Saletan: Cringeworthy arguments for the ban on women in combat
Should women be allowed in combat? The Pentagon says yes, but Jerry Boykin knows better.
Boykin, a former army lieutenant general, is the executive vice president of the Family Research Council. Since last week, when the military announced its decision to rescind the combat ban, Boykin has become the point man for opponents of the decision.
It isn't easy in 2013 to make the case that every man should be eligible for the draft but that no woman should be permitted to compete for a combat role in much of the armed forces. Is Boykin man enough for the job? Let's see how he's doing.
1. Women are too weak.
"We have seen in Iraq and Afghanistan that ground combat still requires levels of sheer physical strength, speed and endurance that are relatively rare among women," Boykin wrote in a USA Today op-ed on Thursday.
A day later, in a commentary on CNN, he added, "The slots that may be opened are in our infantry and Special Forces units. The purpose of such units is to directly and physically engage enemy forces. This can often involve personal, hand-to-hand combat in which women will now have to fight men.
"These units can often be deployed in prolonged operations that can last for months. The physical toll is constant and wearing."
When Boykin talks about hand-to-hand combat and women fighting men, he seems to be suggesting that women can't or won't fight men effectively. But if combat-level physical abilities are "relatively rare" among women, rather than nonexistent, doesn't that undermine the idea of a categorical ban on women in combat? So Boykin turns to other arguments.
2. Combat missions are too gross for women.
Boykin objects that infantry and Special Forces units are sometimes sent on months-long missions: "During operations of this kind there is typically no access to a base of operations or facilities. Consequently, living conditions can be abysmal and base. There is routinely no privacy or ability to maintain personal hygiene for extended periods."
"Soldiers and Marines have to relieve themselves within sight of others."
So the problem isn't that women are inherently too weak to carry the gear or kill a man in a knife fight. The problem is that they might have to skip showers or pee in the wild.
3. Combat missions with women are too humiliating for men.
On Fox News Sunday, Chris Wallace pointed out that Col. Martha McSally, the country's first female combat pilot, defeated her male competitors in the military division of the Hawaii Ironman World Triathlon Championships.
"Clearly, some women can meet the standard" for combat, Wallace suggested. Boykin replied: "Some women can, and there will be few, but some can. But that's not the issue I raised initially. What I have raised is the issue of mixing the genders in those combat units where there is no privacy, where they are out on extended operations, and there's no opportunity for people to have any privacy whatsoever. Now, as a man who has been there, and a man who has some experience in these kinds of units, I certainly don't want to be in that environment with a female, because it's degrading and humiliating enough to do your personal hygiene and other normal functions among your teammates."
Ah. So the problem isn't that women might have to pee near men. The problem is that men might have to pee near women.
4. Women are too sexy.
In his essay for CNN, Boykin argued, "This combat environment - now containing males and females - will place a tremendous burden on combat commanders. Not only will they have to maintain their focus on defeating the enemy in battle, they will have to do so in an environment that combines life-threatening danger with underlying sexual tensions. This is a lot to ask of the young leaders, both men and women, who will have to juggle the need to join and separate the sexes within the context of quickly developing and deadly situations. . . . Men and women can serve together in the armed forces productively, but that service needs to be prudently structured in a manner that reflects the differences between the sexes and the power of their attractions."
It isn't clear which attractions Boykin is worried about: the men's interest in the women, or the women's interest in the men. But a survey just released by the Department of Veterans Affairs finds that 49 percent of women who served in Iraq, Afghanistan or nearby countries say they were sexually harassed there, and 23 percent of women say they were sexually assaulted.
It's pretty obvious whose behavior is the problem. So the complaint about "attractions" and "sexual tensions" is basically an argument that women have to be kept away because men can't control themselves.
5. Integrating women will make it harder to segregate them.
"This decision to integrate the genders in these units places additional and unnecessary burdens on leaders at all levels," Boykin warned in a Family Research Council statement. "While their focus must remain on winning the battles and protecting their troops, they will now have the distraction of having to provide some separation of the genders during fast moving and deadly situations."
Is Boykin suggesting that troops will die because somebody hung a blanket in front of a defecating soldier? If he's simply pointing out that integration makes segregation more difficult, that's obviously true. It's true not just in combat but throughout the military. It's true for female cops and firefighters, too. How far does he want to roll things back?
6. Women will require lower standards.
"If current physical standards are maintained, few women will be able to meet them, and there will be demands that they be lowered," Boykin predicted in USA Today.
OK, you can believe that if you want to. But here's what Defense Secretary Leon Panetta said when he rescinded the combat ban: "If members of our military can meet the qualifications for a job - and let me be clear, I'm not talking about reducing the qualifications for the job - if they can meet the qualifications for the job, then they should have the right to serve, regardless of creed or color or gender or sexual orientation."
7. Women won't be protected from combat.
In his CNN article, Boykin wrote: "I worry about the women who are currently in the military. They have to know that the lines keeping them from infantry and Special Forces battalions will get blurrier and blurrier. What protections will they have against being thrown into front-line infantry units as organizational dividers soften and expectations change? Very little protection, I am afraid. Will they leave the military? This policy change may have the ironic effect of forcing women to reconsider their place in the armed services.
"If true, that would be tragic."
You can almost feel the general's tears of sorrow. Women who have voluntarily joined the armed forces - that would be 100 percent of them - might run away, tragically, if their unofficial exposure to mortal risk, unshowered men and outdoor urination becomes official.
8. Women might be drafted.
"I certainly don't want my daughters registering for the draft," Boykin said on Fox News Sunday. "And I'd like for them to have more of a choice than a man would have in a national crisis."
That crisis might take a while: It's been 40 years since anyone in this country was drafted. But the important thing is to protect your freedom of choice, by denying that freedom to women who want to serve in combat.
Why are Boykin's arguments so weak, overwrought and confused? Because his case is collapsing, and he knows it.
"Women are in combat, and women need to be given opportunities to serve in other combat roles," he conceded to Wallace. "I am no longer against that."
Boykin thinks the honorable course now is to fall back and defend the combat ban for infantry and Special Forces. He's wrong.
It's a bad war, General. Stop fighting it.
Saletan (@saletan) covers science, technology and politics for Slate.