Does Spiraling Sex Abuse Mean Gender Integration in the Military Has Failed?

May 8, 2013

Usually when I blog here, I argue for something with great confidence and bluster. This time I'm just posing a question -- an uncomfortable question, but one that I'm amazed no one else seems to be asking. There's a vast sex abuse crisis in the U. S. military, with incident rates skyrocketing year to year. Might this mean that America's great experiment in creating a gender-neutral military has failed?

I'm not suggesting that the abuse crisis demonstrates that women are incapable of serving alongside men. Far from it. No, I'm wondering whether this crisis reveals that military men (or at least a significant fraction among them) are unfit to serve alongside women. Consider what military training does for a young man. Now consider what military training does to him. It hones a young man to a very high level of physical fitness, imparts a chilling mastery of ways to impose his will by force (including the sort of hand-to-hand combat training that thirty years ago was shared only with commandos), and applies sophisticated psychological techniques to help ensure that when the time for the use of force presents itself, the service member will use that force instantly and with little compunction.

Today's American service members, male and female, are arguably the best-trained and most broadly skilled fighters any regime has fielded since the days of Sparta. Still, states have been training military personnel along roughly similar lines for millennia, and until the twentieth century it had occurred to scarcely anyone to let military men at the peak of their training mix continuously with members of the opposite sex. Maybe -- just maybe -- the current sex abuse scandal offers evidence that all those commanders of centuries past actually knew what they were doing. Maybe young males elevated to high levels of physical readiness and deeply conditioned to use ruthless force just aren't safe to carry on their potentially deadly work side-by-side with service members who are natural objects of their sexual desire. It isn't necessary that all military men display this defect -- only that it be likely that enough young military males will display the defect to make a truly co-ed armed force impractical. (In this connection it doesn't matter whether abusive sexual behavior is understood to be motivated by sexual desire or by a desire for forcible mastery; the military milieu provides a setting equally reinforcing for either.)

Today the U. S. military is on the cusp of integrating women fully into combat positions. But I wonder whether the current sex abuse scandal is not equivalent to an experimental result indicating that our reigning hypothesis that the military should be gender-neutral is fatally flawed. Until recently, militaries sought almost unanimously to ensure that most fighting men discharged most of their duties in environments from which persons who might stimulate their libidos were excluded. Was this because the presence of objects of desire would distract them? Or was it because when large numbers of young men are assembled and trained mentally and physically in the way the military does, it's just not safe for women to be around some of them?

To reduce it to a sound bite, is gender neutrality a bad idea for the military -- not because women can't hack it, but because so many men are such pigs, and military training just makes them worse?