There’s no way a man can sidestep trouble writing about the prospect of women as combat troops.  You know, mowing the enemy down with machine guns; blowing up things, not to mention people; cutting, slicing, jabbing, stabbing, whatever it takes.  For such is war, the elements little different in a high-tech age from those prevalent on the wind-swept plain of Troy.

You mean, buster, that women can’t fight?!  Like men?!  That’s the kind of thing you hear when you introduce the subject.

No, ma’am, now that you mention it, that’s not the point at all.  I know women can fight, will fight, have fought when they had to.  Molly Pitcher and so on.  We all know it.  We all honor it.  When it comes down to it, a woman’s moral courage is equal at least to a man’s—the will to do what has to be done, like, if you’re Scarlett O’Hara, plugging the Yankee deserter on the staircase or, in nonfiction, serving in one of the various services opened to brave, patriotic American women, around 200,000 of them, during World War II.  And, ah!—what about Joan of Lorraine, astride her warhorse, with sword raised high above her helmeted head?  The Church didn’t make her a saint out of admiration for her ability at tapestry design.

The question isn’t, can women fight?  The question is, what kind of country—and society—would open to women regular combat jobs, the way the Pentagon expects to do: anticipating the great satisfaction we’re all apparently supposed to feel upon imagining a woman warrior flying through the air, impelled by an improvised explosive device?  The like, of course, has indeed happened to women soldiers in Iraq; notably, to now-U.S. Rep. Tammy Duckworth, an Army helicopter pilot who lost both her legs, besides suffering serious damage to one arm.  Her Wikipedia entry notes, matter-of-factly, that “She was the first female double amputee from the [Iraq] war.”  Well—happens to men.  Why not women?

The query Why not women? floats in rhetorical form as the ongoing overhaul of Western norms proceeds.  On this, the far chronological end of the countercultural revolt that commenced nearly five decades ago, we can’t see a lot that reminds us of how things looked at the front end, when the idea of distinctions among humans wasn’t preceded with such reproachful words as unfair, medieval, suffocating, and tyrannical.  That moral equality need not mean identicalness is the point an egalitarian culture declines to acknowledge, preferring to say (lest some equality campaigner get nose out of joint), Why, we’re all just Americans here, isn’t that right?

Americans of a certain sort, is the answer, imbrued with the notion that the formal drawing of cultural (including sexual) lines is just about the most nonsensical thing an enlightened society can undertake.  Rather than draw lines, we’re supposed to rub them out wherever we see them.  Lines, visible or invisible, are barriers to Opportunity.  The opportunity to be blown up (if we’re women) is what no society of equals can go on denying.

Enter the top brass at the Pentagon, with the news that blowing up women isn’t such a big deal we can’t make up for all that lost time over the centuries, when distinctions between the activities of men and women in wartime were normally understood as rational.  Said the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Gen. Martin E. Dempsey, recalling an encounter in Iraq with a female Humvee turret gunner named Amanda: “And I said, ‘Oh, O.K.’  So a female turret gunner is protecting a [male] division commander.  And it’s from that point on that I realized something had changed, and it was time to do something about it.”

So Dempsey (and others) did—to the predictable acclaim of the New York Times editorial page, concerning this “triumph for equality and common sense.”  At last, from the Times’ perspective, a demonstration “that categorical discrimination has no place in a society that honors fairness and equal opportunity.”

The loopiness of modern life grows so common as hardly to call attention to itself anymore.  The loopiness of the Pentagon’s white flag on women in combat is of another order.  The “equal opportunity” lens for looking at it shows only a portion of the landscape.

Practical aspects enter in, of course.  That women warriors must be up to the same physical standards as their male counterparts is Ground Zero, so to speak, for any discussion of how to move forward.  Former Marine Ryan Smith, who participated in the invasion of Iraq, commenting in the Wall Street Journal, had a cultural point: to wit, what about the degrading circumstances of military operations?  “Despite the professionalism of Marines,” Smith wrote,

it would be distracting and potentially traumatizing to be forced to be naked in front of the opposite sex, particularly when your body has been ravaged by lack of hygiene.  In the reverse, it would be painful to witness a member of the opposite sex in such an uncomfortable and awkward position.  Combat effectiveness is based in large part on unit cohesion.  Then relationships among members of a unit can be irreparably harmed by forcing them to violate societal norms.

A wise, discerning, and naive statement.  Naive, because in the liberal imagination, which sees the military less as defender of American freedoms than as, suddenly, an instrument of social uplift, societal norms are bunk: mere relics of bad old patriarchal times.  The liberal imagination doesn’t generally approve of social distinctions: relics of the organized oppression we’ve been working to shake since 1965.

The trouble with sex distinctions (from the liberal standpoint) is that they don’t yield to exhortation and regulation, even by the federal government.  They partake of reality instead of opinion.  A man is not a woman; a woman is not a man.  I know—duh.  We used to acknowledge fundamental truths of this kind, before everything became a matter of Career Opportunity and Personal Power.  A man had certain traits and gifts; a woman had certain gifts and traits.  The civilized view was that these various traits and gifts should be employed—and celebrated—as joint offerings to the society at large.

A man saw himself as protector of the home.  The woman was the home: wife, mother, counselor, wiseperson for all seasons, etc.  Here’s where the feminists always jump down your throat, amid smirking, mincing parodies of your reasoning.  Oh!  Yes!  Of course!  The Little Woman at Home with Her Kiddies and Cats, the smell of freshly baked cookies circulating on the domestic air!  Oh, Ozzie, I saw the cutest hat today.

The idea is to suppress discussion of the way the principle of distinction operated in practice: men and women, far from operating in separate spheres, merging their gifts and duties; accommodating needs as they arose, all for the greater, more or less unified good.

That Nature (or the Lord) might have apportioned out these various abilities in accordance with some large scheme of things makes no sense to the liberal imagination, whose all-purpose explanation, when it comes to distinctions, is Oppression: the powerful (men) leaning on the deprived (women).

Here’s the worst part of this women-in-combat business, culturally speaking.  The distinctions that liberals ignore make cultural sense every bit as much as they make physical sense.  The two considerations merge, in fact.  Liberals and feminists like to gloss over the physical distinctions that pertain to combat: male superiority in upper-body strength, not to mention height and weight.  Against male enemies with these attributes the female warrior finds herself potentially disadvantaged and endangered.

Take this physical thing a step further.  Guess who has babies.  Then guess what babies represent: the replenishment of the race; the rounding out of the family enterprise, which is, ideally, father, mother, sons, daughters.  One says “ideally” in the face of evidence like that amassed by Charles Murray, in his dramatic account of today’s culture, Coming Apart, to the effect that intact families are on the wane, with the single-parent household more nearly the norm than could have been imagined when the 1960’s began.

Once implemented, female presence in combat won’t mean, ipso facto, the un-sexing of the American woman.  Symbols, nonetheless, have great potency.  The introduction of women to the fighting and killing enterprise is a symbol of immense potency and poignancy.  It says the U.S. government wants everybody to know that we in Washington, D.C., have a whole new way of looking at the male-female relationship, and you need to know about it.  The baby-family thing in women’s lives—that’s so yesterday.  No harm in babies; no harm in families.  What we’re talking about now, though, is personal power, an altogether better thing than submission.  Babies, families—that’s the road to submission, to dependency.  Don’t let those men get away with it.  Don’t listen when they say they just want to protect you.  You can look out for yourselves, same way they can: with an M4 carbine.  Can any of us truly see this new message strengthening the family, making America a healthier place to live?  I confess I can’t.

I think many of us saw this thing coming a long time ago, from a piece down the road, as the counterculture oozed its way forward.  Define life as a power quest for the once-deprived, the formerly put-upon, the way our society has mostly done since the 60’s, and soon you’ve got the ex-victims perpetually on the lookout for power, with those immortal words on all lips: I want, I want, I want . . .

To want is often to get—but not necessarily to get the desired object; rather, to come away with something darker, more shapeless and sinister.  With women fighting alongside men, what might that thing be?  An enhanced sense, possibly—for all of us—of the biting winds that blow through our culture, unimpeded by the old, abandoned defenses against disorder.

A woman can fly an Army helicopter; she can drive a tank or rip out an enemy soldier’s guts, according to all the martial precedents.  Writing those terms into her social contract is, for all that, an act of unprovoked barbarity.