Women graduate from US Army Ranger School: Pro and con

womenrangersWhen the U.S. Army recently announced that two women had successfully completed its toughest training regimen, my initial reaction was, “Good for them, and good for the U.S. Army. It’s about time!” But rather quickly, my feminist joy became tempered by a healthy dose of sadness and misgiving.

The two women, Capt. Kristen Griest, 26, a military police platoon leader, and 1st Lt. Shaye Haver, 25, an Apache attack helicopter pilot, knew that they were blazing a new trail. Griest said, “I was thinking really of future generations of women that I would like them to have that opportunity so I had that pressure on myself.”

Of course, equal opportunity is a good thing. I’m glad to see these women getting the chance to show that their physical strength, endurance and toughness match—even surpass—that of the men who tried out for Ranger status. [Let’s not forget that women have been demonstrating courage and resilience for ages—just in other ways: as mothers, breadwinners, healers, inspirers, caregivers and teachers–to name just a few such roles. It’s just that these types of strengths have, traditionally, not been equated with the “real” courage of men in battle.]

I’m glad that Griest and Hayer got the opportunity to self-actualize in a way that is meaningful for them—a way that had previously been not available to women. And I’m happy to note, too, that it was a government institution that was willing to give them that chance.

We may not be able to, as Hillary Clinton recently said, “Change people’s hearts,” but, as she also said, “We can change laws.” That, in my mind, is an excellent and appropriate role for government: to lead progressive social change, sometimes by enacting laws [expanding voting rights, for example] and sometimes by example, which is what happened when President Harry S Truman instituted racial desegregation in the US military in 1948—long before integration became acceptable among the general American population.Truman may have reasoned that integrating the military—an organization revered by the American public [at least in the era immediately following World War II]—would have a trickle-down social effect on the rest of the country.

Truman was doing what government does best: tackling the big issues and projects that individuals can’t. I don’t love that he did it through the military—whose track record tends more toward destruction and harm than it does toward helping people—but I respect the impulse to use government to do the really big things.

Retired U.S. Army Colonel Jack Jacobs, appearing on the Rachel Maddow Show, noted that the Army could have taken a more gradual approach to gender equality.

The original assumption was that if they’d wanted to see if women could be in combat units, they’d stick them in combat units in the States, where they were in garrison..doing war games and small-unit tactics, and then, maybe, much later on, they’d send them to the toughest school.They didn’t do that.They did it exactly the opposite way.They sent women to the toughest school first. And the result of that, of course, is that it’s difficult to engender any support for the idea that women can’t take it.

If you stick them in a regular unit, but don’t send them to ranger school, people can say, ok, they’re in a regular unit, but they can’t make it in ranger school. But if you put them in ranger school and they complete it, and 40% to 60% of the men don’t complete it, you’re way down the road to putting them in combat units. Which I think is the ultimate objective.

So I must applaud the Army powers-that-be for taking the boldest route to showing that women can do all the jobs previously restricted to men.

However, there’s also a downside to the particular form of progress exemplified by the women graduating from Ranger School.

The ability of women to become Army Rangers means that the military has a whole new demographic that it can recruit into the top ranks of its war machine. There’s a whole new population—women—that can be thrown into the toughest battlefield assignments—whether battle is justified or not. A whole new demographic that can be injured, maimed or killed in the most dangerous assignments in nonsensical, no-win wars like Iraq and Afghanistan, and who knows where else in the future.

The availability of women for the top ranks of combat jobs might even embolden the military to undertake more adventures, because they’ll have the additional person-power to do so. No more complaining that there aren’t enough highly qualified troops for the most high-risk operations.

Of course, I know that women have been serving in the military for many years now. And don’t forget that, at the same time that they have been barred from official combat roles, they’ve been driving trucks and flying supply planes into very risky areas–resulting in many injuries not specifically recognized as combat-created.

And look, I can understand why women want to—and deserve to—achieve full gender equality in the military: For a military-minded women—as for a man—serving in the elite units means moving up in the ranks, earning more pay, and fulfilling the quest for leadership positions. The sad part is that all of that takes place in the military, where the metrics of success are invasion, occupation, subjugation, colonization, economic plunder and body counts.

As an aside, I have long been bemused by the “gentlemanly” and “chivalrous” argument that women shouldn’t be allowed in combat. Hah! In fact, women have always been involved in combat—as invading and occupying armies overrun their homes; kill their husbands, brothers, sons and daughters; terrorize and injure them with bombs, bullets, cannonballs, howitzer shells and drones; steal their food and money; force them to pick up what few belongings they have and flee; and rape them as war trophies. The only difference now is that women will be allowed to be the leading-edge invaders and the assassins.

Don’t get me wrong: I want women to enjoy all of the same societal rights and economic opportunities afforded to men. I just want us to think about whether, bottom line, the opportunities afforded by a gender-equal military career—for women and for men—are ultimately good for anyone.