Last night I was listening to Texas Public Radio (TPR) in the car with my wife. The host of the airing show was discussing Defense Secretary Leon Panetta’s decision to lift the ban on women serving in the infantry unites of the United States. One man called into the show to rant about the horror of women fighting on the front lines. He lamented the idea of a woman, out of bullets, struggling to fight a man using her bayonet. He feared that the physically bigger, stronger gender would overpower our women, and that the result would be horrible things like rape and other abuses. He asked if we want to imagine our daughters on this situation.
My wife is quite the feminist, and she grew tired of the man’s tone of voice and argument, so she turned off the show. I don’t have a daughter, but I did agree with the man that I wouldn’t want my daughter on the front lines of war. I would die inside if I heard that she had been captured, raped, and abused in other ways by enemy soldiers.
I agree with this man: I don’t want my daughter, or any woman I know, fighting in war, but my reasons are different: I hate the idea because my daughter would be a human, not because she would be a woman.
I don’t feel this way because of gender alone, though as a man there is an inherent desire to care for my grandmother, my mother, my wife, and any future daughters. I know that it is often true that men are physically larger, often stronger. If someone attacked a woman in my life, I would defend, and I would hope to disarm the perpetrator with as little harm done as possible to all parties. This is true of other scenarios as well though. If someone attacked my brother, a man much larger and stronger than me, I would feel an obligation to defend him. If I saw a man walking down the street who was physically assaulted I hope I would have the guts to help him. My concerns is defending the attacked, the vulnerable, the weak, the oppressed–not merely a person of a particular gender.
I think this man had begun to feel something right in the wrong way. He feared the idea of a daughter being harmed because he realizes war is horrible. As a man he has allowed himself to recognize that violence against a woman is disgusting. He doesn’t need to lose that sense of the grotesqueness of combat. Rather, he needs to realize that his understanding of masculinity is warped. Men shouldn’t be seen as warriors, primarily, whose deaths are acceptable, especially in the context of modern warfare.
What if we mourned the thought of a searing hot bullet penetrating the chest of our sons? What if were disgusted by the idea that our brothers might have shrapnel from an IED penetrate their skull? What if we called into radio shows to argue that our uncles shouldn’t have to live with the guilt of dropping a bomb on Baghdad, or catching an Afghan civilian in the cross-fire of war, or control a drone striking a small village in Pakistan.
I remember when my brother was nearing his high school graduation. He was prepared to enlist in the military. He was given a camp to which he would report, and there was some discussion that this would happen prior to his graduation ceremony. I prayed that he would be prevented, even though he was convinced that it was the most noble of vocations. A few weeks prior to the end of the school year he was playing football with some friends, and while running he collapsed to the ground, untouched. Apparently the cartilage in the area of his hip socket was problematic, and the ball slipped from the joint. This hip injury disqualified him from service. He was devastated, and I showed sympathy, but inside I was relieved. This relief had nothing to do with his gender. It had everything to do with my love for him, something that I would feel (ideally) toward my neighbors, and their children, as I imagine anyone being sent into war, whether a citizen of the United States, Mexico, France, Italy, Iraq, or China.
Many of us idealize men like Alexander the Great, Julius Caesar, Genghis Khan, and if you are French, Napoleon Bonaparte, but I don’t think this is the ideal expression of genuine masculinity. As a Christian I find Jesus to be that person, one who was strong enough to realize his enemy was a victim too. I see in Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King, Jr., people who followed the trajectory of Jesus’ life to the conclusion that active non-violence is more effective at ending wars than wars at ending wars.
I am a realist, which is why I am not fully anabaptistic (though, I want to be as anabaptistic as possible), so I don’t spend much time arguing that the eschatological hope of warlessness is something we can manufacture now. I live as a witness to that hope. I struggle to live a life of non-violence, as far as I am able, but I know there is a “not yet” to the “already, but not yet”. When you read this I hope you don’t advert your eyes from my argument because you don’t affirm “all, or nothing” pacifism. Even if you find nobility in war, we must admit, many of us have lost our ability to understand the gravity of death, especially those of us who are citizens of the United States. We have been handed a narrative that violence begets peace, and we have accepted it to the degree that we don’t ask if there is a way that is better. We expect our nation to be at war and we don’t ask if these wars are “necessary”, 0r “just”, anymore.
I hope with this decision to allow women to go to the front lines of combat that it will make some of us stop, reflect, and ask why we aren’t concerned about our men being placed in that same situation.