David Frum’s Truf About Women in Combat

Writing on the Daily Beast, David Frum reviews a book which claims to make the case against integrating women into US military combat units. In case you lack the time to read Frum’s full argument, here are the bullet points:

  • Set the stage by knocking down strawman.
  • The US military as an institution is incompetent to enforce equality, which is a state of affairs not worth lamenting except insofar as it results in women tainting a unit.
  • The physical requirements in combat are whatever happens to be the maximal output of males.
  • Endocrinal pseudoexplanation of cultural phenomena.
  • It goes without saying that the solution to the military’s denial and lying is to remove women from the equation so the military no longer feels compelled to deny and lie. Supporting totalistic generalizations from Some Male Soldier.
  • People will have sex! Sex in the military!
  • Prostitution is primarily a function of the presence of women.
  • Unlike the many other impulses which soldiers are expected to ignore up to and including basic survival instincts, they are not to bear professional responsibility for competing “amongst themselves for the sexual attention of a much smaller number of women.”
  • Fairness is not a leadership trait. Fairness and winning wars are mutually exclusive.
  • Men are “reluctant” to accept female leadership for reasons that are “hard-wired” and not at all to do with what they have been taught from birth. There aren’t a ready handful of examples off the top of one’s head in which American female CEOs of large corporations prove that this “wiring” is readily bypassed when men find their paycheck on the line. Unlike all other types of “hard-wiring,” military men are not expected to rise above this one and do their job regardless.
  • David Frum doesn’t know what “unfair” means.
  • The fear of losing battles—not wars, but battles—should override other American concerns in the 21st Century.

Here’s my counterargument:

  • Secretary Panetta’s rescinding of the prohibition on women in combat removes a policy obstacle to integration of women in the infantry. However, it primarily addresses the distinct issue of women in combat generally. In this sense, the rescinding of the prohibition is merely the Pentagon catching up with reality instead of continuing to allow the Army and Marine Corps to blatantly violate policy.
  • Infantry combat is indeed physically demanding. Existing military standards are generally inadequate preparation for combat (the types of movement performed most in combat do not resemble pullups or crunches). If women are integrated into the infantry, they must at least meet the already questionable standards in place for males. However, it would be better to conduct a review and come up with more realistic metrics for physical performance in combat. In any event, the military already emphasizes teamwork and de-emphasizes individual performance. The integration of women is an opportunity to improve teamwork and to learn about aspects of combat that are more complex than throwing a grenade exactly as far as the average male can throw a grenade.
  • It has long been known to anthropology and, for that matter, to neuroscience that humans have the cognitive capacity to override impulses, regulate their behavior, and do what they are taught even when it’s really, really hard. Obeying the orders of women, deigning to compete for the sexual attention of women, and deigning to exchange money for sex are not prima facie exceptions to this general observation.
  • The US military must enforce equality whether it wants to or not. This should be non-negotiable in a society founded on Enlightenment principles (I’m pretty sure it has already been decided by international human rights law, which has rejected government incompetence as a defense against failure to fulfill human rights, but I can’t find the relevant case so I’m keeping this point in parentheses). When we stop giving the military excuses for its failure to live up to this standard, we will find that the military magically finds a way to make it happen.


  1. […] recently posted my thoughts on David Frum’s argument that women shouldn’t serve in military combat. Reviewing a […]

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