Distaff Defense

The yearly Munich Security Conference came to an end last week, and I wanted to be sure to pass along the following tweet that issued out of that, and especially the accompanying photo, which is said to have “gone viral.”

It’s this article in the Guardian that claims that this picture went viral, and which provides a good English-language account for you about how this issue cropped up at that security conference.

At least we have here something in the way of continuity from the “male chauvinist pig” theme in my previous post about today’s election for Tokyo governor. For what we have is no less than four European Defense Ministers who are female, and the issue must be: What, if anything, does that mean?

The obvious jumping-off point here is the question of whether to allow females to serve as soldiers in combat units. Although hardly widespread (yet), there is an unmistakeable trend worldwide in that direction. A few countries do already allow women to serve in their militaries without restriction, including Sweden, whose Defense Minister you see there second from left. In the US, while the formal ban on women serving in combat was removed only as recently as January 2013, further institutional progress towards enabling them actually to do so is only creeping along. For example, while the first women (three of them) recently graduated from Marine Corps infantry combat training, they won’t be allowed to actually serve in infantry units (and that probably means “combat units,” of any type) for the foreseeable future.

Your friendly EuroSavant blogger here is himself a combat veteran, and I think that women serving in combat units is a bad idea, for reasons of unit cohesion and effectiveness. I am hardly alone in this – indeed, I’d want to tell you that any man who has ever actually been in combat will tell you the exact same thing, but of course I can’t know that. For what it is worth, the highly respected Israeli military writer Martin van Creveld is a prominent opponent of the idea, and put his case forward back in 2002 with his book Men, Women & War: Do Women Belong in the Front Line? (His answer: No.) Indeed, Creveld on this topic often shows a vehemence that jars even me, and he followed up that book last year with another one entitled The Privileged Sex. (Hint: It ain’t men he is talking about.) Prof. Van Creveld has also been quite willing to stand up for his ideas, even embarking last year on a lecture tour through Europe to debate the point against various female opponents.

Unfortunately, I haven’t been able to find any comment from him on that Munich Conference picture, or on the issue of female Defense Secretaries generally. That Guardian piece quotes people calling the Defense Ministries one of the last remnants of the “old boys network” that has functioned to keep women of outstanding abilities from attaining the positions they deserve. In particular, about the Dutch Defense Minister Jeanine Hennis-Plasschaert it writes:

On taking office, she famously said that “it doesn’t matter if you have a willy or not” and denies women have a common way of doing politics, or even a common experience of becoming politicians, purely because they are all women.

That last part is surely true. In contrast, though, I would argue that the “willy” does matter indeed. Just as the platoon or tank crew is something quite different – in terms of its mission, in terms of the risks it must take – from the factory-floor team or personnel section in an office, the Defense Ministry is not just another governmental executive department. At its core function, it revolves around killing and being killed. That requires a certain ethos, a certain outlook, and it is not a feminine one. The fact that there are increasing numbers of women at the heads of such departments nonetheless – in Europe, note – must mean that that core element of violence is being lost sight of, that these organizations are simply becoming bureaucratized through-and-through, that the dispatch of troops to keep (or even make) the peace somewhere like the Central African Republic is now to be regarded in the same line as, say, providing a cadre of temporary managers to a new business in need, or a crew of technicians to go repair a broken pipeline.

Among the reactions to that tweet from Ashraf Swelam with the picture of the four ladies at the top of this post is one from a certain @Maverick:

For what it’s worth, if you go to take a look at @Maverick’s time-line, you’ll find that he tweets mostly in Arabic. More to the point, though, he’s wrong – he’s naive. In the famous adage of the late Roman writer Vegetius, Si vis pacem, para bellum: If you want peace, prepare for war. Surely that means carefully building up the image of a national military that is not only very good at what it might be called upon to do, but that is even straining at the leash – in the manner of a fierce pitbull, say – to be allowed to do it, restrained only by that nation’s highest executive authority, as advised by its diplomats. I just don’t think having a female Defense Minister can do anything but detract from that.

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