Equality In The US Army: Santorum Has It All Wrong

One wonders if Mr. Santorum is actively inhibiting this natural instinct to protect women when he is formulating his stances on policies regarding our reproductive health.

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In the wake of the Pentagon’s announcement of a loosening of restrictions for female service-members last week, we were treated to Rick Santorum’s considered opinions on these matters.  Last week CNN asked him about his support for measures that might eventually allow women to serve in all combat positions. It wasn’t surprising that he opposed the idea, voicing his reticence to John King.

I do have concerns about women in front-line combat, I think that could be a very compromising situation, where people naturally may do things that may not be in the interest of the mission, because of other types of emotions that are involved. It already happens, of course, with the camaraderie of men in combat, but I think it would be even more unique if women were in combat, and I think that’s probably not in the best interest of men, women or the mission”

He called this behavior the “natural instinct to protect someone that’s a female.”  One wonders if Mr. Santorum is actively inhibiting this natural instinct to protect women when he is formulating his stances on policies regarding our reproductive health.

Santorum is arguing that when women are present on the battlefield it activates a male urge to engage in risky behavior in order protect them. This argument is a sneaky ploy; it’s the “it’s not about the women, it’s about the men” claim. At least, that’s what it is superficially. This argument side-steps trying to respond to the incredibly convincing evidence that women have proven their battlefield mettle repeatedly and instead goes for an assertion about male nature and military culture that embeds itself in social assumptions about gender not necessarily factual evidence.

Rick Santorum’s distaste for a mixing of the genders in combat is part of the broader “unit cohesion” argument, which has been similarly leveraged against the open service of lesbians and gays in the military. This is the sister argument to the original “men’s emotions will get the better of them” ploy. It says that the presence of women will serve as a distraction and weaken in the unit’s ability to carry out it’s mission and to function effectively as a whole. This argument is also a fear argument: the fear that women will destroy the sanctity of the masculine environment; that they will endanger their comrades perhaps by being overcome by their female emotions in a time of high stress. It is the presumption that some things are for men alone and that, for reasons that range from cultural to physical, women are simply incompatible with real combat. It is really a challenge to the idea of femininity on the battlefield.

Do women really make the battlefield more dangerous? Former Army Sergeant Kayla Williams, when interviewed on NPR early this week, said “I never saw that happen while I was deployed when we were in dangerous situations”.

Empirical evidence to support this idea of women posing threat to cohesiveness, as Megan Mackenzie has pointed out at the Duck of Minerva blog, is few and far between. A 1997 RAND study cited by Mackenzie found female inclusion to have little effect on unit effectiveness, readiness or morale. This body of research, and recent experience with mixed-gender units, has not seen the kind of unit cohesion breakdown that so many predict, and there are even reports that mixed units can be more effective.

There is one piece of evidence brought up frequently by detractors as proof that women and men cannot be mixed in combat for the reason that Santorum gives, that natural protection instinct. I’ve often seen people citing Israel as a model, saying that the Israeli Defense Force’s stance on gender integration was informed by knowledge of heightened male aggression and risk-taking in the face of an endangered woman. This is an interesting piece of evidence to consider, first because the Israeli army is highly integrated, preventing women from serving in only 12 percent of service positions and showing successes with mixed units, not to mention that it also drafts women. The IDF has operated like this since legislation in 2000 which followed a mid-1990s discrimination suit. It’s also interesting because this claim is never accompanied by a link to a broader report or study, yet remains considered to be unassailable fact.

A little research comes up with nothing on this front except for a 1996 book by a Lt. Col. Dave Grossman titled On Killing: The Psychological Cost of Learning to Kill in War and Society. In Chapter 4, he writes that:

“The Israelis have consistently refused to put women in combat since their experiences in 1948. I have been told by several Israeli officers that this is because in 1948 they experienced recurring incidences of uncontrolled violence among male Israeli soldiers who had had their female combatants killed and injured in combat, and because the Arabs were extremely reluctant to surrender to women.”

This support is shaky at best, referencing something much more casual and unscientific than an official report, and based on the military experiences of 64 years ago. After finding this, I consider it safe to largely dismiss the claim in the face of other more recent and relevant experiences, like those of Kayla Williams, and the contrary findings of actual studies.

Rick Santorum’s argument sounds convincing at first, and has won him countless nods of agreement. Rhetorically attractive as it may be, the argument is specious and remains centered more on cultural misconceptions of both gender and of the military than it does solid fact or researched evidence.

2 thoughts on “Equality In The US Army: Santorum Has It All Wrong”

  1. Really like this article.

    "The fear that men have about women is all based on social construct, usually man-made, literally. It is true that women are a lot more emotionally driven, but not always. I believe the battlefield is a different environment where women would learn to put aside their emotion and focus on doing what they are trained to do."

    Rick Santorum's argument against women serving on the battlefield echoes the archaic misogynist ideas that men have about women not being capable of something because of their gender – I thought we were getting past that in the 21st century – and too often use emotion as a weak argument with little evidence to support their claims.

    While I think it is a very encouraging that armies are more inclusive of women in various roles, it is also sad to see that even the modern man still believes he knows the woman better than she knows herself.

  2. Sorry, was meant to quote this and not my own:

    "This argument is also a fear argument: the fear that women will destroy the sanctity of the masculine environment; that they will endanger their comrades perhaps by being overcome by their female emotions in a time of high stress."

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