Racism, Sexism & Military Service

Gen. Ann Dunwoody meets with Rear Adm. Liz You...

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In a previous essay I discussed the matter of women in combat. While the decision has been made to permit women to serve in combat (which mainly just makes policy reflect reality), there are still those who argue against allowing women in these roles.

Obviously, this is not the first time that there has been a dispute regarding whether or not certain types of people are fit for certain types of military service (if at all). Equally obviously, this rather long history of exclusion and later inclusion provides a means of assessing the potential impact of allowing women to serve in combat roles.

While blacks served in American military conflicts since the Revolution, the official policy until 1948 was that blacks would serve in their own units (usually commanded by white officers). There were also arguments that blacks were simply unfit to serve in the military because of alleged defects in their abilities and character (this method of appealing to stereotypes has become a stock method in this context). Even after blacks had served with distinction in wars, this view still held. After all, prejudice is generally never defeated by clear and obvious evidence against it.

While the idea that blacks could serve in the military was eventually accepted, the idea of integrating the armed forces was resisted. One argument given against integration rested on the claim that allowing blacks to serve with whites would be harmful to moral and damage unit cohesion. Some even claimed that it would destroy the military (and perhaps America). This argument from cohesion, like the appeal to stereotypes, also became a stock tool.

The United States Navy started integrating crews in 1946 and President Truman ordered integration in 1948. In the 1950s the Korean War forced the ground forces to integrate because of casualties: all-white units needed replacements and black soldiers were on hand.

Despite the dire predictions, the integration of whites and blacks in the military went fairly smoothly and the military’s effectiveness was not (as some feared) damaged by this.

In more recent history, there was considerable uproar over the “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy regarding homosexuals in the military. Although soldiers could be expelled for being homosexuals, this policy of intentional deceit did allow homosexuals to serve as long as no one asked and no one told (although people generally knew).

Even more recently, the decision was made to allow homosexuals to serve openly. Naturally, the stock arguments involving stereotypes and unit cohesion were brought into play and doom was predicted once more.

Interestingly enough, this doom did not come to pass. Unit cohesion seemed to remain unaffected by the change of policy and the efficacy of the military remained intact.

Most recently, the hue and cry has been over the decision to allow women to serve in combat positions. As noted in my previous essay on the matter, the classic arguments were modified slightly to apply to women. To be specific, stereotypes of women were used to “argue” against allowing women in these roles and claims were made that women would destroy morale and unit cohesion.

Given what happened when blacks were allowed to serve and  then integrated and what happened in the case of homosexuals, it would be reasonable to infer that the prediction that allowing women to serve in combat roles will prove just as erroneous. After all, the “reasoning” seems to be the same, only the exact target of the stereotypes and prejudices have changed.

Of course, those who argue against allowing women in combat roles can make the claim that they are not arguing from mere prejudice. After all, they can point to legitimate and established evidence that women are generally less physically capable than men.  This is, of course, in contrast with the usual racist “arguments” about one race being inferior to another.

This line of reasoning does have some merit. After all, if a combat position legitimately requires abilities that women lack, then it would be wrong (practically and morally) to allow women into those positions. After all, this would truly impair the effectiveness of the unit and could result in mission failures and deaths.

However, accepting this does not require that one accepts that women should be subject to a blanket exclusion from combat positions. Individual women (and individual men) should be excluded from positions that they fail to legitimately qualify for and allowed in positions that they legitimately qualify for. Women have clearly shown that they can serve effectively in various combat roles (see Afghanistan and Iraq for recent examples). To simply exclude all women from all combat roles because some (or even all) women cannot qualify for some combat roles would certainly seem to be a mistake, both moral and practical (after all, with so many wars going we need soldiers).

When the next group is being targeted for exclusion from the military (perhaps non-humans) I am sure that the tired old arguments will be revived for yet another battle.  I am also sure that someone will use the inclusion of women in combat roles as an example of how the dire sexist predictions turned out just as mistaken as the dire predictions fueled by racism.

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  1. “When the next group is being targeted for exclusion from the military (perhaps non-humans) I am sure that the tired old arguments will be revived for yet another battle.”

    Non humans have been used in the battle field for a long time. It is not really that long since cavalry has been replaced by mechanisation.

    Recently other species have been employed in war with little controversy. In Iraq, dolphins and Algerian monkeys were used to find mines. The dolphins were trained to identify mines under water, and monkeys identified mines by running around mine fields.

  2. JMRC,

    I was thinking more in sci-fi terms, such as aliens, intelligent machines or the underpeople of Cordwainer Smith.

    People often do seem, as you note, to be fine with bringing animals into war-today the US mostly uses dogs. Of war, of course.

  3. Mike LaBossiere,

    “I was thinking more in sci-fi terms, such as aliens, intelligent machines or the underpeople of Cordwainer Smith.”

    Extraterrestrials, we will not see for hundreds of thousands of years, unless they or we can figure out how to travel faster than the speed of light. And if ETs turn up with faster than the speed of light travel abilities, we could be in enormous trouble. We could look like a planet loaded with delicious Nicaraguan giant shrimp to them.

    Intelligent machines is something else. The American military like to sanitise war for public consumption (or maybe the American public prefer war sanitized for their consumption.) The term unmanned drone is a misnomer. They are manned – the drones intelligence is limited to staying airborne. The piloting, targeting and killing is done from the ground. When the public were made aware of these drones, there was an assumption that they were automatons with a killing capability – which led to a strange discussion over the legitimacy of using these machines in war. But they are not automatons. They are however the product of a strange dream.

    In war there are two core traumas. The trauma of casualties and the trauma of killing. This is something both the public and the soldiers experience. The unmanned drone seemed to offer the promise of severing the responsibility for killing. They may have in fact developed a weapon more traumatising than previous weapons. Traditionally artillery strikes were done from such a distance neither the soldiers nor the commanders responsible witnessed the immediate result of the strike. Now, with drones, they get to see everything. I remember during the Iraq war seeing a soldier interviewed. He was in charge of launching mortars as retaliation for fire coming from Baghdad suburbs – he said he completely blocked out from his mind the result his mortars might have. The drone pilots do not have this luxury – they have to watch. As a result, they’re becoming traumatised and suffering from PTSD – even though they are thousands of miles from the battle field. (I wonder about commanders too – up to a few years ago, the most they might witness were radio reports).

    PTSD is the American military’s biggest problem. They are admitting to about 6,500 suicides in a year. But the numbers are probably much higher when all the veterans’ deaths are accounted for. Even Lynndie England, the torturer of Abu Ghraib, is suffering from PTSD. This is unsurprising – the astounding insights Shakespeare had into human nature; Lady Macbeth, out out damn spot.

    And there is a very interesting point where philosophy comes in. In the understanding of PTSD, there is a new concept of the idea of a moral wound. A young soldier may go to Iraq, with a self-image of goodness and good intentions. They may go with the intention of protecting the folks back home on the corn farm in Oklahoma, but when they get there they feel they’re killing for an oil company. Lynndie England, had a cognitive dissonance that allowed her for years to believe there was a noble purpose to her activity – now she is aware that many, if not all, of the people she tortured were completely innocent. (In the early days of the insurgency, American “intelligence” relied on paid informants to supply the names of insurgents. These informants were just criminals, they concocted stories and had innocent people interned in Abu Ghraib.) This is Lynndie’s moral wound – if torturing people was not bad enough, being aware you have tortured the innocent certainly would be.

    The moral wound. Most of us are never put in the position of a pure and profound moral crisis. With the moral wound, it seems that ethics are not something dry and abstract, but an essential part of the being. I would say it’s something even more traumatic than guilt.

    In terms of mental health, the moral wound that results in PTSD, is not a psychological crisis, it is a philosophical crisis that leads to a deep psychological trauma. I know now, that the US military is employing philosophers (not strictly speaking philosophers, but people with an academic background in philosophy), to lecture soldiers and give them an ethical salve. Is this enough. Is it moral in itself to provide these narratives. Or is there something more deeply political in the problem; the America should simply not engage in wars that are not purely ethical. Lynndie England, did not go to Iraq to fight for tyranny and torture. Though, this is what she did.

    A philosopher who does take the Queen’s shilling (it’s a British military term), to equivocate atrocities away in some effort to spare soldiers a moral wound, is probably committing some kind of crime, though it’s not on the statute books anywhere.

    “People often do seem, as you note, to be fine with bringing animals into war-today the US mostly uses dogs. Of war, of course.”

    The military dogs are often used to make the military look cutesy. The photographs from Abu Ghraib that were not released were supposedly the ones where dogs were used to attack the prisoners.

  4. Excusez moi… The discussion is moving off the topic. If I may, I’d like to move it back on point.

    There is an ancient precedent for the integration of women into the armed forces: the Amazons. The Greeks were terrified at the mere thought women warriors. Hence Amazonomachy is a major theme in Greek art. To follow the lead of this paradigm case, military planners should consider training… hold that thought for a moment. Another ancient paradigm is that of the Sacred Band as futuristically described in Plato’s Symposium. Putting these two paradigms together, we may derive a recommendation: an elite corp of killer dikes, each with her own Iolaus (a la Phaedo 89c).

  5. The thing I noted when I first read the news story. It’s not so much about “allowing” women to serve if they so choose, as enabling the involuntary conscription of women at need. Whether this matters I don’t know.

  6. The argument that segregating blacks in the military is comparable to women in combat is foolish. Yes black men are just as capable as whites in every way but women are not. Is a women going to be able to pull my 200lb limp body with 80lbs of gear on it to safety if I get shot probably not.

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