WASHINGTON – Defense Secretary Leon Panetta’s announcement that the military will remove its ban on women in combat drew criticism from several Southern Baptist leaders, who expressed concern over privacy and military effectiveness and also warned the move is part of a larger societal effort to blur differences between men and women.
Panetta made his announcement Jan. 24, saying the removal of the ban had unanimous approval from the Joint Chiefs of Staff. With the removal, about 237,000 positions on or near the front lines of combat are now open to women.
“If members of our military can meet the qualifications for a job, then they should have the right to serve, regardless of creed, color, gender or sexual orientation,” Panetta said.
President Obama also announced his support for the move, saying “every American can be proud that our military will grow even stronger with our mothers, wives, sisters and daughters playing a greater role in protecting this country we love.”
Although Panetta implied the qualifications for service would not change, the opposite could be the case. Politico.com said military officials are reviewing “how to create a gender-neutral way to test troops’ abilities to complete the tasks.” The news site also said “the Marine Corps … will test 400 female Marines and 400 male Marines this summer for physical fitness to determine if the recruiting PT tests need to be changed to make them gender-neutral.”
The change raised a question that was not addressed: Will young women eventually be required to register for Selective Service, as young men ages 18-25 currently are required to do, in the event of a draft?
The move did come with one caveat, as reported by American Forces Press: Exceptions could be made to keep some positions closed to women, but only by approval from the defense secretary.
Terri Stovall, dean of women’s programs and associate professor of women’s ministry at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in Fort Worth, Texas, said the change is a bad idea.
“There are biological and logistical considerations that make this a difficult situation: accommodations will have to be made to account for differences in physical strength, living quarters will have to be adjusted – not to mention the issue of pregnancies,” Stovall told Baptist Press. “The first time a woman lays down her life for our country, and we discover she was pregnant, what will be the outcry then? If culture wants to claim equality, then everything should be equal and that is impossible to achieve.”
Richard Land, president of the Southern Baptist Convention’s Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission, called the change a “tragic mistake” that will have “grievous consequences.”
“[But] not because women are not capable of performing most of the combat roles to which they will be assigned,” Land said. “They certainly are capable in modern warfare of flying planes and driving tanks and driving jeeps and operating artillery, etc. The problem is if they are captured, they will be treated very differently than male captives have been treated. This is the reason the Israelis, who used to have women in combat, have taken them out of direct combat roles.
“We discovered in the first Iraq war that our female pilots were treated much more barbarously than the male pilots were that were captured. This has been largely covered up by our government, but the fact is we are dealing with enemies who do not obey the Geneva Convention and they will much more savagely mistreat women prisoners than men prisoners and I’m aghast that our government would put our female citizens in such danger,” Land said.
The Wall Street Journal ran an opinion piece Jan. 23 by former Marine infantryman Ryan Smith, who described in detail the 2003 invasion of Iraq, in which he and 24 other men were crammed into the back of an amphibious assault vehicle that is built to hold only 15 passengers.
“Sometimes we spent over 48 hours on the move without exiting the vehicles,” he wrote.
That meant the Marines had to relieve themselves in bottles and bags, with no privacy, inches from their comrades. Weeks later, after having not bathed for over a month, they were told to strip off their chemical protective suits, which were being burned in a pile.
“My unit stood there in a walled-in compound in Baghdad, naked, sores dotted all over our bodies, feet peeling, watching our suits burn. Later, they lined us up naked and washed us off with pressure washers,” Smith wrote. “Yes, a woman is as capable as a man of pulling a trigger. But the goal of our nation’s military is to fight and win wars.
“Before taking the drastic step of allowing women to serve in combat units,” Smith added, “has the government considered whether introducing women into the above-described situation would have made my unit more or less combat effective? Societal norms are a reality, and their maintenance is important to most members of a society.
“It is humiliating enough to relieve yourself in front of your male comrades; one can only imagine the humiliation of being forced to relieve yourself in front of the opposite sex. … Combat effectiveness is based in large part on unit cohesion. The relationships among members of a unit can be irreparably harmed by forcing them to violate societal norms,” Smith wrote.
Concerned Women for America President Penny Nance expressed disappointment in the Pentagon move.
“The point of the military is to protect our country,” Nance said. “Anything that distracts from that is detrimental. Our military cannot continue to choose social experimentation and political correctness over combat readiness.”
Baptist leaders said they also have biblical concerns about the change.
“Gender is more than biology,” Stovall said, “and as much as today’s culture tries to convince us that men and women are equal on all fronts, the truth of the matter is, men and women have been intentionally created with differences that complement each other. And it is through these complementary roles that the gospel is communicated and God’s glory is seen in a tangible way.
“To allow women to accompany men into combat ultimately distorts these roles and therefore distorts the picture of the gospel. Man was created by God with the innate desire to protect. It is part of his DNA. It is not a matter of biological masculinity that makes men better for the task; rather it is a matter of honor and fully embracing his manhood to be the protector of his home, his family, and his country,” Stovall said.
“If a woman is fighting alongside him, I wonder whether he will feel that he must keep a peripheral eye on her and be more protective than he would be if one of his male buddies were fighting next to him. If he is a true man of honor, I believe he would,” she added.
Owen Strachan, executive director of the Council on Biblical Manhood and Womanhood, said the differences between men and women go back to the beginning of creation.
“[Adam] and his male descendants are made stronger, larger, faster and with 11 times as much testosterone as Eve, as secular research has shown,” Strachan told Baptist Press. “This is why, on average, boys are much more naturally drawn to play-fighting, wrestling, and rough sports than girls. They have over 1,000 percent more testosterone than girls. We’re not talking about slight differences here; we’re talking about foundational realities. It’s just common sense to affirm that men and women are physically different. What does all of this mean for our conversation? It means that men are made for war. Women are not.
“… Feminism, egalitarianism, the juvenilization of culture, and sexual ‘liberationism’ have all deeply affected American men,” Strachan added. “We have become weak. We are ignoble. We prey on women. We ask them to do our work, to break their backs; we ask them to fight our wars, while we play ‘Call of Duty’ on the couch.”
Denny Burk, associate professor of biblical studies at Boyce College in Louisville, Ky., asked on his blog, “What kind of a society puts its women on the front lines to risk what only men should be called on to risk? In countries ravaged by war, we consider it a tragedy when the battle comes to the backyards of women and children. Why would we thrust our own wives and daughters into that horror?”
(EDITOR’S NOTE – Michael Foust is associate editor of Baptist Press.)