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‘What kind of a man is it who can send women off to kill and maim?’

Pfc Jessica Lynch. Image: US Department of DefenseBy KENNETH W. JOHNSON [the text of a message sent to James Taranto and excerpted in The Wall Street Journal] – The expected announcement of expanded combat roles for women by the outgoing Secretary of Defense, Leon Panetta, has resulted in a fairly predictable debate. This debate largely revolves around legitimate views of giving women more opportunities in military service, since they are already near combat in their current occupational specialties (a classic case of boot-strapping) and maintaining, let alone improving, military effectiveness and efficiency…

As a Marine Corps veteran of three combat tours, the first as a Marine Rifle Platoon Commander during the Vietnam War, my concern is what this policy will contribute to further breaking down the already-troubled relationships of men and women in our society.

Fredrich von Hayek wrote that profound social knowledge is embedded in tradition that has evolved through the millenia of human experience. In The Fatal Conceit, he taught that a society breaks these traditions just because someone has a “good idea” of what would be fair. When these notions are enacted through legislation (and court decisions), there is a very real risk of wasting this profound knowledge.

In my view, traditions in the military and civil society is severely broken and the embedded wisdom lost forever where women have combat roles. Totally independent of whether women can physically and mentally contribute to American military effectiveness and efficiency, I am concerned about the broader social implications of a civilization that believes that combat is an appropriate role for women.

FOR THE RECORD, I have ordered men to undertake missions where the entire platoon was at risk. During Operation Dewey Canyon in 1969 (the real one, not the incoming Secretary of State’s one), I lost all seven of the Marine casualties I had during my tour. One died five feet from me. We moved on. Others died moments before I got to their position. We moved on. After one fire fight, we carried a gut-shot Navy Corpsman, who knew how much trouble he was in, for miles up a steep hill out of Laos. How does a man not give special comfort to a wounded woman? My last Marine died in my arms from a wound I thought he would have survived. Could I have held her in my arms without reservation?

I had to decide how to handle the situation where a new squad leader beat a Marine who fell asleep on watch, the latter punishable by death in time of war. The decision process I went through is captured in a speech I gave to the Valley Forge Military Academy almost a year ago now.

My concerns:

What kind of a man is it who can send women off to kill and maim? What kind of society does that?

What kind of men sharing a fire team foxhole with a woman and two other men don’t treat the woman more gently?

What kind of society bemoaning that men don’t seem to respect women as much as they once might can’t see that part of the respect they demand is predicated on the specialness of the other?

PERHAPS IT IS possible in a firefight to distinguish between how one treats women and men, but I doubt that I could do it. And if I am trained to treat men and women the same throughout my career, can this have no significant effect on how I treat women otherwise?…

Liberals are famous for believing they can remake the world into the vision they hold: Thomas Sowell’s A Conflict of Visions. The reality of “breaking down social constraints, customs, legal restrictions and even moral proscriptions that limited women’s freedom” has led, and will lead, to a society where the wisdom and wonders of feminine and masculine specialness have been lost. As individuals and as a society, we will all be the poorer as a result.

Kenneth W. Johnson directs the Ethics and Policy Integration Centre | Original publication in The Wall Street Journal | More Chronicle & Notices.

Note: The reference to John Kerry’s cabinet position was corrected on 27 January 2013.

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