Tami Chappell / Reuters

Women in the military are not a social experiment

America’s armed forces should reflect the country’s diversity, not a bygone era

August 26, 2015 2:00AM ET

In response to a question about accepting transgender service members into the armed forces, former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee made an interesting comment during Fox News’ Republican primary debate earlier this month. “The military is not a social experiment,” he said. “The purpose of the military is to kill people and break things. … It’s not to transform the culture by trying out some ideas that some people think would make us a different country and more diverse. The purpose is to protect America.”

Despite Huckabee’s odd insinuation to the contrary, our country actually is diverse already. That’s a strength and a quality, and it should be reflected in our military. Last week, two women graduated from the Army’s grueling Ranger course for the first time, throwing a particularly ridiculous light onto Huckabee’s comments. Of course the military is a social experiment, one in which we’re constantly seeking to better utilize personnel resources. But it’s the inverse of what Huckabee said. The military doesn’t act as some vehicle for radical social change. It makes an honest appraisal of the society we already have and figures out the best way for that society to defend itself.

Militaries are cultural products, not unlike art or music. The particular way in which a civilization wages war reveals a lot about how that society is structured. Sometimes the connection is obvious: take, for example, the image of overtly military-focused Spartan men training to be warriors from the age of seven and keeping a monomaniacal focus on battle at the center of daily life. But the connection between society and military can be direct without being so pronounced. Napoleon instituted a meritocracy among his officer corps, doing away with hereditary positions and working under the dictum “the tools to him that can handle them,” as translated by Thomas Carlyle. It was a pragmatic move, but also one that reflected the values of post-revolutionary France.

Closer to our own time, President Truman’s Executive Order 9981 racially desegregated the American military. This was obviously a moral evolution, but it also made pragmatic sense. At The Root, Joy-Ann Reid writes, “the military after World War II was facing a problem of blacks who fought in the war wanting to re-enlist, but in most cases, the military didn’t want them, except as Navy stewards or other menial tasks. The tension between the soldiers’ demands, and increasing agitation from civil rights leaders like A. Philip Randolph, plus basic manpower needs of the military, forced the military itself — not the president — to look at the policy.” 

Tenacity, loyalty and competence aren’t distributed according to gender, and anyone with the ability and drive to serve their country should be allowed to do so.

Militaries change along with the societies they protect. At least they should. It wasn’t a “social experiment” in the way that Huckabee meant it when the Union Army used the North’s nascent industrial advantage to win the Civil War. Cultural shifts in the North over the course of the 19th century translated into real material differences. The North was more amendable to immigration, which helped give it a population advantage. Different attitudes towards business, medicine, and science gave the North a technological advantage. An engineer was six times as likely to be from the North as the South. These are the advantages the North used to win the war. To deny these advantages, relatively new at the time, in favor of what would have been the more familiar structure of a smaller, less industrialized army would have been to turn the military into an anachronism. And that’s something that Huckabee, and those who think like him, should fear more than change.

Of the social changes that have been taking place in America over the past few years — the mainstreaming of gay marriage, the rising visibility of systemic racial issues, greater laxity on recreational drugs, even greater acceptance of transgender people — one that has gotten underplayed is the official recognition of American women in combat. I don’t say “the introduction” of American woman to combat because women have been fighting abroad at least since 9/11. In the Global War on Terrorism, anything resembling “the front lines” disappeared. Everyone deployed would potentially experience combat. You could say that it was the fighting methods of our enemies — the indiscriminate use of homemade explosive devices, that got the ball rolling on parity in combat by meting violence out to everyone regardless of gender.

This blurred the distinction between combat and noncombat roles in many ways. As Kevin Knodell writes for the blog War Is Boring, “Female military police officers participated in combat patrols and served on training teams advising police in Iraq. … This extended to commando units. Female explosive ordnance disposal specialists accompanied Navy SEALs into Afghanistan’s hills for days.” Roughly 300,000 women have deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan. More than 150 were killed in combat. It stands to reason that if women are already in combat then the best combat training should be available to them.

In 2013, Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta lifted the ban on women serving explicitly in combat roles and instituted a a three-year timeline for integrating women into combat roles or offer detailed and unambiguous reasons why it isn’t possible in certain circumstances. Including women in Ranger school is part of this larger process of integration; it also goes a long way in proving to critics that women are as physically capable as men. The Ranger course has a reputation for being one of, if not the, most physically arduous school the Army offers. It strenuously tests the physical limits of soldiers in a variety of environments, including woodlands, mountains, and swamps. For this particular class outside observers were brought in to make sure that instructors weren’t cutting the female soldiers any slack. They didn’t — allowing the graduating women to silence critics once and for all.

As Sgt. Major Colin Boley, operations sergeant major for the Airborne and Ranger Training Brigade told Foreign Policy, “Whether I agree or disagree with it, they have changed my mind. I didn’t think that they would physically be able to bear the weight, and I thought they would quit or get hurt, and they have proved me wrong.”

In my own experience as an Infantry soldier with two combat tours under my belt, I would have absolutely preferred to work alongside motivated, well-trained female soldiers than unmotivated, incompetent male soldiers. Tenacity, loyalty and competence aren’t traits distributed according to gender, and anyone with the ability and drive to serve their country in combat should be allowed to do so. Women defended the Soviet Union in combat during the Second World War. Israel gave women full combat status in 1948 and still requires mandatory military service of them. More recently the women of the Kurdish PKK have been hailed as “fierce” and “badass” for taking the fight to the Islamic State.

It makes sense to put the most qualified, willing people in the positions that they’re most likely to succeed in, and that’s not a social experiment — it’s simple pragmatism. Forcing the military to reflect the social mores of a bygone area, to the detriment of our national security, qualifies as more of a “social experiment” than admitting there are women and transwomen who can get the job done. Because on that front the results are already in: They can.

Scott Beauchamp is a veteran and writer living in Portland, Maine. His work has appeared in The Atlantic, Bookforum and The Baffler, among other places. 

The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera America's editorial policy.

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