Feminism is trying to yank the U.S. military in two directions at once. While claiming that women have no problem meeting the rigorous standards of the SEALs or infantry, advocates of opening these branches to women argue that female members of the military must be protected from the male sexual predators that, we are assured, are widely represented in the military. However, they can’t have it both ways. Are women “hear me roar” Amazons, or are they fragile flowers who must be protected from “sexual harassment,” encouraged to level the charge at the drop of the hat?
In her 2000 book, “Real Politics: At the Center of Everyday Life,” the late American political philosopher Jean Bethke Elshtain identified the two extremes of modern radical feminism: the “repressive androgynists,” who contend that there are no real differences between men and women, indeed that the idea that there are differences is an illusion fostered by a repressive patriarchy; and the “feminist victimization wing,” which paints the relations between the sexes as a continuous train of abuses by men who victimize women on a daily basis.
For two decades, these wings of feminist ideology have worked in tandem to sustain an attack on the culture of the U.S. military, culminating in the recent decision by the Pentagon to open infantry and special operations to women. In light of the argument that women are capable of performing these elite missions, it is indeed ironic that the wedge issues driving the military toward this end have come from the victimization wing, stretching from the “Tailhook” episode in 1991 to the recent moral panic over alleged rampant sexual assault in the military.
Let me be clear: There is absolutely no excuse for sexual assault. Period. There is no excuse for a superior who pressures a subordinate for sexual favors. Period. The data cited by the Pentagon creating widespread panic within the military are rendered suspect for two reasons. The first problem is methodological: The numbers — some 26,000 active-duty service members out of a population of 1.4 million claim to have been sexually assaulted in 2012 — are based on an anonymous survey. This number far exceeds reported cases of sexual assault.
The second and more significant problem is that the survey uses the term “sexual assault” in a way so broad as to render it nearly meaningless. Indeed, much of what is now covered by the Pentagon’s sexual-assault rubric represents the de facto criminalization of normal relations between the sexes of the sort that come about when young males and females are thrown into proximity.
The charge of rampant sexual assault is only the latest campaign in a war on military culture. The opening shots for the most part were fired by feminist academics who decried a “masculinist military construct” that favored the “hypermasculine male.” For instance, in her article, “By Force of Arms: Rape, War and Military Culture,” for the February 1996 issue of the Duke Law Review, Madeline Morris wrote that there was much to be gained and little to be lost by “changing this aspect of military culture from a masculinist vision of unalloyed aggressivity to an ungendered vision.”
If feminists were really concerned about merely opening the infantry and special operations forces to women, they would stress the ability of women to meet the high physical and mental standards necessary to survive in the demanding environment of close-in ground combat. Instead, they have focused on the alleged vulnerability of women to male (though not female) sexual predators, illustrating that military culture is their real target.
The feminist attack on military culture is enabled by general officers and Republicans who are terrified of being accused of waging a “war on women.” For example, Army Chief of Staff Gen. Raymond T. Odierno stated during testimony earlier this year before the Senate Armed Services Committee that “combating sexual assault and sexual harassment within the ranks is our No. 1 priority.” Gen. John Amos, the commandant of the Marine Corps, talks of little else at a time when some are attacking the necessity for a separate Marine Corps.
In the Senate, we see the sad spectacle of Republican Sens. Ted Cruz of Texas and Rand Paul of Kentucky joining Democratic Sens. Barbara Boxer of California and Richard Blumenthal of Connecticut in support of the proposal by New York’s Democratic Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand to “combat military sexual assaults by taking the decision of whether to prosecute out of the chain of command.” Such a step threatens both justice and military effectiveness by undermining trust and confidence in military leadership.
One of the ironies of the focus on sexual assault in the military is that it serves to objectify women, not as sexual objects but as weaklings who have no place in the military. It diminishes the significant contributions that women have made to the nation’s defense, serving honorably, competently and bravely during both peace and war. The fact is that the vast majority of women in today’s armed forces are extremely professional and want nothing to do with Elshtain’s two wings of feminism. Yet they are being infantilized by the Pentagon’s focus on sexual assault.
If the United States insists on opening infantry and special operations forces to women, the focus should be on upholding high standards, no matter the outcome. Instead, those who want to open these heretofore restricted military specialties to women insist on stigmatizing males as sexual predators and women as childlike victims whose only protection is to charge sexual assault. The result will be a less effective military, rent by dissension.
Mackubin Thomas Owens, a Marine infantry veteran of Vietnam, is editor of the quarterly journal Orbis and author of “U.S. Civil-Military Relations After 9/11: Renegotiating the Civil-Military Bargain” (Continuum, 2011).