Barack Obama supports the registration of women with the Selective Service. Like many of Obama’s positions, this stance can be traced directly to philosophical liberalism. The argument runs something like this:
While women may differ from men in certain respects, they are equivalent in terms of autonomy. Individual men and women are both essentially creatures bearing inalienable rights, the protection and guarantee of which is the purpose of the state. Because autonomy requires available choices as well as the absence of external restraint, the rights and responsibilities of civic life ought to be equally applied to all citizens without distinction.
One of the most obvious cultural relics from the unenlightened past is the inequality of men and women in the public sphere. Though women in America have been granted civil rights, they are still not equal to men in the public sphere, for they are denied the opportunity to carry out the highest civic obligation: to fight for one’s country. Since women are not required to make the ultimate sacrifice, they are unable to garner ultimate respect, and they are thus reduced to an inferior position to men.
The appropriate solution is for women to register with the Selective Service so that, in a draft, they may be conscripted with men to fight for their country. And though Obama has not explicitly called for the elimination of the ban on women in combat roles, he has called the ban a breach of the principle of equality. It is therefore clear that, in Obama’s ideal America, all citizens will serve on the front lines without discrimination on the basis of sex.
Obama’s ideal follows the highest aspirations of liberalism. It will constitute an advance in the progress of gender equality. But, as is often the case in arguments derived from philosophical liberalism, the ideal is blind to the consequences of its own realization.
When ancient opinions and rules of life are taken away, the loss cannot possibly be estimated. The corollaries to an ancient rule run wide and deep, but they must then be rooted out. Progress undermines the hidden buttresses of civilization unawares. The future, in which women go to war, may only be seen as through a glass, darkly.
What motivates Americans to fight for their country? To what end are they willing to give the last full measure of devotion? Is it the liberal ideal of individual autonomy? President Bush thought so when, in the wake of September 11, he encouraged Americans to shop. The strip mall is the architectural embodiment of individual autonomy – free purchase and use of an increasingly dizzying array of products and services. But deep down, Americans know that the autonomy of strip malls does not fulfill their longings. This is why Americans are so religious. They will not fight that they might shop. Americans do not fight for the liberal ideal.
Americans who fight for their country do so in spite of her malformation. They love their country though it is not lovely. Rather, Americans love their country for her people. They are a democratic people who turn to each other for inspiration and who believe that greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends.
Americans who go to war hope to express this love. But any man who has fought in a war knows that he cannot because the life the soldier sacrifices is not pure. War corrupts purity not because soldiers die but because they kill. Thus deformed, the soldier dies, his death not the ultimate expression of love but the appropriate retribution for an unknown slight by an unknown enemy.
The problem with sending women to war, then, is not merely that they are the more lovely of the two sexes. The problem is that killing, though absolutely necessary and the fundamental mechanism of war, is an affront to nature, a stain on the soul. If our women enter combat, they will kill and take the stain upon themselves as well. A nation the whole of which may become killers is barbaric.
Peter Johnston is a senior in Saybrook College.