Women and the Military

Ralph Zuljan

Although a discussion of the role of women in the military generally breaks down into a familiar debate on brains versus brawn in combat, there is a central point that such discussions tend to ignore. As a species humans are subject to a survival model similar to that of any other species. Individually, in the short term, we survive by finding food, shelter and the like. In the long term, we survive through reproduction. Perhaps an analogy for the short and long term survival of societies may be drawn as well. I realize that this treads on notions of social Darwinism and such ideas have limited application. However, I would consider it as more of a social learning process that differentiates social functions on the basis of profound physical differences. To suggest that a statistical variation in upper body strength or the like is all that underlies the historically evident exclusion of women from battle seems rather trite. Likewise, the historical record makes clear that evidence of female fighting ability is not enough to overcome the long-standing exclusion of women from battle.

A cursory look at the history of women in the military suggests that women are only involved in combat on an equal footing with males insofar as immediate survival of the social grouping is at stake. From early tribal collectives to the Soviet experience in World War II and the Israeli experience in the first years after achieving statehood, when the society is threatened with imminent destruction, there is little or no regard given to gender differentiation in combat. This makes intuitive sense since there is no point in worrying about future survival of a society if it is at risk of destruction in the present. However, once a social grouping achieves a level of security, women tend to be removed from combat and all associated activities. From the earliest city states to the present day, fighting in an organized armed force has tended to be a male function except in the most desperate of circumstances. Females have tended to be reserved for carrying out their reproductive function. A large set of social norms is built around this basic differentiation but at its core the distinction seems to lie in the reproductive process.

It takes a female roughly nine months to produce one offspring. A male merely participates in the conception process. This difference is only enhanced by the roughly thirty year limit to the female reproductive period when contrasted to the puberty to death period of males. Interestingly enough, that thirty year reproductive period for females would also engulf the most common age group engaged in military service. Consequently, males are relatively expendable and their possible loss to a society is relatively less impacting. To put this in perspective, if 50% of the reproductively capable males were eliminated from this society, it would be relatively easy to recover the population loss when compared to a 50% loss of reproductive females. After all, one male can fertilize numerous females but one female can only produce one offspring per year -- more or less. From a collective perspective, there is a greater risk to societal survival if females are lost in combat than males and the higher that percentage is the more likely the society will fail to reproduce successfully. Hence, it will fail to survive.

The conclusion I would draw is that females are withdrawn from combat activities because, from a collective perspective, their time consuming reproductive function is an equally important but gender specific element in the long term survival of the collective. If there are sufficient males available for existing threats, it would seem rational to preserve the females -- at the expense of the males -- in order to carry out further reproduction. The success of this social differentiation is reflected by its universal application by societies. In a period of peace female (re)production increases the pool of expendable males and in war it provides replacements. Females are therefore dedicated to the (re)production of new generations of soldiers to replace those lost in combat and the long term survival of the society. Males are dedicated to the short term survival of the society.

I would think this implies that, from the collective's perspective, reproduction is an equally important factor in the successful building of a society and state and the collective's security. Social collectives that thrive in a world where warfare is commonplace can only do so in the long term if they are capable of replacing their casualties and they can only do so through reproduction. It is a function that is still very much gender specific.

Turning to the present day, I can see no mental or physical reason that women cannot participate fully in the military. Perhaps the only reservation is that which has already been expounded. There is a fairly common belief that wars today are meaningfully different from those in the past. Yet, none of the western states has engaged in a significant war for more than fifty years now. This is not an excessively long period of peace for a given set of states in the international system. The wars that have been engaged in recently are minor and local in scale. They do not reflect the expectations of a major war and the potential casualties resulting from an experience such as the world wars. I do would wonder what the social implications would have been if the military casualties of the world wars had been equally distributed among males and females. Furthermore, it is assumed that the armed forces will remain relatively small organizations which would reduce the risk of catastrophic loss of reproductive capability. One of the greatest assumptions, however, and an expectation derived from some recent experiences, is that of near zero casualties. In so far as all these assumptions are correct, there is really no meaningful differentiation between males and females with respect to military service. Equality in the armed forces is therefore a reasonable direction to pursue. However, if these assumptions are ever shown to be in error, the societal consequences could be severely damaging for the long term. The historical record shows that integrating women into the military services entails a risk to the reproductive viability of the society that does so. Whether or not supporting a currently fashionable ideological position is worth this risk is the only question worth asking.

Originally published in "Articles On War" at OnWar.com on February 1, 2007.

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