Monday, August 17, 2009

Women Soldiers

One of the most radical things we have done in the radical modern world is to erase much of the distinction between men's and women's work. Every agricultural society we know about has fairly rigid divisions between the work that men and women do, and these distinctions are fundamental to the identities of both men and women. Our move toward a society in which men and women do pretty much the same kinds of work strikes me as a very big change. Sometimes I read articles about topics like sexual harassment, or how much corporations should do to accomodate working mothers, that seem to imply that this would be very easy if a few nasty people weren't being wicked. But these are big changes, and they have raised and will continue to raise many problems for all of us.

Since this is my general attitude to the problem, I find it very interesting that women in the American military are increasingly doing the same things as men, and facing the same risks, without anyone making much of a fuss over it. The kind of conservatives who go crazy about the minor changes embodied in Obama's health care proposals are mostly silent about women carrying guns and getting killed in combat. Where, I wonder, are the fundamentalists on this one? Aren't female soldiers a bigger violation of Old Testament norms than limits on medical tests?

But the changes go on, and I can't remember the last time I heard an important politician say anything about them. Right now about 1 in 20 of the soldiers in our front-line Iraqi bases is a woman. The attitude of American officers seems to be pretty much my attitude toward the whole problem of breaking down gender barriers, that is, the problems involved are only what would expect from any major organizational change. It probably helps that the female soldiers aren't exactly shrinking violets. From a piece in today's NY Times:

Staff Sgt. Patricia F. Bradford, 27, a psychological operations soldier, said that slights, subtle and not, were common, and some were easier to brush off than others. Women are still viewed derisively at times in the confined, occasionally tense space of an outpost like Warhorse.

“You’re a bitch, a slut or a dyke — or you’re married, but even if you’re married, you’re still probably one of the three,” Sergeant Bradford said.

At the same time, she and other female soldiers cope with the slights, showing a disarming brashness.

“I think being a staff sergeant — and a bitch — helps deflect those things,” she added.

The issues that arise in having women in combat — harassment, bias, hardship, even sexual relations — are, she and others said, a matter of discipline, maturity and professionalism rather than an argument for separating the sexes.
I think the lack of any political opposition to women serving in combat reflects two major changes that have taken place in America. First, the military has become a career path full of specialists, not a trial of manhood for all the males in the population. Second, most Americans have accepted that some women can do almost anything a man can do, and that if women can so something, it is just wrong to keep them from doing it.


Thomas said...

I've been watching the Yale Open Course on "Game Theory," and was fascinated by an example the instructor gave of a simple game. It postulates a world with 50% blue people and 50% red people, and assumes that (1) people all prefer to live in a perfectly integrated city, but (2) if given a choice, would prefer to be in the majority of their city rather than minority.

The result is that there are essentially two "Nash equilibria" for this game - two perfectly integrated cities being one, and two perfectly unintegrated cities being the other.

The paradox is that, although the "perfectly integrated" solution makes everybody happier, it is a highly unstable solution. Suppose that you are blue living in a 51% red city. You can improve your happiness by moving to the other city. On the other hand, a red person in the same city does not improve her happiness by moving.

So, jostle the "happiest" equilibrium just a little bit, and the result is ultimately self-segregation.

That's a simple model, but I still find it fascinating and a little depressing because it assumes people prefer integration and they still self-segregate.

Now, game theory can model economics, but it is also useful for understanding evolution and social changes, including possibly the roles of sexes in society. (But there are actually advantages to being in the minority in the battle of the sexes - easier to find a parther - so I don't know if this particular model says anything about it.)

Thomas said...

Should have posted a link to the course:

John said...

One thing I like about my own town is that is it integrated, maybe 20% black, and this seems to have been fairly stable over the past century. In America, as in the game, integration seems to be a highly unstable situation, subject to a tipping point dynamic.

I do think that American neighborhoods have gotten more stable over the past 40 years, so that the appearance of a single black family on the block no longer sends the whites scrambling for distant suburbs. But there is still a point at which white families wills start to flee, at least the ones with children in school.

Thomas said...

Yes, the instability in the game is deeply related to the "white flight" that occurred.

In "iterated prisoner dilemma" games, racism is depressingly stable. I use the story about an distant relative of mine as an example of this.

He lived in a white middle-class neighborhood in Chicago, and when the first black family moved in, a number of his white neighbors fled. He, being of liberal mind, stayed, but enough of his neighbors fled that there was higher supply for their homes, lower demand (because whites were less inclined to buy,) and the housing prices plummeted. Poorer black people moved in, and the white flight continued. When my relative got out of the neighborhood, it was mostly black and mostly poor, and he "learned his lesson."

White flight is the logical equivalent of a run on the bank - a panic where you lose more the longer you wait to join the panic.