June 04, 2013

How NOT To Argue About Women in Combat

My views on women in close combat once hewed pretty close to those of our great Blogfather Exum. However, after reading Azar Gat's War in Human Civilization (as well as his other corpus) and hearing some convincing (and pessimistic) arguments from friends with extensive and varied downrange experience I've gone back to being merely agnostic. I'm just a civilian that types out screeds on strategy and I really have no clue, and I'll leave the policy debate to the following (by no means an exhaustive list, just the first few that came to mind):

  • People who have done extensive quantitative and qualitative empirical social or political research on the subject.
  • People who are well versed in military sociology on cohesion.
  • People who have statistical data or a scientific background in fields like military medicine/health or psychology that would impact the debate.
  • People with downrange experience that can contextualize their own anecdotes within larger valid policy analysis. 
  • People who have an extensive command of military history related to women in combat.

However, I've become fairly apprehensive about the way the debate is going. I am afraid it is becoming a battle of dueling pieties, a duel whose potential endpoint will not serve the fighting man or woman slugging it out in the arena. For example, see this Marine Corps Gazette piece by two Marine junior officers titled "Let Us Fight For You." 

There are at least four interrlated issues at play here:

1. Pop-Darwinism. Take this nugget:

From an evolutionary perspective, it means pitting a generally smaller/gentler/more compassionate demographic against a generally larger/stronger/more violent demographic in a “survival of the fittest” contest that ultimately determines the fates of societies. Simplistic animal survival is the driving factor here.

An author can justify virtually anything by making vague references to evolution.  This is not to say that evolutionary influences on social matters are invalid. But there must be meat on the bones.

No actual scientific evidence or concepts from the evolutionary sciences are presented. Nothing is written here that takes into account evolutionary psychology's "modularity of mind" concepts, the notion of the evolutionary state of nature, or newer concepts like gene-culture coevolution or cultural evolution. Levels of selection? Nope. You won't find anything about the "modern synthesis" or the recent challenges to it either.

We can't just throw out the terms "evolutionary" or "survival of the fittest" without wading into a complex scientific debate between many fields of endeavor from paleontology to genetics. And all of the relevant social science that makes use of evolutionary science is also absent. 

It's just an assertion without explanation of actual evolutionary mechanisms with meaningful social outputs. It may be that we can find solid scientific data points in the evolutionary literature to support their points. But they haven't given us any to work with.

2. Theological Arguments. The articles also jarringly moves from  E.O. Wilson and Leda Cosmides territory to invoking theological reasons why women need to stay out of the good old infantry:

From a biblical perspective, God made the genders specifically and intentionally different for many purposes. Men are to shoulder the responsibility of fighting to preserve the life and dignity of women, as well as to protect the next generation. This willing sacrifice and service is for the sake of women, not to control or demean them.

I tend to think that what God did or didn't intend is for Sunday school, not military science. Besides, an examination of the complicated relationship between different strands of Judeo-Christian religious thought and the justification of violence may bring up some troubling questions for those seeking to improve military effectiveness or make any kind of hard decisions in war.

Most importantly, this kind of argument defeats the purpose entirely of invoking evolution or utilitarian arguments about effectiveness and takes the piece into some very, very troubled territory.

3. Trying To Argue About Gender Roles Instead Of Military Effectiveness. If there is one thing about this debate I dislike from both sides, it is the use of normative arguments (particularly about gender roles) rather than talking about how normative ideas stack up to operational realities. Even worse, there are functional arguments based on eminently contestable notions about gender.

Take these sentences for example:

Men and women are different. This is an axiom of our existence as human beings on planet earth. As men, we feel inept trying to articulate this truth because the tools to do so have been intellectually banned in our society, labeled as “chauvinism.” .....To do less is masculine cowardice and abdicating our societal role, ordained or evolved. ..Throughout the history of the western world, this has been the basis for the sacred masculine charge of chivalry: to serve all and protect the weak from the strong.

But Christopher Coker's writings about the variance in concepts of heroism (in the West, at a minimum) across time and space make us doubt that there is really a stable concept of "chivalry" or at least one that they posit. The notions of masculine cowardice they speak of are also time-dated too (see the late Victorian novel The Four Feathers).

And it just takes us down a very bad and politically charged path that leads to people screaming at each other across a wall rather than any actual insight. 

What business does a first lieutenant writing an article on military effectiveness have arguing that men should be X or women should be Y? We go from questions of military effectiveness to ideology about gender roles and modern society. And these arguments are very much in the realm of the should because evidence needed to support a spiel on the notion of masculine chivalry is lacking in the piece.

4. Functional Arguments About Organizational Decisions. The officers argue that "If women in the ranks would have made the infantry more effective, certainly commanders would have made it happen." As a logical argument, it assumes an inherently linear relationship between military effectiveness and organizational decisions. Really? Would any reading of military history (particularly military innovations) support an unqualified statement like this? How is effectiveness defined? What kind of bureaucratic interests come into play? Organizational culture? 

* * *

There isn't space to go into each and every problem with the piece. Many of the faulty points I do not cover are also interrelated with the ones I do explain. There are some more defensible (at least to my agnostic eye) utilitarian arguments made (including the persuasive use of some data), but the flaws I've just listed--which are central to the argument--massively undercut them. 

I do not mean to suggest that opponents of women in close combat have a monopoly of poor reasoning on the issue. Far from it. I could have easily written a takedown of a piece that makes equally gross social scientific errors, but from an completely opposite perspective. I have seen many, and this was just the most recent piece I've read on the subject.

But if the argument is really going to the problematic depths of pop-Darwinism and Bible exegesis, writers like these two officers will likely lose the argument to their political opponents. In 2013 America, appeals to nature and invoking what God intended women to do doesn't get you far. It would be a shame, however, if their argument itself--not the way they argue it--is rejected out of hand.

As my friend Daveed Garteinstein-Ross noted on Twitter, an idea can
still be sound even if the arguments advanced to support it are faulty. Even though I have just used my post to attack this Marine Corps Gazette article, I'm not arguing for or against women in close combat.   What I'd really like is for the authors to make better arguments against women in the infantry. This is a contentious and tricky issue with potentially dangerous real-world implications for the ground-pounder. It deserves arguments--for and against--that are as robust as possible.  1


1. End up editing out the last third of this piece. I am a bit fastidous with work, and this last part didn't quite fit well theme or content-wise with the rest of the piece. That being said, will appear in a future Abu M soon as its own post.