walter russell mead peter berger lilia shevtsova adam garfinkle andrew a. michta
Published on: February 13, 2013
Female Marines and Gay Boy Scouts

Two gender-related issues have been all over the media recently. On January 24, 2013, the Pentagon announced that it was reversing the policy of barring women from combat roles in the military. On January 28, 2013, the Boy Scouts of America said that it was considering a reversal of the national ban on gay youth and gay adults, leaving the matter to be decided by local branches. Both developments were predictably hailed by progressives as great victories for equality. The New York Times could barely contain its triumphalism.

The Pentagon announcement eloquently stated that “valor knows no gender”, a proposition hard to quarrel with. But the issue is not whether women can be valorous, but whether they are likely to exhibit the kind of valor needed for hand-to-hand combat, as is customarily demanded of infantry soldiers. I have no doubt that the decision responded to pressure from litigation-prone feminist and other progressive organizations. The Obama administration has repeatedly shown its closeness to this side in the American culture war, a side that is an important component of the Democratic Party’s base. However, there is an empirical fact that has nothing to do with ideology: The line between combat and non-combat roles in the military has become blurred. Considerable numbers of women serving in allegedly non-combat assignments in Afghanistan and Iraq have been wounded and killed. The crux of the issue is not uniformed women endangered, say, by suicide bombers attacking a headquarters far from any front, but women serving in infantry units fighting house-by-house in a village held by guerillas. In other words, the issue is women wearing “boots on the ground”.

The civilian control of the military is firmly established in American political culture. No matter whether they agree with an order or not, if it comes down the chain of command from the commander-in-chief the generals will salute and try to carry it out. Thus it is not surprising that Leon Panetta, the secretary of defense, could speak in the name of the top brass in expressing confidence that the new policy was feasible and would not be detrimental to national security. I would think that there was grumbling in various places along the endless corridors of the Pentagon. Down the line dissent was less silent.

On January 29,2013, the New York Times (to its credit) carried a story by Thomas Brennan, a former Marine. After describing the appalling conditions under which Marines must be ready to kill or be killed—“blood, entrails and fear”—he goes on: “We are a brotherhood; a collection of ragtag men who hunt and kill the enemy and travel in undesirable places to do even more undesirable things.” The article quotes a Marine staff sergeant whose view, Brennan thinks, is shared by most Marines who have seen combat: “It’s the worst decision that the military could make.”

The Boy Scouts of America represents a sizable community of about 2.6 million youth and one million adult members (who instruct and go out on field trips with the boys). The decision to reconsider the ban on gays was surprising. Only last summer the organization reiterated the old policy. A storm of criticism ensued. The legal situation was fairly clear. In 2000 the Supreme Court overruled a lower court and decided that the Boy Scouts had the right to exclude unwanted members, because the organization was an “expressive association, whose values came under the protection of the First Amendment. The ruling by the Supreme Court was closely reasoned. The openly-expressed values of the Boy Scouts are enshrined in a vow of members to be “morally straight” and “clean”, terms that could be differently understood, but which the organization declared to exclude homosexuality. The Court said that the federal judiciary was not in the business of judging the validity of expressed values, and it therefore had to defer to the organization to define the meaning of its self-description. Whatever the legal situation, the Boy Scouts apparently lost some corporate support and had to be worried about their public image. The matter is further complicated by the fact that many local chapters are sponsored by churches (notably Catholic, Methodist and Mormon). Thus it is not clear how this issue will play out beyond the courts.

The two cases are both similar and different. Both the military and the Boy Scouts are under pressure to pay obeisance to progressive  political correctness, exerted by well-funded organizations that are lustily prone to litigate. The cases are also different—one involving national security, the other the right of civil society to spout associations free of government control. There are empirical questions involved as well. Women in combat: Will this lower physical standards for combat troops (along the often made charge that affirmative action for minorities has lowered academic standards)? Will combat readiness be weakened by male soldiers, prone to come first to the help of women, being distracted from their mission? Gays in the Boy Scouts: Will gay adults leading boys become homosexual role models (an outcome which many parents obviously do not want)? I don’t think all the evidence is in on these questions.

In the first case, Israel seems to offer some lessons. There may be some pressures toward political correctness in Israeli society, but its military cannot afford any ideologically motivated weakening of combat readiness. For many years, while young women were conscripted along with men, they were kept out of direct combat roles. In 2000 the Knesset passed a law opening all military jobs to women who could qualify. As far as I know, there have been no deleterious consequences. There is a new problem with the recently enacted law making most ultra-Orthodox men eligible for conscription (until now they were exempt if they were yeshiva students): These men, the so-called Haredim, get very upset if they are put in situations of contact with women. But that problem need not concern us here.

In the second case, it is relevant to recall that the Boy Scouts originally came out of a military context. The movement was founded in England in 1908 in the wake of a book, Scouting for Boys, by Robert Baden-Powell.  The book became a bestseller. But the author was already well known as a hero of the Boer War in South Africa. He played an important part in the siege of Mafeking in 1900, where he organized a band of boys to serve as couriers between the British units defending the town. Baden-Powell’s interest in practical skills in the field—from tying arcane knots to keeping camp fires burning on windy nights—have influenced the Boy Scouts to this day. I suppose that the collapsible army knife could serve as a symbol of practical field readiness for both Marines and Scouts.

There is a certain ideological affinity between those who assert that there are no socially relevant differences between men and women (the physiological differences are a bit hard to deny), and those who claim the same lack of difference between homosexual and heterosexual orientations. Be this as it may, I would propose that there is a more basic similarity in that both assertions are rooted in an animus against traditional (non-erotic) male bonding.

Bands of heterosexual men bonding together have a very long lineage. German ethnologists long ago coined the term Maennerbuende—men’s leagues—to describe the phenomenon. It may well be that there is a genetic base for this, giving our species a comparative advantage in the fierce struggle to survive the evolutionary process. Anthropoid apes, our closest zoological relatives, seem to share the trait, the males huddling together, dancing rhythmically and making loud noises in the face of danger. Biology does not provide moral imperatives. Indeed, much of history is a story of human beings transcending this or that element of their genetic heritage. Be this as it may, male bonding as a widely diffused cultural item has been studied by many anthropologists, notably Lionel Tiger (Men in Groups, 1969, revised in 2004). Warriors have bonded together in male groups from the dawn of history. Such bonding was immortalized by Shakespeare in Henry the Fifth’s St. Crispin’s Day Speech, at the Battle of Agincourt (1415): “We few, we happy few, we band of brothers; for he today that sheds his blood with me shall be my brother”.

We have no information, from Shakespeare or anyone else, about the sexual orientation of those who fought at Agincourt. One may recall the Sacred Band of Theban warriors, composed of only homosexual lovers, who reputedly defeated the Spartans (paragons of macho virility) in 371 BCE. There is also the story about the Amazons, bands of female warriors from Scythia (present-day Ukraine and southern Russia); this may be a myth, though there seems to be some archaeological evidence in support of the story. I know of no stories about mixed bands, of either gay and straight men, or women and men. This may or may not be relevant today for the military or for boys camping out.

I should perhaps confess that I have no affinity for any sort of Maennerbund. I have always associated all-male gatherings with the sweaty atmosphere of the locker room and the telling of tasteless jokes. I have always thought that any room occupied by men only is instantly civilized by the arrival of even one woman (even one of no erotic appeal whatever). But then I was a most reluctant soldier during my (involuntary) stint in the US Army, and scouting never had the slightest attraction for me. The issue of women in combat units has no ideological import for me, being exclusively an empirical matter relating to the combat readiness of the American military (in which I do have an interest as a citizen). As to the Boy Scouts issue, I think the Supreme Court made the right decision in 2000:  If some voluntary associations want to limit themselves to members of one gender or one sexual orientation only, they should be free to do so (if they can overcome the disappointment of my not applying for membership).

This being said, I do have one question: What is gained for a society if this particular division of labor between the sexes is given up—women being specialists in nurture, men in the practice of violence? I have the hunch that something valuable is lost. After all, men on the whole are still physically stronger, and it is women who have breasts. Perhaps it is noteworthy that Amazons, to be confirmed as warriors, had to cut off one of their breasts.

show comments
  • Andrzej

    Male friendship can often approach close to the line of same-sex attraction, but it doesn’t cross that line. In fact, that line is what secures the possibility of the friendship.

    It today “culture” friends will fear showing affection as this might be interpreted as a sexual initiative. Sure, such initiatives took place in the past, but they were most likely interpreted as non-sexual and hence remained a non-problem.

    Non-gay men are much more affectionate to each other in the Middle East where friendship still holds the high value it had for Aristotle. I am inclined to think that this is still possible, because while same sex desires might be occasionally present, they are not legitimate and are beyond the conceptual framework of friendship and hence don’t threaten the friendship.

  • ChrisGreen

    I can tell you one thing as a scoutmaster, purely as a matter of practical concern, if one of my 13 yearls confessed to the other boys that he was gay, there would be pure chaos. Which 13 year old do you know (who is not gay) is going to sleep 3 inches from another 13 year old is gay, in a tent. I don’t mean what that 13 year old boy would do in an ideal world of rainbows and unicorns, I mean what that 13 year would really do, still immature, filled with massive, competitive insecurity and subject to the constant snickers and potential harrasement of other boys. Being a Scout doesn’t turn a kid into a saint and the resulting fiasco would likely result severe bullying, hysterics, and tears. I was raised by pretty free thining parents and when I was 13, I would rather have cut off my ears than be the one boy sleeping next to the professed gay kid, even if I was embarrassed to admit it. Of course these days, I have no problems with gay roomates, but than I’m 35, not 13.

  • Georgiaboy61

    Re: “In 2000 the Knesset passed a law opening all military jobs to women who could qualify. As far as I know, there have been no deleterious consequences.” This is the standard progressive line…. too bad it is in error. The Israelis, backed against a wall as a fledgling nation, tried women in ground combat – and rejected it as detrimental to combat effectiveness and – just as importantly – the civilization of that society. The WWII-era Soviets, faced with existential threat of destruction and extermination at the hands of Nazi Germany, also employed women in a variety of combat roles – but as soon as the threat passed, closed those roles to women again. Despite the success of women in certain roles, the net cost-benefit ratio was judged to be decisively against their use in combat. Although certain European militaries and also Canada – use women in the ground combat arms, most of them resemble social services agencies more than battle-hardened fighting forces. And within the male-dominated combat arms of these forces, there is substantial resentment that women are permitted to be there. The leftist media are careful not to report such dissent, for it does not fit the dominant narrative of the times. The blunt truth is that women are neither wanted, nor needed, in the ground combat arms. The few women can cut it physically in ground combat – and they are very few – cause more trouble and impose more costs (“friction”) on their units than they are worth. There are plenty of brave, capable women – but sometimes biology is destiny – and this is one of those times. If women insist upon being in ground combat, let them serve in female-only units. But, the bet here is we won’t see that happening anytime soon. Why? Because all involved know that such a unit would not be effective-enough to last in combat.

  • Beverly

    Most of the women in the military, the vast majority, don’t Want to be in combat.

    Second: let’s apply the same standards to homosexuals that we do to heterosexuals. Straight men aren’t allowed to be Girl Scout leaders, for a very good reason: it’s too dangerous for the girls. Most straight men wouldn’t bother them, but the issue is the pedophiles who would leap at the chance.

    By the SAME token, homosexual men should not be allowed to be Boy Scout leaders. They do have higher incidence of pedophilia, but we’re not allowed to know that; still, even if it’s the Same percentage as straight males, it’s TOO DANGEROUS to risk the children.

    The kids should come first. Period.

    Likewise, we don’t have coed scouting troops going camping together, for a good reason. BY the same token, having gay boys with the others would introduce sex into the equation, and it’s just nuts to even talk about.

    Bottom line: you don’t have to be a “homophobe” to want to keep the kids safe from sexual predation by ANYONE. (I wish more people would make this argument. Why doesn’t anyone talk about the KIDS’ rights?)

  • play nice

    If women can’t play with or against men in sports, what chance would they have in combat?

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  • Gary Novak

    “Both the military and the Boy Scouts are under pressure to pay obeisance to progressive political correctness exerted by well-funded organizations that are lustily prone to litigate.” That doesn’t seem to fit the narrative of women in combat and gays in the Boy Scouts as evidence of humanity’s long struggle to extricate itself from the slough of hateful bigotry and emerge enlightened into the realm of freedom. Indeed, those who accept the traditional division of labor between nurturing females and violent males as commonsensical see little need for hateful conspiracies to keep reality (not socially constructed “reality”) in place. But there is a good deal of hatred on the progressive side—hatred of male bonding, for example. In “Co-ed Combat: The New Evidence that Women Shouldn’t Fight the Nation’s Wars” (2007), Kingsley Browne, a Wayne State University law professor with a background in physical anthropology, has a chapter on male bonding (which begins with the same citation of Shakespeare Berger uses: “We few, we happy few, we band of brothers . . .”) and provides a wealth of evidence that Berger’s hunch is right: something (military readiness) is lost when we give up the traditional sexual division of labor.

    But if Shakespeare suggests why women don’t belong in combat, another poet explains why feminists want women in combat. Robert Frost: “Something there is that doesn’t love a wall.” Male bonding is one wall, but so is the insistence that cognitive differences between men and women make androgynous work assignments dangerous. If women’s “situational awareness” makes parallel parking difficult, should we ask them to land an F-14 on the flight deck of the Abraham Lincoln? The Navy attributed Lt. Kara Hultgreen’s death to engine failure, but didn’t mention that “the engine stall was itself precipitated by pilot error” (Browne, p. 216) Down the line (where Berger notes that dissent is less silent), Hultgreen’s training records were leaked, and they showed serious problems that would probably have resulted in a male’s being washed out. The grunts are not politically correct, but the brass is.

    My point is not that walls should always remain standing. Who is not happy that the wall keeping blacks out of Woolworth lunch counters has come down? But is it possible to assess objectively the “coefficient of adversity” (Sartre) of walls? Can it be determined empirically how much of a woman’s unhappiness is caused by the refusal of men to let her play golf at Augusta National? Can the law and the courts and those with a progressive education finally straighten all this stuff out? (Berger’s previous posts have expressed an appropriate skepticism about the capacity of law, courts, and juries of peers or experts to achieve justice. We need those institutions but should not expect them to deliver more than they can.) Or will it always come down to the marine who “takes” a responsibility he does not “have” to throw himself on that grenade to save his buddies. The saint takes responsibility for everything. The wall-hater blames the wall for everything. I don’t think we can say that the saint is right and the wall-hater wrong. We can say that the saint is more admirable.

    But if animosity toward male bonding explains a lot about the feminist push for women in combat, how much does it explain about the push for gays in the Boy Scouts? It’s hard to imagine gays being opposed to traditional (non-erotic) male bonding. Berger says he experiences even one woman entering an all-male gathering as the arrival of civilization. (I think I feel something similar when the ballerinas reappear after an extended variation by male dancers at the ballet.) But aren’t gays attracted to masculinity? Are they keeping one eye on the door in the hope that a woman will soon arrive to humanize them? What sort of bonding occurred among the Sacred Band of Theban warriors? Did it repudiate macho virility and endorse androgyny? Was it because they fought like girls that they were able to defeat the Spartans? And in what sense do gays claim that there is a “lack of difference” between homosexual and heterosexual orientations? Don’t they want equal rights to practice their superior orientation (worth coming out of the closet for even before those rights are achieved)? I’ve heard gays argue that people are either gay, straight, or lying: there is no such thing as “bi-sexuality” (which would seem to be the real “lack of difference” position).

    I may be missing something here, but I think gays are less interested in transforming Boy Scouts by undermining their male bonding than they are interested in tearing down walls. The primary motivation of those demanding the acceptance of gay Scouts is the “Keep Out” sign. The primary attraction of combat for women is the “Keep Out” sign. As Browne points out, when women near their “goal” of deployment, pregnancy or some other obstacle often intervenes. (Did you really think we wanted to, like, fight?) Browne quotes sociologist Laura Miller: “Many Army women are puzzled when they see feminists in the media pushing to open up combat roles to women, because they are unaware of any military women who are interested in such roles.”

    Feminists want androgyny. Gays want legitimacy. Women don’t want to fight; they want the right to fight. Most gays do not want to marry; they want the right to marry. The problem arises when the symbolic means chosen to achieve these ends have more than symbolic consequences. Military readiness has been degraded, but the U. S. military is so powerful that even a 10% degradation does not destroy our status as the only superpower. Shall we try for 20%?

  • Vic Hero

    In America people have a choice to join organizations that they have a connection with; church, civic clubs,fraternal organizations, Keep America Beautiful etc. If a person feels that they cannot be a good member of a civic club because it has attendance policies that they cannot meet then the individual has the choice to find something else. Same goes for women in combat. If a women does not want to join the Marines then join something else.

    People join what they feel comfortable with. Leave the values of the organizations alone, leave the pety agendas at home and concentrate on what you feel you are most closely connected to.

    If a person does not beleive in God or the existance of God then they would probably not join a church. If a person does not want to sell tupperware then they probably won’t. And if a person does not want to go to college then they have made that decision.

    The policies of any organization may not all be accepted. But if a person wants to be associated with that organization then he or she will have to support the organizations policies. This is not a hard thing to do…….

  • Anne

    Gary Novak said:

    “The problem arises when the symbolic means chosen to achieve these ends have more than symbolic consequences.”

    Gary, I thought your overall response was great – and especially the sentence I quoted above.

  • Chris

    Gary: “That doesn’t seem to fit the narrative of women in combat and gays in the Boy Scouts as evidence of humanity’s long struggle to extricate itself from the slough of hateful bigotry and emerge enlightened into the realm of freedom.”

    That is a great sentence.

  • Peter Jessen

    As in so many situations, much will depend on how the “definition of the situation” regarding “female marines and gay boy scouts” is framed by how the military and scouts and their members and “stakeholders” answer the two classic “ fundamental questions” raised by Berger in his 1998 “Culture of Liberty” essay: “who are we?” and “how are we to live together?”

    Berger asks about the military, “can all combat roles be gender neutral?” Berger references “will women be able to meet physical and readiness standards in all situations?” Berger asks of the Boy Scouts what kind of role models will gay Scout leaders play (as all leaders of all youth cannot not be role models).

    Perhaps a hint comes from Berger’s statement that “Amazons, to be confirmed as warriors, had to cut off one of their breasts.” It was not to make them look more like men. It was so they could more effectively and swiftly and repeatedly set (”load”) and release arrows from their bows. Strapping on 80 pound packs by infantry women today brings large breasts into question).
    Some have suggested a major aid to women in military roles is the birth control pill that enables women to have a better control of their destinies (historically, it was difficult for women to fight when pregnant, nursing, and having a toddler pull at their skirts).
    My sense is that the answers for the Boy Scouts will come at the local level and be dealt with more easily, as there is no combat, no death rattles, as opposed to the military where, as so often in a “regs” world where individuals have to be constantly replaced, one size is used to fit all.

    My sense is that the answer to Berger’s future question about females in the front lines of combat, “What is gained for a society if this particular division of labor between the sexes is given up—women being specialists in nurture, men in the practice of violence?” will be deduced only from empirically based reports, which will reveal what of value is lost and whether the loss will be sustained or reversed by “until further notice” future policy changes. In other words, what parts of the military will be turned into a giant experimental human resources Skinner box?

    Women already fill many military roles. DOD reports that women now fill 99% of all Air Force positions, officer and enlisted. For the Navy, 88% of positions are open to women, 66% in the Army and 68% in the Marines. The “drag” is obviously in the combat arms: Army and Marines. With today’s military being highly technological, including combat, and with women earning about half of all science and engineering bachelor’s degrees, incorporating women in combat may have been “inevitable” (how long before the military is forced to stop using the term “manpower”).

    Novak’s quote from sociologist Laura Miller is telling: that many Army women are puzzled by the push for combat roles for woman, being unaware of military women wanting it, another “fact” awaiting its own “until further notice.”

    The Pentagon’s January 24, 2013 order, opening up 230,000 jobs to female military personnel followed the February 2012 order that opened up 14,500 roles to females except certain roles in the infantry, in tank units and in commando units. With last month’s order, what is still off limits but under review for consideration, is whether to open “roles in special operations forces such as Navy Seals and the Army’s Delta Force.”

    My sense is that there are two sides to Berger’s coin.

    On the one side is Berger’s discussion of “the animus against traditional (non-erotic) male bonding.” Future studies will almost certainly report its influence in a series of “further notices.”

    The other side of the coin is the ambitions of women driving the movement to combat, as the vast majority of general officers have had combat experience (we’ll put aside for the moment that Dwight Eisenhower’s first command was when he was made Supreme Commander of Allied forces in Europe in World II (he was never in combat). And President Roosevelt refused to allow his top General, George Marshall, to leave Washington.

    So, to use Berger’s term, the “carriers” of this movement for women in combat are those who will benefit the most: the most ambitious who know that without combat they are not considered “real.” This is not speculation. Here is a quote from the January 2012 announcement adding 14,000 “new job or assignment opportunities”: “The Department of Defense is committed to removing all barriers that would prevent service members from rising to the highest level of responsibility that their talents and capabilities warrant” (read “barrier” as “combat experience”). It also meets the new theater of operations definition of the situation, not just the political and PC definitions: “The dynamics of the modern-day battlefield are non-linear, meaning there are no clearly defined front line and safer rear areas where combat support operations are performed within a low-risk environment.” Key in these considerations will be “specific positions presently excluded under the special operations and physical standards criteria suitable for general assignment of both genders” as the military searches for “gender-neutral job standards.”

    The military is in a time box. I see at least five choices:

    (1) to revert to WW2 style total war, obliterating combatants and civilians alike (hello bigger and more drones), and bring conflicts to a quick halt rather than let them drag on for decades of multiple deployments.

    (2) open up the ranks to women in combat to enable more for deployment to replace those who leave (while awaiting to see if there is an impact leading to pregnancies and “illnesses” before patrols, both qualifiers of the tag “until further notice”).

    (3) draw down huge numbers of male combat troops not in combat from German, South Korea, etc., as any move across those borders can be met swiftly in ways not available when these “beach heads” were created, and replace them with combat ready women.

    (4) reinstall the draft and then assign draftees to military units where there is no fighting (Germany and South Korea come to mind), and then only assign to battle theaters the volunteer “regular Army” personnel, male and female.

    (5) withdraw to our own shores and let the rest of the world battle it out while politicians succeed again in kicking the can down the road until after their retirement.

    Left for another day: what to do about sexual assaults in the military. “Men are assaulted at a lower rate — 1% of servicemen reported being attacked by a comrade last year [10,000], versus 4.4% of women [9,000].” Will this result in another set of statistics building toward another “until further notice” policy changes?

    That brings us back to Berger’s question regarding a “hunch that something valuable is lost” in human society given that “women being specialists in nurture, men in the practice of violence.” Will this obvious loss today be temporary while humans “adapt,” or will it become permanent, or will combat change to pin ball-like operations directed from Florida such that the question won’t seem serious?

  • Tom Perkins

    “but whether they are likely to exhibit the kind of valor needed for hand-to-hand combat”

    No, I think the main issue is whether they will keep the same standard for male and female soldiers alike, such that only the women suited for it–even if that is only 1 in 10,000–are in the ranks.

    But do try to remember the matter of the size of the fight in the dog, Audie Murphy was not a big guy, neither need be Audine Murphy.

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