Do We Still Need Men?

04/27/2015 12:37 pm ET | Updated Jun 23, 2015

The ongoing investigation of sexual assault in the military, by common account spearheaded by female senators and having sexual aggression against women as its subject, had led some to propose a solution of fewer men, more women in the military. More female brass, more women in ranks, more women in more places. More women everywhere. But how many more will solve this problem? Are we aiming at 51% females in every job description of every service so that in the words of a past Chief of Naval Operations justifying promotion by race, the military "looks like America"? Or can we rest easy with a few? The Marine Corps recently put its requirement for three pull-ups for women on hold because so few could do them. Will we demand separate tracks for women just to get our numbers up? Are all jobs in the military--or for that matter outside--gender-neutral? Maybe we don't need men at all--in the military, or anywhere.

So many jobs once assumed to be "male" have revealed themselves to be gender-neutral, it's easy to assume that this is true of all of them. We "get" that we don't need doctors, lawyers, or politicians to be male rather than female. Now it's the military's turn in what seems an irreversible wave washing away centuries of exclusion and oppression. Women are now on ships and more recently submarines, and the last barrier will have fallen when there are female infantry Marines, female SEALs, and female EOD officers and troops, presumably mixed with the men.

Those who object that this rising number of women and the level of their integration pose problems already and will pose more problems in the future tend to be dismissed as old-timers or outright misogynists who "just don't get it." The Guardian quotes a female graduate of West Point and a member of its first class with women, Marene Nyberg Allison, contrasting the acceptance of women in the business world with the lack of blanket acceptance in the military. "At a corporation, no one is asking, 'Does a woman really belong here?' she said. 'You see that in the military -- this whole idea of 'Do women belong here at all?'" Clearly Allison (her last name) thinks this question is ridiculous.

It isn't. Just because many once-male jobs have been shown to be amenable to gender-neutralization, it's not impossible that there could be situations in the world where we could ask without being knuckle-draggers, Does the other sex/gender belong here at all? Say, in a football locker room, or on a father-son fishing trip. Or carrying 100 lbs. of gear and a wounded buddy for several hours. In these a woman is better than nothing, sure, and if that's what you've got you take it and say thank you. But a man is almost always better. And if you take the two women out of the thousand applicants who can perform better than the weaker men, it's not intrinsically sexist to argue--as Jim Webb did years ago in an article misleadingly entitled "Women Can't Fight" (he actually argued that they could but shouldn't)--that their presence among the men might well create more problems than are solved by having them there as tokens, or to satisfy the few women who always wanted to be in (say) the Marine infantry and who can pass the tests. Satisfaction of personal goals is not the only good in the world, especially in the case of the military that is all about collective goals, not personal wants and needs at all.

The position that there are some things only men can or should do in the military is an unpopular one these days, when words like "epidemic" and "scourge" of "sexual assault" are used to describe how badly behaved men in the military apparently are. It would be nice if we could dial back the emotions here, however, and refuse to be manipulated by headline-grabbing phrases begat by newspapers on current events: more people should actually read the Pentagon's 2012 report on which these claims are based, and do so when calm. It turns out the numbers behind the "epidemic" are arrived at by using a multiplier the report itself never justifies (that assumes X number of reported cases means something like 10 X unreported ones) on alleged actual occurrences (assumed to substantiated--about half are not), reported by a small sample of self-chosen respondents (the 25% of the ½% of service members sent the survey who chose to respond), which are lower than four years before though higher than two years before. (It was the higher than two years ago that was reported, not the lower than four.) Last but not least, the term "sexual assault" is the headline-grabbing extreme of quite a spectrum of actions all of which are covered as a bloc by the Pentagon's report, which actually reports on the upswing in estimated cases of "USC"--unwanted sexual contact, which includes touch through clothing.

The job of professors is to call for rationality, so let me give it a try here. (I'm in my 28th year as a professor at the U.S. Naval Academy.) The very intensity of the gender battle means that a number of fundamental questions are unanswered--and even unposed. Let's step back from the raging torrent for a moment and pose some of these.

Is it equal access for women to all jobs in the military (or out) we want to ensure, or equal numbers of those performing the job? Most people would say at least the former--possibly only the former. Some of these jobs require male body strength, so a tiny fraction of women might be able to achieve this level. If we put a high price on allowing women access, are we prepared to let the chips fall as they may and have these women be few? Experience with racial affirmative action suggests that we are not going to accept equal access if it means only a small minority of the group we want to have access actually makes it. Will we have separate standards and easier admission tracks for (say) women SEALs? What if that means half the SEAL billets are filled with weaker SEALS, many female?

Here's another question: are women in jobs outside of offices (or in them) ever also women rather than people? If we agree that gain is big in allowing a woman who can (say) carry the gear and the wounded buddy to be a combat Marine, are we allowed to subtract anything at all for the distraction posed to the men by having a woman in their ranks sleeping in the next bunk or sharing a foxhole? Or is this something the men simply have to get over? Why does female anger at not being allowed to apply count, but male frustration at having them there not do so? What if our premise that everything is gender neutral is wrong?

The gist of a recent and much-discussed book by Atlantic editor Hannah Rosin called The End of Men and the Rise of Women is that men are outmoded. Women can do it all, and usually better. Rosin's book follows by more than a decade Susan Faludi's Stiffed, which similarly pointed out that jobs requiring brute strength were diminishing in our increasingly service-oriented economy, which may include a large proportion of the military sphere outside of combat, and that virtues long thought male didn't seem to have much use any more, if they are male at all.

So let's take this possibility seriously: that we don't need men since machines do the hard work and the rest of us are about service and empathy. Can we disprove it? Let's try to find things we still need men for. Maybe we'll come up empty, or with a pitifully short list--perhaps like carrying the gear and a buddy in battle. Starting with the basics, it's still only men who produce sperm, so we need men to keep the human race going. When we can clone babies this use will disappear, but for now it gives men a purpose. Of course the same anonymous sperm donor can be used to impregnate thousands of women, so maybe we don't need as many men as before. But we ought to keep a few, probably.

Do we need men as parents? Clearly not need, as the explosion of single mothers suggests, and the two-mommy families as well. But want? Probably. Rosin acknowledges that women full of estrogen are frequently attracted to men, so they have that benefit for women. Fathers benefit children of both sexes. Can children survive without fathers? Clearly. Are things better with them? Surely.

How about men for male sports? Title IX! Girls can play it all! Rugby, football, lacrosse. Why do we need men? Probably we'd still say, to get football of a certain intensity, we need men. Girls can play it, sure, as they play lacrosse or rugby, but it's a different sport. To have sports played by men--typically larger, faster, more aggressive than those played by women--we need, unsurprisingly, men. What else? Actors playing male roles? Sarah Bernhardt famously played Hamlet: can we have a gender-flipped version of the Elizabethan stage and have all females all the time? Sure, but they're not men, we'd say. Women can fake being men, but they're not men. Male drag artists are fiendishly good at seeming to be women, at least at a certain distance and women of a certain ultra-"female" sort--but women don't seem so convincing as men. On a movie screen, it would be ridiculous to have a woman playing a man.

So we need men to do the things only men can do, starting with looking like men, sounding like men, and indeed, being men. Not any action--curing the sick, teaching a class, defending the accused--but being male. This seems circular: we need men... to be men? But, those pushing for absolute gender equality will insist, being a man is not a job. And of course that is something women can't do.

The point is precisely that some things in life are not defined a job, but a role. They're not defined by actions done, but by who the actor is. Men are those big creatures with beards, muscles, and deep voices: things women can't fake. It may be true that women, or one woman in a million, can do what a man does in virtually all cases. Men may more typically be suited for it, but why stop the two women in the world who can do it? This is the argument of the Katharine Hepburn character in the classic "Woman of the Year" who as a lawyer marshals an array of super-women to show that women can do anything men can; these include an internationally known scientist, and a female weight-lifter who picks up Spencer Tracey, playing her lawyer husband and adversary.

But that misses the point. Sure, let's say a woman, some woman somewhere, can do anything any man can, and that we are not bothered by how exceptional she has to be to do this. (Nor do we demand that 51% if those filling this job be female.) What she can't do is, be who a man is, namely a man.

Most people nowadays agree that women can do just about anything men can do; what she can't do is be a male. The problem is that there are many situations in the military, and out, where being male is at least part of the description. Like being a father. Or being a male mentor to men. Or being someone male subordinates can relate to easily.

The fact is, many men want to be led by other men. Or is this part of their Neanderthal nature that has to be simply punished away? Whether or not being a combat Marine is in fact male, the fact is that most 18-year-old recruits perceive it as such. We can change the world so they come in differently, or we can work with this presupposition to get the best results in the few years we have with them. Will they follow a woman up a hill? Less willingly than they would a man. And a lot of what happens in the military is about how whole-heartedly the soldiers do it. Sure you can put women in positions of power and have them bust the men for being sullen. But it's not a good idea if you want the soldiers to perform well.

If men didn't exist, then sure: women do it all. But men do exist. And that means they're sometimes needed to be men. Not just do x, but to be men. That notion flies in the face of virtually all academic gender theory, which insists that gender is not something you are, it's something you "construct" and choose: I choose to self-identify as a man and adopt body mannerisms and values accordingly. Fine. But lots of men do the same and think of it as "being" a man, not just "self-identifying" as a man. That may be an academic error, but it's a fact of how they "self-perceive"--as being, not acting. Those are what the military is largely composed of. And the rest of society too.

So long as there are men on the planet, we will need men to mentor, guide, and lead them. Men mentoring men. Not people doing a job. Jobs may be largely gender neutral. But roles sure aren't. And many positions in the military go way beyond a job. They're not just what you do, but who you are. And most men think that being a man is who they are, not what they do.