WASHINGTON (BP) – U.S. Department of Defense’s decision to open all military combat positions to women has rekindled a theological and practical debate on the role of women in battle.
“It is no shock that a secular society that has embraced feminism and transgender ideology is now confused about gender roles and war,” Owen Strachan, president of the Council on Biblical Manhood and Womanhood, told Baptist Press. “Men have no idea who they are today. Their grandfathers bled out on the beaches of Normandy to save civilization, but most men have no functional concept of masculine self-sacrifice. We men ask women to provide for us, to do all the work around the house, to disciple the kids and even to die for us. These are shameful days.”
In a Dec. 3 announcement, Defense Secretary Ashton Carter said “there will be no exceptions” to permitting women to enter elite combat forces “as long as they qualify and meet the standards,” according to The Washington Post. About 220,000 jobs, some 10 percent of the American military, have been closed to females but will open Jan. 2. Among the previously closed jobs are positions in the Navy SEALs, Army Special Forces and Marine Corps infantry.
Carter’s decision capped a decades-long loosening of restrictions on women in the military, including a 2013 decision by then-Defense Secretary Leon Panetta to lift the ban on women serving directly in ground combat units.
Gender roles debated
Strachan, who also serves as associate professor of Christian theology at Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, said Scripture teaches men should protect women and children – a principle with obvious application to military service.
“Christian men read our Bibles,” Strachan said in written comments. “We see godly warriors raised up by God to defend His people and honor His name. We don’t skip over the parts about David’s mighty men, Joshua, Solomon and men of martial virtue. These stories are burned onto our hearts. We see them reflected in the Western tradition. Our pulse moves faster when we hear of Churchill, De Gaulle, MacArthur and the men they led into battle against evil adversaries.
“Christian men know that war is terrible,” Strachan continued. “We do not ask for it; we confess with Augustine that war must be just to be fought. But we also know this: there is one thing … worse than dying — being a coward.”
On the opposing side of the debate, Mimi Haddad, president of Christians for Biblical Equality, said Scripture and history both point to the qualification of women for combat service.
“Women’s military acumen dates back to biblical women like Jael who singlehandedly rescued Israel by skillfully subduing Sisera and pounding a tent peg into his head, Judges 4:21,” Haddad told BP in written comments. “While history is scant on details, women served in the Special Forces and even on the front lines in WWI and WWII, though they rarely received equal benefits or recognition for making the same sacrifices as their male peers.
“Like women missionaries who flooded the world’s most dangerous corners, often outnumbering men two to one, women have never shied away from danger when a higher goal might be attained,” she said. “The question should be: is the person qualified to serve, not what is their sex.”
Countries that allow females in combat roles, Haddad said, “have discovered that women not only attain the same qualifications as men. They also have distinct advantages” like the ability at times to “collaborate successfully with local women to identify and disarm hazards such as mines.”
In a 1998 resolution, the Southern Baptist Convention opposed “the training and assigning of females to military combat service” because doing so:
“Rejects gender-based distinctions established by God in the order of creation”;
“Undermines male headship in the family by failing to recognize the unique gender-based responsibility of men to protect women and children”; and
“Subordinates the combat readiness of American troops, and the national security of the United States, to the unbiblical social agenda of feminism.”
Mike Whitehead, an attorney who formerly served in the Army’s Judge Advocate General’s Corps and chaired the 1998 SBC Resolutions Committee, said “Southern Baptists’ convictions about God’s complementary design regarding gender roles have not changed” during the past 17 years.
“The biblical texts and the practical applications of the 1998 Resolution on Women in Combat would receive strong affirmation in most Southern Baptist churches today,” Whitehead, who has served on the staffs of two SBC entities, told BP in written comments. “Today’s policy promising ‘equal opportunity’ for women to seek combat jobs will become tomorrow’s policy demanding ‘equal obligation,’ and if need be, forcing women to be drafted and assigned to combat roles. The military is a place to train warriors and not a place to experiment with social revolutionaries.”
A joint statement from the Senate and House armed service committee chairmen suggested lifting combat bans could trigger changes in the Selective Services Act requiring women to register for the draft along with men, as Whitehead suggested.
The SBC resolution, while expressing “deepest gratitude and honor” to women who have served in the military, argued that “God, by creating Adam first and also by creating woman ‘an help meet for him,’ has set the gender-based role and responsibility of males in the most basic unit of society (the family) to be that of leader, provider and self-sacrificial protector, and likewise has set the gender-based role and responsibility of females to be that of help and nurture and life-giving under male leadership and protection.”
The lethal purpose of military conflict is “aligned” with God’s role for males, the resolution stated, but “opposed to the female role.”
In addition, the resolution noted, “The pattern established by God throughout the Bible is that men, not women, bear the responsibility to serve in combat if war is necessary.” Scriptural examples of women in combat, like Deborah and Jael in Judges, “are presented as contrary to proper and normal gender-based distinctions, and result from a shameful failure of male leadership.”
The resolution also cited practical concerns with women in combat, a point echoed this year by the Marine general who chairs the Joint Chiefs of Staff. Gen. Joseph Dunford, the highest-ranking officer in the U.S. Armed Forces, recommended this fall that certain front-line combat jobs in the Marines remain closed to women, the Associated Press reported.
‘Less combat effective’?
A Marine Corps study released in September found that in 93 of 134 military tasks, all-male units outperformed mixed-gender units that included one or two women, NPR reported. All-male units moved to targets faster, shot targets more accurately and evacuated wounded Marines faster than their mixed-gender counterparts.
In a 2013 Wall Street Journal op-ed, former Marine Ryan Smith suggested allowing women in combat roles could make military units “less combat effective.”
While a woman “is as capable as a man of pulling a trigger,” Smith wrote, it could be “distracting and potentially traumatizing” for troops to endure “the absolutely dreadful conditions” of war in front of members of the opposite sex. In Smith’s experience fighting in Iraq, Marines were forced to sit in each other’s laps for hours on end and remove their clothing alongside one another, he said.
Douglas Carver, a former U.S. Army chief of chaplains, told BP active military members are unlikely to speak publicly against the decision to open combat roles to women because their Oath of Enlistment requires adherence to the lawful decisions made by their commanders regardless of their personal views.
Carver, a retired Major General, commended the military service of women.
“From a professional point of view as a retired Army officer and chaplain, it’s hard to argue or disagree with Secretary Carter’s decision,” said Carver, the North American Mission Board’s executive director of chaplaincy. “Women in the Armed Services have proven their professional competence and physical endurance in combat over the last 14 years of war, with over 150 women killed in action in Iraq and Afghanistan who have paid the full measure of devotion to duty.”
Still, Carver raised questions about the new policy.
“My personal concern is that the Department of Defense may have made this decision more concerned about political correctness instead of combat readiness. With that in mind, I’m left with more questions than answers from last week’s decision that will now allow women to drive tanks, fire mortars and lead small infantry units, Army Rangers or Navy SEALs into war,” Carver said in written comments.
“Why is our nation willing to intentionally arm military women for close combat operations? Have we determined to adjust historically proven military standards solely for political reasons? Are we willing to ignore the biological differences between men and women, the complicated logistical management of physical hygiene and living quarters required by members of the opposite sex and the potential breakdown of unit cohesion in order to accommodate this new policy? How will this new policy affect Southern Baptists’ support of the Armed Services? Have we made a costly decision that may inevitably lead to our shame?”
Each branch of the Armed Services was given 30 days to draft plans for implementing the change, according to The Washington Post.