Why Women Shouldn’t Be in Combat Units: a Long Form Dick Joke
I’ve been a fan of War on the Rocks since they started publishing. They’ve managed to corral considerable talent in a short period of time, and usually I’m impressed. It’s an ambitious project, and they tend to post thoughtful pieces from thoughtful people.
Which made today’s running dick joke from Anna Simons a little jarring. In her piece, “Here’s Why Women in Combat Units is a Bad Idea,” Simons’ basic premise is this: mixed gender units won’t work because…penis. It’s a little more nuanced than that, but her three main problems are:
1. When men and women get together, couples form.
At some point, how couples interact – sexually, emotionally, happily and/or unhappily – makes life uncomfortable for those around them. Factor in intense, intimate conditions and you can forget about adults being able to stay professional 24/7. Object lesson for anyone who disagrees: General Petraeus.
It’s true that people like to have sex with other people. There are the outliers, but in general, we all want to make the whoopee on a regular basis. That doesn’t mean we’re all doomed to errors in judgment like P4. Lumping military personnel with one man’s adulterous romp is a disservice to the professionals of all genders already serving in uniform who managed to not bang their hagiographer.
2. Serving in combat not the same as serving in garrison.
But battles are like exclamation points. They punctuate long stretches when there are no firefights. Spend time around soldiers when they are coming down from adrenaline highs, or are depressed or upset; they are prone to all sorts of temptations.
Here’s where Simons is on point. I had a platoon of miscreants and deviants that were terrible in garrison. Thanks to them, my NCOs and I got know the MPs a lot more closely than we’d have liked.
Turn them loose in combat, and they excelled. At combat. Once they redeployed, they were the same hot mess before they left. So that much, from my own vast emipirical sampling, is definitely valid. But then we’re back to the dick jokes.
How quickly we forget Charles Graner and Lynndie England, and the dynamic between them that helped fuel the sadism at Abu Ghraib.
Graner and England’s despicable actions at Abu Ghraib had more to do with a pair of damaged psyches than some volatile mix of ennui and power games. Like Petraeus/Broadwell, using them to illustrate her point belies the professionalism that generally permeates the actions of those in uniform, regardless of gender.
3. Mixing genders not like mixing races. Or the gays.
Proponents of lifting the ban love to invoke desegregation and the demise of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.
They do. Or we do, I guess. Since in my own non-influential self-appointed sphere of blogging influence I’ve used that argument to advocate for women being allowed to serve in combat units. It’s not the only reason, but it’s part of it. And blacks and homosexuals now serve openly. Theoretically.
Blacks now serve in combat units, as do (at least in theory) openly homosexual soldiers, and there have been no untoward effects.
So is the theory that they’re openly homosexual, or that they’re haven’t been any “untoward effects”? As a former infantry officer who served with gay colleagues before DADT was repealed, this one hit a nerve. And, since I’m prone to balanced, non-ranty proclamations on Twitter, I took exception to that parenthetical aside.
Then before I had a chance to fire up a Tumblr, Ryan Evans, editor-in-chief at WOTR, chimed in.
Having seen where the comment stream on this article was headed, I opted for this post. And it’s possible that Evans is right.
That I’m tilting at rhetorical windmills.
That I’m lost in a fog of misguided self righteous faux indignation.
That I just don’t understand what Simons meant by her parenthetical dismissal of the service of gays in uniform.
That as a straight guy my consideration of gays falls somewhere on the sliding scale between “meh” and “ew.”
Except that attraction between the sexes is nothing like the denigration of another race or the disinterest (or disgust) heterosexual men feel when it comes to the idea of one man pursuing another.
The rest of the article is in defense of unit cohesion, and how introducing women into that equation is going to damage that beyond repair. Because, ladies, the world is just one big bar.
There is no clearer way to put it than this: Heterosexual men like women. They also compete for their attention. This is best captured by the Darwinist aphorism: male-male competition and female choice. Or, try: no female has to leave a bar alone if she doesn’t want to, whereas at ‘last call’ lots of men do.
She then cites her work in studying unit cohesion, establishing her bona fides in arguing that because penis we can’t have vaginas near our sweaty warrior types. Because the men (penises) will fight over the women (vaginas), and, well, men are selfish with stuff that they win. Because you can’t spell wife without trophy.
More than a decade ago, I described the critical ethos on teams, and in squads or platoons, as ‘one for all and all for one.’ Introduce something over which members are bound to compete, that the winner won’t share, and you inject a dangerous dynamic. Worse, introduce the possibility of exclusivity between two individuals and you will have automatically killed cohesion.
And this is where the dick joke lands. Poorly. Authorial intent aside (and yes, kids, once upon a time I did stuff with the literature and the reading), what Simons wants to hammer home is the fact that straight people…must…bang. Regardless of prior constraints of professionalism or commitments to other relationships.
And it’s only straight people. Simons’ argument is a heterosexual version of the assertion that gay dudes would want to have sex with all the straight dudes if we let them serve openly. Her argument against women being in combat units is just as facile as the one arguing against the presence of homosexuals: that because they can have the sex, they must have the sex. Which brings me back to that parenthetical aside that seemed so jarringly dismissive of gays in uniform.
It appears that Simons cannot conceive of a world where varying sexual orientations can coexist in martial harmony. She couches that in terms of her concern over individuals and their complementary secondary sexual characteristics, but she seems more concerned about the “c” word: change.
The focus of her work has always been the world of testosterone-y adrenaline junkies who (until now) have populated special operations. It’s solid work, and worthwhile: her The Company They Keep is one of my favorite books on the Special Forces. And now that world is about to change, and she doesn’t like it.
Simons’ world is one where women swoon at the boozy attention of men in bars. Where they are prizes to be won in a never ending Darwinian sexscape. If it were up to her, women would be inserted into combat units only when necessary, there for the combat but sent home before the barracks bangfest can get into full swing.
Because no matter what, we’re all just Broadwell and Petraeus. England and Graner. And because all we are is uglies looking to bump, we can never get past that primal urge and manage to behave like professionals.
What could have been a nuanced conversation about concerns in the combat operations community from someone with deep insight into a world most have never experienced instead turned into a rehashing of antiquated sexual hangups disguised as scholarly debate.
Simons sells short everyone in our armed services, asssuming that they, like her, cannot and will not accept another social change. That we’re okay with racial integration, but homosexuals are still up for debate. And there’s no way straight people can work together without “doing the Petraeus.”
So whatever her intent, as a reader I found her work if not homophobic at least homoquestionable, misogynistic, and dismissive of the professionalism I’ve seen first hand in our men and women in uniform. That’s not to say that the assignment of women to combat units isnt going to be without its challenges: we learned that much at least from Lt. Jordan O’Neill. And unless we can come up with better reasons than “because penis” to bar their way, those assignments are pretty much inevitable.