An Access Advertising EconBrief:
Women in Combat: What Are the Issues?
Recently the Pentagon announced the dropping of the other shoe on its policy of women in the military. Women have long (since 1994) been deployed to theaters of combat. Now they will be allowed to serve in combat units.
This has stirred up the predictable hornet’s nest of controversy. Mostly, the battle lines form along the familiar boundary between right and left wing – the left wing hailing the announcement as a long-overdue victory for feminism and the right wing stressing the unsuitability of women for combat roles.
On the face of it, this would seem to be grist for the mill of economics. The logical approach – which is another way of describing the way economists view the world – is apparently to allow people to sort themselves into occupational slots according to their personal preferences and productivities. The price of labor, its wage, serves as the yardstick measuring labor’s value at the margin, enabling businesses to compare it with the monetary value of labor’s technical productivity.
Any woman who can produce more value than she costs is hired – simple as that! And indeed, history tells us that competitive markets are the best known antidote to arbitrary forms of discrimination, whether based on race, gender, age or any other factor extraneous to productivity.
Furthermore, there are reasonable grounds to believe that in a free market for labor, some women could pass the physical tests for qualification as combat soldiers. Does this make the Pentagon’s action are step in the right direction, at the very least?
No. The decision is based solely on political considerations, not economic ones. It will probably work badly and cause death, dissension and abdication in the ranks of the armed forces.
Marginal Productivity Theory and Female Soldiers
A commonly heard rationale in opposition to women in combat is that “men are stronger than women.” This generalization is woefully imprecise and virtually meaningless without further definition. In principle, it might mean that every single man is stronger than every single woman – that no woman is stronger than any man. Of course, we know from personal experience that opponents don’t mean that and that this global statement is not true. In fact, there are some indices of strength by which women tend to be stronger than men – using the word “stronger” in its colloquial sense of “stronger on average,” using both the mean value and the median individual as the basis for comparison.
For military combat, upper-body strength is perhaps the most relevant index. Male upper-body strength is indeed superior on average. But some women have sufficient upper-body strength to meet military-qualification standards. Comparison on other relevant criteria, such as aerobic capacity, produces similar results. We know this even without examining military records, simply by observing world records in athletic events involving upper-body and aerobic performance. Women’s records fall short of men’s records, but rank well above average male performance and implicitly exceed the standards set for combat soldiers. It is therefore possible for women to perform the physical functions demanded by combat.
There was a time when the American woman would have been adjudged too delicate, too sensitive to perform an act as brutal as killing another human being hand-to-hand or even using a weapon. That time is long past. (Indeed, reference to it from personal memory dates the age of the speaker at least to the early baby-boom cohort.) The performance of women in combat in Israel, among other countries, establishes that women can kill. The actions of women in American politics over the last half-century demonstrate the same cold calculation, lack of sensitivity and sheer brutality exhibited by men. Women are just as willing to kill for their beliefs as are men.
Pure economic logic says that optimal selection of men and women for combat duty would require equalization of their marginal productivities. That is, whenever another combat soldier is needed, the highest-productivity applicant is picked (male or female) – the limiting case or long-run tendency is toward a stable equilibrium in which productivities tend toward equality. Because mean male strength is so much high higher, this will result in many male soldiers and few female soldiers.
So much for pure economics. Up to this point, why has the military chosen to forego the productivity gains that would have accrued from accepting women in combat?
The Rationale For An All-Male Fighting Force
In a pure market setting, the productivity gains from accepting women in combat would be small because only a few women would actually apply, qualify and serve. Some women capable of qualifying would instead prefer to pursue careers in fields such as athletics, which are much more lucrative. And there have always been compelling arguments against trying to realize those small gains.
In a recent Wall Street Journal op-ed, a onetime combat soldier in Iraq spelled out the brutal realities of life as a combat soldier. Some “grunts” who spearheaded the blitz against Baghdad in 2008 spent 48 consecutive hours racing in a column toward the city. Unable to dismount their vehicles, they had to urinate and defecate in place, in full view of and proximity to their comrades. Forcing men and women to endure this would be to add social strain and humiliation to the already severe strain of combat.
A letter writer to the Journal, also a soldier, pointed out that the inevitable result of coed combat battalions would be pairing off and formation of sexual liaisons. In turn, this would upset the vital cohesion necessary to effective function of the unit by interposing jealousy and envy between squad members. This was not mere speculation on his part, but rather the evidence gathered from coed combat experiments in other countries.
That same kind of evidence argues strongly against the presence of women on the battlefield. The sight of women wounded, threatened with capture and torture, drives male soldiers to commit imprudent acts, thereby jeopardizing the safety and success of their units.
These kinds of disruptions could potentially ruin the effectiveness of a rifle platoon. What’s more, they are only the tip of the iceberg. Admission of women is an open invitation to future allegations of discrimination, sexual harassment and rape. The discrimination can of worms is a wriggling mess of litigation and adverse publicity. The potency of a volunteer force is dependent on successful recruiting, which would be threatened by allegations, scandals and lawsuits. (Indeed, there are already rumblings that thousands of re-enlistments have been jeopardized by the shift in policy.) The risk of such serious losses is not counterbalanced by the small productivity gains accrued by adding women to combat units. That is why the military high command preferred to exclude women entirely from combat roles rather than court potential disaster from the side effects of their presence.
Did this policy “discriminate” against women? Of course. The purpose of creating and maintaining an army is not to give every race, gender, religious affiliation, political party and community organization equal representation among its ranks. The only purpose of an army is to defend the nation as productively as possible. Any combat deployment that achieves that purpose is fair because it delivers on the constitutional guarantee of life, liberty and the opportunity to pursue happiness – for everybody. A job is not and cannot be a property right. And it is consumption that businesses are supposed to provide, not equality of outcomes for people who supply inputs to the businesses. As far as that goes, it would be just as true to say that the policy discriminated against those male soldiers who would have benefitted from close contact with women – just as true and just as irrelevant, for the same reasons.
Women in the Military
Throughout the 20th century, the left wing has distorted the true meaning of concepts like “freedom” and “rights.” The word “freedom” has been used as a euphemism for the concept of power – the power to dictate the terms of trade in what would otherwise be free, voluntary exchanges in free markets. Lack of bargaining power or real income has been wrongly characterized as absence of freedom, calling for government intervention to redress injustice. Inability to work one’s will on others has been misdescribed as an absence of rights, calling for government rules to establish new rights.
Freedom is the absence of coercion, not the ability to impose one’s will on others. A right only exists when its exercise does not reduce someone else’s rights. The issue of women in combat brings these classic fallacies back into action once more.
In the February 6, 2013, issue of Time Magazine, author Darlene Iskra asks rhetorically: “Women In Combat: Is It Really That Big of a Deal?” She poses the question as a false dichotomy between “naysayers” who maintain that “women can’t do combat infantry” and “…dedicated women who only want a chance to serve their country like their male peers” and who believe that “military jobs should be based on performance.” She closes her case with anecdotal histories of a few women who served in the military – as divers, not combat soldiers. In other words, the only issues are biological and political, and the solution is government-imposed equal opportunity.
It is true that arguments opposing women in combat are sometimes carelessly put. But every other point made by Ms. Iskra is either dishonest or disingenuous. From the moment the military began admitting women alongside men, its focus began shifting away from maintaining its productivity as a fighting force and toward fulfilling the goals of women as individuals. When women began enlisting, they soon discovered that many of them could not meet the physical standards of performance previously established for the all-male military. When men could pass the physical tests, they were washed out of combat service. But the failure of women produced a different result – a lowering of the standards of acceptance only when applied to women.
This created a climate of cynicism and disillusion, within both the service and the general public. Soldiers realized that the overriding purpose of the military was no longer to defend the nation. Their loyalty was no longer to the consumers of their product, the nation’s civilians. Now some of them were allowed to put their own wants ahead of the defense of the nation. And this attitude potentially put male soldiers’ own lives in jeopardy.
The general public realized that, while all men were created equal, women were created more equal because their wants were given priority over the life, liberty and happiness of civilians. The stage was set for the coup de grace to be administered to the public’s belief in the Rule of Law and equality under the law. It came with the Pentagon’s latest decision.
The dictates of political correctness demand that we rejoice at this great victory for equal rights for women. And most people will doubtless give lip service to that reaction. But deep down, they know that this cannot be the right decision for the nation.
The Purpose of a Fighting Force
Proponents of a government-mandated female presence in combat units claim that it is woman’s right to not merely enlist in the military but fight in combat as well. By phrasing the issue in terms of the rights of the soldier, they are implicitly treating an army as an organization created to further the self-expression of its individual members. This attitude strongly resembles that taken by the left-wing toward business and employment in general; namely, that the purpose of a business is to provide both real income and personal fulfillment for its employees. Any other purposes are secondary to these primary goals.
Economics teaches us otherwise. The purpose of a business – its only purpose – is to produce goods and services for consumers. The fact that the business’s goal may be to maximize the profit it earns for its owners doesn’t alter its purpose. The minute consumers stop wanting what it produces, the business stops – what the owners want no longer matters.
The purpose of the military is to defend the nation. The purpose of combat soldiers is to fulfill their employer’s purpose by fighting the nation’s enemies as productively as possible. For most of its history, the soldiers of the United States have been widely considered inferior to those of other nations. This was true throughout World War II, when German troops were generally viewed as the best, and Korea. It was only when America adopted the all-volunteer armed forces – thereby adopting the principles of the free market in recruiting its labor – that U.S. forces became acknowledged as the world’s finest. This should make it easier to see that the military is serving the nation as a producer serves his customers. Its purpose is not to make its employees (the soldiers) happy, any more than a business’s purpose is to make its employees happy. The military’s consumers are the nation; its purpose is to serve them.
The U.S. Constitution was preceded by the Declaration of Independence, the country’s founding document. In it, Thomas Jefferson proclaims our right to “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.” It is in order to protect our right to life that government is granted a monopoly on force and violence. A military combat force exists in order to safeguard our right to life by fighting our enemies.
The left wing is putting its radical agenda ahead of the military’s constitutional duty to defend us. In effect, proponents of government-mandated women in combat are saying, “We are perfectly willing to put our abstract notions of gender equality ahead of the Constitution and the safety of the country. If soldiers have to die, quit the military or suffer anguish because of the presence of women in combat, that is a small price to pay for the satisfaction gained from seeing women serve in combat over the objections of the military and parts of the civilian public.”
What is Behind the Pentagon’s Action?
The left wing’s motives are clear. But why has the Pentagon reversed its previous stance on women in combat?
The military finds itself in a precarious situation. Both Democrats and Republicans are desperately looking for spending to cut. Their gaze has come to rest on the military. Each party has its own reasons for this choice. Democrats look upon the military as ipso facto evil, the only part of government that needs to be downsized. Moreover, women are a gigantic interest group – not that every woman endorses the new policy – and this announcement is a politically easy way to placate them.
Republicans would like to reduce the size of government. They are frantic to cut spending – some spending, any spending. But they have had absolutely no luck cutting wasteful spending. Now they find themselves contemplating the defense budget, like a starving man stranded on a desert island who eventually finds himself surreptitiously measuring the body weight and protein content of the only other person on the island.
The military is in no position to enforce its will on either party. It has caved in to the Democrats because the Democrats are the party in power. The Pentagon is a mammoth bureaucracy held hostage. To a bureaucracy, there is no prospect more terrifying than a budget cut. By changing its policy in acquiescence to the Democrats, it is tacitly begging its captor: “If I let you do this to me, you won’t hurt me, will you?”
Who Speaks for the People?
In everything said so far, both sides to the controversy are behaving according to form. The left wing is ignoring economic logic, the general welfare and the Rule of Law in order to further its aims. The right wing is too confused to formulate a coherent argument, despite the fact that it has had plenty of time to get its intellectual house in order on this issue. Bureaucracies – the federal government in general and the Pentagon in particular -are so far acting exactly as we have come to expect.
And the big loser from this resolution of the longtime debate is the American public, whose military defense will suffer with no counterbalancing gain. Who speaks for them?
A dispassionate appraisal yields a depressing finding: Nobody.