One remarkable thing about the Obama Administration’s decision to lift restrictions on the use of women in combat operations is the lack of debate about it. Not much has been said about it, yet there are questions one could ask. One obvious one is the empirical, practical question: will it work out well, will it make the nation more secure? That is an important one, but best left to experts with the kind of knowledge necessary to address it properly, knowledge that I don’t have. I am more interested in the moral or cultural aspect of the issue. What does the use of women in combat say about us as a people? So here are some questions meant to provoke some thought on the question (not to settle it definitively):
- Is there a Catholic position on this question? In one obvious sense there is not: there is no official doctrine or teaching on the use of women in combat of which I am aware. But does the Catholic intellectual tradition more broadly understood have anything to say on this question? On the one hand, we do have the example of Joan of Arc. On the other hand, Catholic thought ordinarily emphasizes the complementarity of the sexes: the idea that men and women, while equal in dignity, are different in their gifts and characters. But doesn’t belief in the complementarity of the sexes at least imply some social division of labor, such that some jobs are more proper to one sex than another? Is the question of women in combat a test of this principle? I mean, can you really affirm the complementarity of the sexes and think that women should be used in combat operations? I am just asking.
- Does it help to think about this question at the simplest possible level, the level of the family? In defending the new policy, President Obama has said that now our wives and daughters will have the same opportunity to defend the country they love that the rest of us (men) have. Bringing this issue down to the elementary level, what would we think of a husband who, awakened by burglars, informed his wife that she was going to have the same opportunity to chase them off as he would? Would we think of this husband as a just, enlightened, progressive man? Or would we think of him as a coward? Would we want this man to marry our daughters? Or consider it this way. Suppose that during the flight to Egypt the Holy Family was in danger of being overtaken by Herod’s thugs, intent on killing the child Jesus. Can we imagine Saint Joseph proudly telling Mary that she would share with him the task of fighting them off?
- Finally, if, as the proponents of this policy say, it is a matter of equality, then does not the policy stop short of where it should go, if it were followed to its logical conclusion? In other words, if equality requires that women be permitted to be in combat operations, why does it not also require that they be exposed to the possibility of combat operations? In other words, if equality is to decide this question, then why is it that men are subject to being drafted and women are not? If we wish to think of ourselves as consistently committed to the equality of the sexes, then are we not obligated to extend the draft to women? But, on the other hand, if extending the draft to women makes us question the decency of our society (as well it might), then do we not also need to rethink the question of women in combat from some other perspective than that of a dogmatic commitment to equality?