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Women soldiers

Are the strongest objections to women soldiers the pragmatic ones? Not really. Certainly the pragmatic objections are more than sufficient, but—as feminists would agree—apparent practicality shouldn’t overshadow fundamental principle.

The fundamental principle is that man is symbolic as well as practical. What the world is for us matters more than our projects within the world, and how things are in general is a matter of symbolism. It is loyalty that holds life together, for example, but we are not loyal for a purpose—we are loyal because the object of our loyalty is part of what makes us what we are. And it is symbolism that defines the connections that define us. A flag or wedding ring may seem a small thing, but it is such things that carry the weight of human society.

So what does this have to do with women soldiers? An army is at once the most necessary and most symbolic of things. Dying in combat isn’t practically advantageous to a soldier. If justified at all it’s justified by by how he views himself in connection with the grand scheme of things. And for soldiers like everyone else that scheme is pervaded by sex and gender. Sex has to do with the closest human connections and with new life, gender with making those connections satisfying and durable so that new life can grow and florish. Those functions, however, are inextricably connected to the symbolism of male and female.

The family is therefore the human association with the firmest hold on what we are, the one that joins us with our own flesh and blood. In combat a soldier is called upon to put his own body—quite literally, his own flesh and blood—on the line. For that to be acceptable what he is defending must be at least the equivalent of what he is sacrificing. Soldiers, therefore, must fight for their families. Ideology is unstable and mercenaries untrustworthy. An army that can be relied on is one that fights quite literally for its homeland.

So the question with women soldiers is simply the question of feminism in general: can there be abiding loyalty to home and family if the symbolism of male and female is destroyed, if home and family are voluntary sentimental or practical associations among strictly equal parties? Will someone die for a business partnership or chance companionship? Can our family be flesh and blood to us if male and female are irrelevant to it? If not, then bringing in women soldiers destroys the army by destroying the very understanding of things that makes it possible for it to be what must be. It makes it a bureaucratic organization like any other. And bureaucracies do not win wars.

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Comments

I’ve never heard that soldiers in combat are thinking that they are defending their families. Sometimes I’ve heard that their chief immediate loyalty is to their own unit, then to the army as a whole, then to country. What is your evidence for saying that a marine fighting in the Pacific in WWII was chiefly thinking that he was defending his own family?

There’s a lot that goes into whether an army fights well and holds together when things get difficult. Part of that I think is its connection to the home society and what it thinks it’s fighting for in general. Also how the soldiers view themselves, the world, and their place in it.

I think of those as background understandings that are not always consciously present. Certainly though I need to do more make it clear just where this kind of thing fits into the overall scheme. So thanks for the comment.

The connection between family life and a man’s willingness to fight in a war is not always just a background factor. Think of the very popular parlour song “Just before the battle, Mother, I am thinking most of you”. Another small example: in the diary of Peter Pfaff, a (Christian) German soldier in WWII, Pfaff wrote to his mother just before his death on the Russian front, “These two days were a heavy experience, but think, I have, as bad as it was, felt inner joy, that I was able to fight for you..”
Having said this, many Australian soldiers in WWII expressed the motivation of wanting to uphold the masculine military tradition that they, as Anglo-Saxons, were brought up with: a tradition stretching from Agincourt to the deeds of their own fathers in WWI. They also frequently mentioned a strong desire not to let down their mates in battle.
So there is probably a complex motivation. I do agree with Jim Kalb, though, that the pragmatic objections to women in combat are not really what will decide the issue for most people.
In earlier societies, most men would have felt a revulsion at both the idea of women being physically harmed in battle and the idea that women should be trained to kill.
I think this is because the love that men feel for women is connected to a protective instinct for women and an admiration for the more feminine nurturing side of women. It is hard to reconcile this love for women with a cold indifference to young women being slaughtered in battle, or to the transformation of women into machinegun-toting warriors (even if this were possible).

What, women soldiers don’t have families to fight for?

A good question, if you think family is a sort of arbitrary creation that you can redefine in the interests of abolishing gender distinctions without affecting coherence and commitment.