitude that women should not be asked to sacrifice themselves just the same as men are, that attitude seems to have mostly eroded in western civilization in just the last several years. This is  possibly a result of women achieving approximate parity in what were previously male-dominated roles in the civilian world.

Women are, however, often (perhaps usually) subjected to much more horrible treatment at the hands of the enemy than men are, for a variety of reasons. Some of these are cultural, some are political, but perhaps most are just plain human nature, consistent for hundreds of thousands of years. Today, a woman captured on the battlefield can expect, with a great deal of certainty, to be gang-raped before being subjected to even worse abuse.  Were I a woman, this would be a consideration for me serving in the military. I do not know if it actually is for any significant percentage of women joining the military today.

At a much more routine level, there are lots of issues associated with women in military units that are significant and don't necessarily have anything to do with women vs. men, but rather with women + men. When you put a bunch of 19-year-old boys and girls together, they're going to have a lot of sex, and a lot of sexual politics, tension, and drama. Trust me: this does not make for a more combat effective unit. It's like a cross between a train wreck and groundhog day. The same boring disasters, over and over again, forever.  It's just human nature and it will take probably at least many tens of thousands of years to change, by which time it probably won't matter.

But the US military has been coping with this issue for a good while now, and continuing to succeed. This is what gets us to the real issue.

We keep kicking butt - and don't get confused - we have been consistently tactically successful in all of the wars we have fought in recent years. If you believe we have been strategically unsuccessful, which I think is a worthy topic for debate - it is hard to argue that strategic failure is attributable to battlefield failure at the tactical level. Of course, if you get down into the tactical weeds, you will find few women, or units with significant numbers of women, in key decisive positions on the front lines. That could change, and future results could be different, but it would be tough to say that we've failed anywhere in recent history due to the introduction of women into combat support billets.

But I would also argue that conventional military forces have played a much smaller role in our success in recent conflicts, as opposed to conventional wars of the past. We haven't been in a conventional stand-up fight at the operational level in any meaningful way since the first gulf war. Which gets me to the main point...

The basic nature of warfare has changed, and with it, the relationship between the people and the act of war. This is a bigger factor in the integration of women into the military than the fact that the military needs them to fill billets or that "social justice" demands that women be provided with equal (or, I would argue, greater than equal) opportunities to sacrifice themselves.

Today, the adversaries we fight are primarily unconventional and not associated with a nation-state nor an organized military force. Military operations in the information age are primarily about policing bad guys, not fighting other formal armies. This may not be universally true - there is nothing to say there could not or will not be formal military clashes between nation-states in the future - just that these types of conventional wars are becoming extremely rare, compared to low-intensity conflict against non-state actors.

In such an environment, the expected and implied roles of women are very different. In low intensity conflicts, there are few well-defined "front lines", so anyone involved could find themselves confronting a guerrilla or terrorist adversary. Consequently it's difficult or impossible to segregate the women into non-combat roles. That is the main reality of the most recent policy shift in DOD.

Also, the enemy is inherently weak and there is an attitude that even our little girls, armed with all our modern technology, can defeat him.

That gets to the next point: if we were worried about losing any of these wars, the calculus would be very different.

In the classical period, men conducted war by lining up in tight squares, shoulder to shoulder, and ran into each other with their shields, then transitioning to hacking each other to death with short swords. It was unbelievably nasty, brutal, and violent. There wasn't any consideration of having women participate in that type of warfare, for a couple of reasons. The first was that it wouldn't work. A phalanx with women it in would simply lose to one that didn't have women. The second reason was that ancient societies had defined gender roles and there was a social imperative to protect women from the misery and brutality of "men's work".

The reasons for this are not mysterious. Women are smaller and weaker than men. Take an average man and an average woman, absent any social modifying influences, and the man will physically dominate the woman. The woman may be able to use other skills to change the terms of the engagement, but it is an exceptionally rare woman who can physically dominate even a slightly-below-average man.

Scale this basic truth up to 10 men (and women) or 100, or 1 million, and the probabilty of success in a purely physical engagement is directly decreased by number of women involved.

Yet we keep winning, despite having lots of women in significant positions.

The reason is that warfare has really changed. We're just not fighting phalanx battles any more (although hand-to-hand combat certainly has not disappeared). Instead, information is the basic commodity of warfare, and in this environment women are much less disadvantaged. (I would argue that women are still not the equal of men in war, pretty much entirely due to hormonal differences.)

But in technological war, where relative physical weakness is much less significant, women are much more likely to be able to hold their own.

Still: if you had an army of male information warriors vs. an army of female information warriors, where no physical confrontion was involved, who would win? Still the men would dominate. Why? Because men and women are different. Men have more testosterone, and are consequently more aggressive. This aggression manifests itself in many different ways - but war and military service primarily about aggression. The people with more testosterone, physical and mental aggression, physical mass, and strength are always going to dominate.

Marty Van Creveld said in The Transformation of War that societies allow women into their military forces when they perceive it doesn't matter - that the military is no longer needed to ensure the survival of the society, or is no longer a symbol of the strength of the society - when it becomes "just another job". At this point, the opposition to having women participate evaporates and the military's segregation of gender roles becomes just another example of "discrimination".

But........look at the social status and reputation today of our special operations forces: the "Green Berets", the Army's Delta Force, the Navy's SEALs, etc. They enjoy an elite, almost legendary status in society that other segments of the military once also enjoyed but no longer do, such as Naval Aviation, the cavalry, the submarine force, or going farther back in history, the Roman Legions or the Spartan phalanx. Why? Because they are the most traditional and romantic warriors left in our post-modern military system. They are well adapted to the unconventional and low intensity conflicts we are fighting. They fight as individuals, often at close quarters, hand-to-hand with vicious and lethal enemies. They are more likely to be wounded or killed in direct combat (as opposed to blown up by a terrorist roadside bomb, which has claimed the vast majority of casualties among the conventional forces in the last decade). And there are no women in their ranks (although there are plenty in support roles, staff jobs, etc.)

Those units are doing the majority of the direct fighting in recent history and are much more heavily engaged, in 2012, than the much larger conventional force.

This may change soon - I don't know. I do know that if there is a change, the standards will be lowered to permit women to compete and succeed and consequently the social status and reputation of these elite forces will be diminished. Ordinary men (and women) (including among our enemies) will look at the Green Berets or SEALs and say "if little girls can do it, it can't be all that tough" and the mystique, as well as the effectiveness, of these legendary warriors will be permanently eroded. (As an aside: the Marine Corps is somewhere in between the special operations forces and the conventional military. It remains highly respected and admired, like SOF, and has few or no women in front-line combat jobs. The Marines experimented, in their typical, straightforward way, with allowing women into the infantry and the female Marines reported, straightforwardly, that they were unable to meet the male standards. Not sure what they'll do next.)

The lowering of standards has happened in every segment of the military that has integrated women. It is inevitable. Women simply cannot perform in military roles in the same way as men. If they could, as some of the political proponents of the new policy claim, the NFL would have a lot of female linebackers as well. This does not necessarily mean, however, that we will lose future wars. Our military forces have been so preponderantly dominant in recent years that perhaps we will continue to succeed and win with a fully-integrated military. That probably depends on what kind of wars we will fight, and how formidable our enemies will be.

If our future wars continue to look like police actions - rounding up idiots and bad guys who make trouble but don't threaten the survival of the society - as Marty Van Creveld says they will, then integration of women will likely make no difference.

It is also possible (probably probable, eventually) that we could fight a major conventional war against a dangerous but weaker adversary (such as Iran, although I doubt that one) where we will still succeed with a fully-integrated military. Another scenario, which is probably very, very unlikely, that we'll fight a major world war against a peer competitor who may be stronger than us (e.g. China), in a repeat of the World War II experience. In that scenario, this peer competitor may be likely to have women integrated into its conventional military forces in a similar way to us, so again the integration of women is unlikely to matter very much.

So... it seems that we're as a point where sexual integration of the military is inevitable, and probably irrelevant. It probably says more about the roles of the military in society and women in society than it does about our need to preserve our national security. The military has always been an engine and a laboratory of social change, and this is just one more example. Many military traditions will likely change, but military traditions have always changed over time. Apparently the sense in our society is that our security as a nation-state faces no serious threats - if it did, I believe we would not be having this discussion. Hopefully this situation will endure and we will enjoy our sense of security for many years to come. I'm not betting one way or another, however, on whether it will.