What is the proper Catholic apologetic against using women in combat?
That was the question I posed to Catholic Answers’ leadership last week when we met off campus for two days for our annual planning retreat. At the start of one day’s session I brought up the Pentagon’s decision to incorporate women in nearly all phrases of combat. All of us at the table were opposed to that, but, I asked, what is the right way to argue about the issue?
I pointed to arguments that may convince some people but that really don’t provide a conclusive answer.
1. The argument from lack of strength. Women differ from men in physical capabilities. Even those most of favor of women serving in combat roles acknowledge this. Since the average woman is less strong, less swift, less able to deal with suffering on a battlefield, women shouldn’t be allowed into combat—so goes the argument.
But some women are more capable physically than some men, even some men in the military. There are women who can shoot more accurately, throw a grenade farther, rush opposing lines more quickly. This means that this argument is only a partial argument: It demonstrates only that many women should not be put in such roles; it doesn’t demonstrate that no woman should.
2. Next I brought up what one might call the “Kinder, Kueche, Kirche” (German for “children, kitchen, church”) argument: A woman’s role is chiefly domestic. If women are on the front lines, we’ll find that we have placed there mothers or potential mothers. Women are nurturers by nature, men protectors. It makes sense to send fathers and husbands into war, when war is necessary, but not to send mothers and wives.
The weakness with this argument is that many, perhaps most, women in the military are not mothers now, and many of them apparently have no intention of being mothers ever. They don’t see themselves in a future nurturing role. If, heaven forbid, they die in combat, the loss to the upbringing of the next generation will not be noticed because they would not have participated in that process anyway.
3. The next argument brought up at our discussion was what we might call the modesty issue. Tim Staples, a former Marine (as is Chris Check, who sat opposite Tim at our table), told of an incident where a contingent of Marines, after subduing a target that contained a high level of hazardous contaminants, had to strip off and destroy all their clothes and be hosed down naked out in the field. What, he asked, if a woman had been in that group?
Proponents of women in combat have an easy answer to such objections: Don’t assign women to such roles. There are plenty of tasks they can perform that don’t involve blatant problems of modesty—say, driving a tank, dropping bombs from a bomber, firing a mortar.
4. The fourth argument we considered concerned battlefield psychology. When a platoon of men is sent after a target, it’s possible that some of the men will be wounded or killed. The others in the platoon may not be free to tend to the injured or to remove the bodies of the dead. Their job is to forge ahead, even if they have to ignore cries they hear from their comrades.
But what happens when it is the lone woman in a platoon who takes a bullet? What will the men do when she writhes on the ground, crying out in pain? Men by nature are protective of women. It’s likely that her comrades will break off from their task to assist her, where they would have pushed passed an equally wounded man in order to accomplish their objective. In going to her assistance, the men could put their own lives and their mission in jeopardy.
Again, there are answers to this objection. One would be not to assign women to forward roles where such injuries are most likely to occur. Another would be to train the men, through mock exercises and explicit classroom instruction, to treat a wounded woman exactly as they would a wounded man.
So here are four arguments commonly used against having women in combat. Each argument is based on utilitarianism, and each has something of a workaround. Each argument, inadequate as it is, will convince some people, but then some people are easily convinced, especially when they want to be convinced.
I ended the discussion at our planning meeting by asking, “What is the best, the most convincing Catholic argument against having women in combat roles? It must be an argument that goes beyond the utilitarian, because each utilitarian argument seems to have a sufficient counter.”
We didn’t attempt to formulate that ideal argument (after all, we were meeting to plan the future of Catholic Answers, not to solve problems of this kind), but we all sensed that the ideal argument would have to rise from a consideration of human nature and natural law, from a recognition that, in terms of teleology (ultimate ends), men and women, at least here below, have different roles because they have different purposes.
The conundrum is how to flesh that out, how to achieve an apologetic that convinces not us—we who don’t need convincing—but those who have yet to hear an argument that even begins to move them on this issue. Second-best arguments or partial arguments won’t do. At best hearers will come to agree that some women should not serve in combat roles or that some combats roles should be withheld from women. It will take a higher-level argument to make the overall case.