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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