This is a guest post by Thomas Wein, War Studies grad, and an occasional commenter on this blog.
Dr. Martin van Creveld is a distinguished academic and skilled controversialist. His recent article at SWJ on women and the military, however, is neither correct nor skillful. Kings of War’s own Jack McDonald offers a critical take on the “wreck of an article”, and quotes Bill Hicks as a bonus. Here, I round up the other online reactions to both the article and to the original announcement, and trace the logical flaws of some of van Creveld’s curious arguments.
The Small Wars Journal comments section is intermittently edifying, noting the contrary lessons of Israel, and citing a careful 2011 article arguing the opposite case by Traci Swanson and Sheila Medeiros, also on SWJ. Meanwhile, Fabius Maximus provides a handy list of background sources and further reading, and notes that this is ground van Creveld has trodden before, in an exchange in the journal Millenium:
- “The Great Illusion: Women in the Military”, Martin van Creveld, Millennium – Journal of International Studies, 2000; 29 (subscription only here; free Scribd PDF here)
- “`Shooting’ at the Wrong Target: A Response to Van Creveld”, Bethke Elshtain (Prof Ethics, U Chicago Divinity School), Millennium – Journal of International Studies, 2000 #29 (subscription only here; free Scribd PDF here)
Crispin Burke of Wings Over Iraq demolishes the argument using memes, contradictory quotes from van Creveld’s own work, and a comparison of the actual quality of recruits in the 1970s and today. Bing West, writing for The American Interest offers a still wrong, but more thoughtful and historically grounded, argument against including women in infantry units; he attempts to trace the dynamics of combat in the field, and looks skeptically at the reasoning behind the change. Tom Ricks’ blog hosts a succession of takes on the issue, here, here and here.
Meanwhile, Spencer Ackerman explains at Danger Room how integrating women will work in the coming years. The LA Times reports that the public support the change. Feminist blog Jezebel recalls that there have been plenty of women in combat before this announcement. And finally, The Atlantic’s Noah Berlatsky argues that plenty of feminists are pacifists, and would rather focus on keeping everyone out of combat
The arguments, such as they are
We should leave aside his limited and biased history of women in the US military, peppered as it is with lines like “[the forces] tended to roll over at the first sign of a feminist demand” – a judgment that neither feminists nor officers nor historians would recognize. Rather, we shall focus on his arguments. He offers two: that there is a causal link between the recruitment of women and the decline of the US military; that women have inherent failings that make them unsuitable soldiers.
The first argument runs thus: that there is a correlation between a decline in the US military’s fighting power and the rising proportion of women in the ranks. He explains that the reduction in fighting power is due to a reduced quality of recruits, a phenomenon occasioned by the reduced prestige of the military caused by the ‘feminization’ of the role. This is plainly hokum, with every stage questionable.
The US military, in the judgment of most analysts, can boast more fighting power than in 1945, because of the incredible increases in the quality of weaponry; defeat in Afghanistan does not prove a lack of fighting power – and if it did, the comparative decline would still be unproven. If the alleged decline in fighting power could be charted, it would most likely not correlate clearly with the rising participation of women. It is equally not clear that the quality of recruits has gone down: plenty of recruits could not read in 1945, and every generation of officers has complained that the recruits were better in some mystical past. If it could be proved that the quality of recruits has declined, it is not clear that this is due to the reduced prestige of the military; there are now more options open to an ambitious young man who does not fancy farming. Indeed, van Creveld does not demonstrate that the prestige of the military has declined; flag-waving patriotism seems about as popular as ever. And finally, if it could be proved that the prestige of the military has declined, there are countless factors that might weigh more heavily than a dubious process of ‘feminization’, from a relative decline in a diverse economy, to defeats in Vietnam, Somalia, Afghanistan and beyond, to outbreaks of indiscipline and inhumanity in Abu Ghiraib, My Lai and every atrocity in between, to the changing social mores of the 1960s and after.
The second argument holds that women make poor soldiers. He argues that once they have children, they can only be deployed within limits, without acknowledging that all soldiers can only be deployed within limits, and that the relationship between tour length and PTSD is presently the main limiting factor on deployability. He notes that many men are fitter and stronger than many women, and that women are more likely to get injured. Leaving aside the dubious medical diagnosis that women are inherently more susceptible to injury, this is a case for stringently enforced fitness criteria – not for gender-based discrimination. He notes that female retention rates are lower than male, but while he implies that this is due to some inherent quality in women – flightiness, perhaps – the more likely explanation is that women leave because they are fed up with an institution that does not allow them equal chances or equal risks. Finally, in a rhetorical move that is somewhere between the laughable and the obscene, he notes that women are less likely to die in combat than men, and writes that this because the women “have found a thousand ways to avoid going where the bullets are”. He calls them cowards, in short, because they do not die as often, when the reason they do not often die is that they are not permitted to serve in frontline roles.
On only one point does this second argument have some merit. He notes that women get pregnant, putting ‘one-tenth’ of them out of action. He does not say how he arrived at the rather high figure, but this is certainly an additional complexity that will have to be adjusted to. Yet because he gives equality between the sexes no value, every obstacle seems insurmountable. We, who start from an assumption that equality has inherent value, need not be so easily deterred. Van Creveld makes a constructive point at last, but it is not a clincher, and to demonstrate that all female participation represents “a gross waste of resources” will require rather more evidence than he adduces.
Finally, van Creveld includes a curious coda, in which he seems to suggest that since men have done the fighting since the Iliad, and since women make up a slight majority of the population, it is really their turn to take up arms. It is not clear how this supports his argument.
One would not normally engage with a man who implies that the cause of the Tailhook scandal was the presence of women, rather than the presence of rapists. But Martin van Creveld has had a glittering career. He is listened to in many quarters. It is therefore gratifying to read that even his admirers see this piece for the bigoted tosh it is.
Tom Wein is a defence analyst, an alumnus of KCL War Studies, and a feminist. His writing is collected here.