A Rebuttal to Bill Flax: Women in Combat

Image: “Flickr – Israel Defense Forces – The Life of Female Field Intelligence Combat Soldiers. Image is released under a creative Commons License by the Israeli Defense Forces Spokesperson’s Unit.

Hot off the press is Bill Flax’s op/ed piece for Forbes.com: “Memo to the ACLU: Don’t Put Women Into Combat,” published 11/29/2012 @ 2:28PM.  Flax offers a partisan argument regarding women in combat: he is against it. I use the word “partisan” simply because of Flax’s insistance of referring to the “left” and “liberal academics” as being the pushers in this equation, pushing for combat equal in the military.  Flax writes:

Try as the Left may to thwart reality, adult men and women remain different. It’s impossible to comprehend human interactions without recognizing this undeniable certainty. Nevertheless, the American Civil Liberties Union has launched legal action against the Department of Defense. The lawsuit seeks to pry open one of the last pursuits still exclusively masculine, serving in combat.

This phraseology leads me to believe that Mr. Flax is a conservative who sees this issue singularly, as a political concern rather than a topic above simple political wriggling: a civil rights issue. But I will get to that in a moment.  First, I would like to examine this author’s argument.

Flax argues that women are not cut out for combat, and to support his argument he points to how his children, girls and boys, act differently as they greet him when he gets home from work: girls kiss and hug, boys hit.  Further, he brings up a Marine’s Infantry Officers Course designed for women, which failed: “The Marine Corps has opened Infantry Officers Course for a pilot program to study how well women could perform in combat roles. The first two females, and only two entered, both quickly flopped; one on the first day, the other within a week. No female marines have yet opted for the next session.”

Next, to uphold his argument further, Flax explains how women are weak and generally lazy, not willing to pull their backs into training or, one assumes, when in combat:

Every Friday morning we’d bemusedly watch as the HQ elements went on their weekly PT run. The mostly male main body would scurry past and there would inevitably follow a long trail of women marines casually walking along behind. Maybe a paramour or two accompanying their leisurely strolls back to the barracks.

There are likely many women who can hack it physically, particularly in the short term. Over longer spans, however, few women have the endurance, the skeletal structure, the muscularity, to withstand the physical brutality of combat. We can lessen the requirements so more women qualify, but when bullets fly, truth will prove costly.

For the few woman that might be able to hack it, Flax offers brief but partial recognition: “The courageous young heroines who have endured combat missions deserve our recognition, nay our praise. But it’s essential that we limit their duties in theatre. It comes down to our nation’s very essence.”

I had many reactions to this particular article and most of them quite strong. I disagree with Mr. Flax quite rigorously, and for many reasons.  Part of my problem according to Flax, I am sure, would be my political standing. Of course, being one of those “Lefties” and “Liberals,” and being a woman, my first thought was: of the many women I know who experience combat, far too many have told me about being raped, and/or being sexually and verbally assaulted throughout the process by male comrades.* Of course, Mr. Flax anticipates this “liberal” concern when he writes:

At college, after serving in the Marine Corps infantry, it became apparent that all liberal academics cared about the military was whatever sexual harassment scandal then cycled through the news. One would think the armed forces were social engineering mechanisms. Nary any inkling that marines protect our country, their point is fighting and winning wars. Nope, to the Left, it’s all about opportunities for women to invade previously masculine fields.

I am sadden about how Flax dismisses the very real problem of sexual harassment in the military and, contrary to his argument, this is a form of socialization against female participation – hegemony at it’s worse. Silence is half the problem with sexual assault in this country and in the military.  According the our defense department, sexual assault and rape are real issues to be concerned with:

The military services received a total of 3,192 reports of sexual assault during fiscal
2011. Of the 3,192 reports of sexual assault, 2,439 were unrestricted reports and 753 were restricted reports. This represents a one percent increase since fiscal 2010, there were 3,158 reports of sexual assault, consisting of 2,410 unrestricted reports and  748 restricted reports. (See ” Fact Sheet on Department of Defense Annual Report on Sexual Assault in the Military,” linked to below).

One of the bigger questions that come to mind is this: how many people do not report being sexually assaulted? How many people do not report being physically or mentally assaulted? What does this mean to the numbers and statistics? Indeed, the number of actual sexual assaults is estimated well into the ninteen thousand, according to the DOD itself:

In FY2010, there were 3,158 total reports of sexual assault in the military. The DODestimates that this number only represents 13.5% of total assaults in 2010, making the total number of military rapes and sexual assaults in excess of 19,000 for FY 2010. (See the Service Women’s Action Network, linked to below).

It is inexcusable to simply dismiss this issues as a nonissue in this particular memo, and for the sake of all women, including Mr. Flax’s two little girls, I would urge the author to tread lightly and with some education on this particular topic.

Let me, however, move on to Mr. Flax’s next argument in his op/ed: his insistance that when we talk about women fighting in combat, this discussion is not about socialization or civil rights, but a practical issue regarding gender sensibility and physical, DNA reality: women can’t carry the equipment needed in war, woman can’t emotionally handle the stress of war, and so on and so forth.  We have heard these arguments over and over again, from Rousseau and his “separate but equal” rationale as to why women should be educated to please men, to sudo scientific arguments regarding how women have smaller brains and so could not handle the right to vote, to Flax’s tired and worn out argument regarding why the ACLU should stop pushing for equality in the military.  But make no mistake, all of this comes down to socialization and propaganda: tell a person long enough about how she or he can’t do something, and I guarantee you that person will convince their self of the same. Socialize a society to believe that a certain portion of their population are second class citizens, and you will get a society that happily steps on others.  History demonstrates this point nicely, from slavery, to segregation, to genocide and the like.

Besides being a socialization issue, this writer is incorrect when he states that offering women the right to fight for their country is “not a civil rights matter” … it certainly is about civil rights. It’s about equal opportunity for one to fight for their country without being harassed sexually, mentally, or physically.  How can it be otherwise?  Indeed, let’s consider World War II. In World War II the definition of “fighting for your country” was divided and defined differently for the genders.  Men picked up a gun and went overseas to fight and possibly die.  Women, most of them daughters, sisters, wives/homemakers, were told to redefine womanhood. All of a sudden women were told that they had the strength, nay a new found ability to do a man’s job.  In droves women left their kitchens and their homes, there safe jobs as librarians and teachers to “fight for their country” by building all the goods needed to fight in a modern war: bombs, aircrafts and the like.  They did the jobs that “no good woman” would have been caught doing before the war. Women doing men’s jobs? Women working for their country, their beliefs and ethics; that is, they were “real women” until the men came back, and these women were told that “real womanhood” was again redefined.  A “real woman” would walk away from “real men’s jobs” and go back to their homes, kitchens, and dresses.  Socialization? Civil rights? You bet your ass.

Mr. flax, I personally don’t want to go to war. I think war is a waste of humanity, it is a disease, a blight that affects us all. However, I do believe in the good fight. I also believe that we should all have the right to fight for our rights and ethics, even if it comes to defending ourselves with a gun when necessary.  Of course, I would rather fight with good arguments and words first. But sometimes we are violated, and we must defend ourselves. Women have a right to help that defense.

I have done my best to point out the flaws in these arguments, but I welcome my readers to read up on the issue, and make their own judgments.


*Please note, I know many male soldiers who would never, under and circumstance, promote sexual assault or rape – so I am not putting all male military persons in this category. Further, male solders are also assaulted and raped as well.  It is a all consuming problem.

Check out these other resources for women who fight:

O’Toole, Molly.  “Military Sexual Assault Epidemic Continues to Claim Victims As Defense Department Fails Females.”  Huffington Post.  6 Oct. 2012.  Web. 29 Nov. 2012. 

Speier, Jackie. “Why Rapists in Military Get Away with It.”  CNN.com. 21 June 2012. Web. 29 Nov. 2012.

NA. “Fact Sheet on Department of Defense Annual Report on Sexual Assult in the Military for Fiscal 2011 April 13, 2012.” Defense.gov. 13 April 2012. Web. 29 Nov. 2012.

NA. “Top Ten Badass Female Warriors.” Listverse.com. 17 March 2008.  Web. 29 Nov. 2012.

NA. “Chronologic History of Female Warriors, Military Commanders and Duelists.” Female Single Combat Club. 2012. Web. 29 Nov 2012.

Taylor, Kate. “The Military’s ‘Invisible War:’ A Call To Action To Stop Sexual Assaults.” Forbes.com. 21 June 2012. Web. 29 Nov. 2012.

Service Women’s Action network. “Pentagon Releases Latest Reports on Sexual Assault in the Military.” 30 March 2011. Web. 29 Nov. 2012.

An interesting article on how women warriors can be defined more broadly: Ufberg, Sharon. “Women Warriors: Not Your Everyday Desperate Housewives.” The Huffington Post. 17 June 2011.  Web. 29 Nov. 2012.

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