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.