Thursday, January 24, 2013

In History a Last Resort

The images history brings us resemble the colored glass shards in kaleidoscopes. The same pieces are always present, although in ever-changing relationships. The difference is that the number of such pieces in history’s kaleidoscope are extraordinarily many. For this reason history has its share of cases where women have engaged in combat—albeit almost always as a last resort. This also holds, by and large, for women who lead wars as queens or generals. They did so by filling a vacuum produced by their husbands’ deaths. There is always an exception that proves the rule. In our case, in Christendom, it was the visionary Maid of Orléans, Joan of Arc.

At the level of leadership, command, and rule, females have distinguished themselves throughout history. But there is a difference between the grubby craft of war, where bodily differences matter, and the art of rule, where the heart and mind are to the fore. At that level, the more women the better.

If, in history, female combat appears sporadically as a last resort—when those prepared by chemical civilization to do the dirty work have failed—times of decadence have also uniformly produced, at the margins, a blurring of the male and female roles. Therefore we know that female gladiatrices were a feature in the Roman games—and know this because decrees survive attempting to ban such “occupations,” and Juvenal, the poet, in the first century, or thereabouts, refers to upper-class women training for the games.

The turn of the kaleidoscope in our times introduces a novel image—if with the same shards of glass. The horrors of war have now become a human right—and, should the draft be introduced again (which some think impossible but is, like all things that go around, probable—if not today), the horrors of war will also become a duty for young females. The New York Times’ headline this morning shows the confusion: “Pentagon to Open Combat to Women.” The phrasing suggests something desirable. Hearings in Congress castigating the Air Force for its sex scandals (training instructors sexually abusing the females they were training) competed with the good news about the “opening of combat” to the fairer sex.

What science has not as yet achieved—and our brave leaders therefore cannot as yet “open” for males—is something only women can do now. One headline is still in the future: “Health and Human Services to Open Childbirth to Males.” The agonies of childbirth seem to me the “war” women routinely engage in—without ever getting medals for it or appearances in the White House. Vive la difference.


  1. Ah, yes, this is a tough topic. Part of me says, gosh, women should be able to pursue what they wish... but, another part of me wonders and is uncomfortable with it all. I think your point about how all of this would hold up if we had a mandatory draft is a good one. It puts things in a very different light. I have always thought that views on war would change dramatically if all young men (much less women) were obliged to spend two years in the military...

    There is something I'm not clear about with this change in status for female military personnel: isn't there still a distinction? I mean, women who volunteer for front-line, combat duty are no longer barred from those posts but are all military personnel in those positions volunteers for the duty? In other words, aren't men simply assigned those positions, whether they've volunteered for them or not? Or is it simply implied with an all volunteer force that once you're in, you are volunteering for front-line, combat duty?

    A thorny issue to be sure. Of interest, as of 2010, 18% of active duty military personnel were women, 82% men.

  2. People are assigned to combat units--as well as to all others--based on qualifications. The routine assignment, in the U.S. Army, for example, is to infantry, the basic combat arm. This new ruling therefore must work itself out by the forces assigning women routinely to combat units.

    The problem arises as soon as women are assigned to work in any "combat theater," e.g. Iraq, Afghanistan. Just being there, whatever the assignment, e.g., transport battalion, communications, whatever, will expose them to physical harm. Now of course they should get combat pay at once if in a theater. This whole problem began when military employment began to be seen as a right. In the old days even most males were forced to participate by the draft. And the rich (as in Civil War days) managed to buy their way out of serving.


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