Last week, when Defense Secretary Leon Panetta decided to allow women in the military to occupy combat positions that had once been forbidden to them, I joined in the general jubilation. This seemed to be yet another step forward for society and, of course, for women themselves.
Before long, however, my jubilation turned to gloom.
It suddenly seemed strange to celebrate the Pentagon as a font of justice and wisdom. This is the same entity that has sent tens of thousands of young Americans to senseless deaths in Vietnam, Iraq and Afghanistan, deaths that we know were neither vital for national security nor necessary to advance America’s interests. It is bizarre to see how quickly despondency over the slaughterhouse of war can turn into grateful expectation that, when the next military debacle comes, women will now be able to die as brutally and senselessly as men.
One pundit went so far as to admiringly quote a retired Air Force brigadier general, a woman, who said, “I think people have come to the sensible conclusion that you can’t say a woman’s life is more valuable than a man’s life.”
No, you could never accuse the generals of holding one soldier’s life higher than another’s — unless it belongs to a general. Once the brigadier general’s surreal statement would have been fodder for the disgusted absurdism of a Heller or a Vonnegut. Now it is a ringing affirmation of a woman’s right to die for nothing alongside men dying for nothing.
The enthusiastic supporters of the Pentagon’s decision to allow women into frontline combat make two points when reservations are expressed about the new policy. The first is that the more the public sees women performing, and dying in, military roles, the more opportunities society will make available to women. Maybe. But for generations, most of the soldiers who have done the fighting and dying have been working-class and lower-middle-class males, and that has done nothing to slow the economic disempowerment of that social group.
Then, too, it is hard to see how further tales of women dying courageously in battle — we’ve already had plenty of examples — could be more inspiring than women serving as judges, senators, doctors, lawyers, police officers, etc. If the examples of Hillary Rodham Clinton, Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Nancy Pelosi on the left, and Sarah Palin, Michele Bachmann and Carly Fiorina on the right, have not yet brought parity in women’s and men’s incomes, a young woman from the Bronx getting her brains blown out in some foreign place is not going to do the trick.
And make no mistake, it won’t be the elite female pundits, as well-intentioned as their joy over the Pentagon’s decision no doubt is, who bear the anguish of death and maiming in war. It will be women from society’s lower social strata who, like their male counterparts, will find themselves on the battlefield, especially single mothers and especially from states where entitlement programs are in shreds.
And unlike all the enlisted women whose martial ambitions are now being celebrated in the liberal media, a lot of these poor women could find themselves involuntarily drafted in the future.
As for women now having greater opportunities to be promoted in the military, just as they have in other careers, well, fighting, hurting and dying in combat is hardly just another career.
There is of course the argument that motherhood, single or not, should no more obstruct female warriors than it should female professionals, and that women serving on the front lines will put to rest that primitive prejudice once and for all. But saying that a woman’s capacity to bring new life into the world has no bearing on her being in the boardroom or on the factory floor is one thing, and saying it has no bearing on her being blown to smithereens on the battlefield is another.
Motherhood has nothing to do with the basic capacity to work, to make and to build, but it has everything to do with the great anti-maternal principle in life: war. Do we really need to prove that women are the equals of men in killing?
There is, finally, the second argument for breaking down all barriers to women in war, the contention that it represents a logical — even inevitable — extension of the principles of equality and civil rights that desegregated the military and did away with “don’t ask, don’t tell.” Yet the differences between races, and between sexualities, are trivial, cosmetic and superficial, while the difference between genders, which span race and sexuality, is profound, fundamental and consequential. Just because women’s nurturing quality — whether they are mothers or not — has been proved, time and time again, to be no obstacle to women’s abilities is no reason to discount that quality as possessing special virtues.
After all, if women go to war just as men always have, who will be left to protest, as women always have, the absurd savagery of wars that are produced by the male ego? Who will remind the men who make the wars of the gift of life, and of the need for the nourishment and sustenance of life? Sorry to sound like Fred Flintstone, but women carry that knowledge in their bones. Men don’t.
Still, and for all that, women will go to fight beside men. So be it. I would not want to stand athwart the march of progress. Instead I will hope that my daughter (and my son), rather than trying to prove herself in battle, runs for public office. That way she can try to erase the foolish notion that dying on a battlefield is any type of criterion of general ability, or everyday career, to begin with.
Lee Siegel is the author of four books and, most recently, of the e-book “Harvard Is Burning.”