Co-Ed Combat on William F. Buckley’s Firing Line Team
3/3/2008 10:14:00 AM
-- by Elaine Donnelly
In March 1993 I was honored to be on a Firing Line debating team captained by William F. Buckley, Jr. Together with author David Horowitz and Marine Col. John Ripley, a distinguished veteran of Vietnam, we dueled for two hours against liberal Congresswoman Patricia Schroeder and three others. The issue in question was “Resolved: Women in the Military Should be Excluded from Combat.”
The program was taped before an audience at George Washington University, and the format was a challenge. Each person made an opening statement, followed by several rounds of questions to and from members of the opposing team. Buckley’s insightful opening statement described the reluctance of the military service academies to host the debate:
“Mr. Chairman, colleagues, benighted adversaries, ladies and gentlemen….the intimidating forces of modern feminism have got not only mere congressmen and senators wilting on the question before the house, they have intimidated the Pentagon, or at least recent rulers of the Pentagon. You should know, Mr. Chairman, that without intending anything less than high respect, indeed devotion, for the present audience, when it occurred to us that current political surrealism required that we ventilate the possibility of women doing combat duty, I thought it most natural that the case should be argued before the body of cadets in West Point. The proposal was made to the academy and the idea vetoed by a lady colonel on behalf of the Pentagon.
“We thereupon issued the identical invitation to the Naval Academy at Annapolis, which happily accepted the idea of acting as host for us, but then the Pentagon heard about it, moved in, vetoed. ‘Too controversial,’ we were told. A few days later, by chance "I happened on Secretary of Defense Dick Cheney at a social affair, and I told him that after all, war was also pretty controversial, and he whispered to me that he would see what he could do about getting the Air Force Academy for us. That turned out to be more than he could do, because he never got back to us, though I must put it on the record that an official of the Air Force Academy telephoned as recently as yesterday insisting that we could take our show to his academy and he would guarantee us safe passage. [laughter]
“Whether the colonel who called us has a career ahead of him, I do not know. [laughter] Most likely he is scheduled to retire tomorrow and was ready to go down in polemical flames. [laughter] We don't know, as I say, but reading the record of recent controversies touching on the wider question and learning of the fate of several senior naval officials who were accused of gentle revelry at the expense of Congresswoman Schroeder and were promptly shown the door to Devil's Island makes it plain that not only in the minds of the trendy opinion movers, the question posed tonight is already answered--yes, women may serve in combat duty--but that a correlative point has also been made, namely that anyone who disagrees with this position is backward, uncommitted to equal rights, something of a male chauvinist, a Tailhook type. And to the extent that he does not believe in gender equality, he or she is an undeveloped, metaphysical fetus. And of course, we all know what we do with unwelcome fetuses. [laughter]
In minutes, Buckley summarized a host of arguments similar to those documented by the 1992 Presidential Commission on the Assignment of Women in the Armed Forces—a fifteen-member congressionally-established panel on which Kate O’Beirne and I had served:
“There are several levels, Mr. Chairman, at which we examine the question. All three are, in my judgment, dispositive, but the last is the most dispositive of them all. The first point is utilitarian: Given that combat duty exacts the most that the human body can deliver, does it make sense to admit to combat duty a gender whose members are physically weaker than males?
“The second point is sociological: In combat conditions, is it realistic to suppose that traditional deferences to sexual identity and derivative customs relating to privacy can simply be ignored? Isn't it likelier that any such assumption is an invitation to distractions which in tight and anxious military situations could prove lethal?
“And finally, third, are we not, in suggesting that the male predisposition to protect the female should be ignored, sticking our meddling little fingers into the chemistry of biological relationships from which much that is concededly civilized issues? For instance, the call to protect the hearth, to honor the mother and care for the child, to shoulder that burden that corresponds with the incremental capacity of the male to carry greater physical burden, even as the woman bears so many burdens distinctive to her own sex? We plant our flag on a sound tradition, ladies and gentlemen, and warn our dogged adversaries that whatever sophistries they hurl up against it, that flag will continue, bruised but proud, to stand high over the madding crowd. [applause]
Col. John Ripley, in his opening statement, defined combat as a verb, not a noun: “The word itself, ‘to combat,’ suggests that you must take the fight to the enemy. You must in fact destroy the enemy...Combat is not simply being in a risk environment.” This definition remains key to an understanding of this ongoing debate, particularly when physical standards are gender-normed to treat “equal effort” as the same as “equal results.”
Ira Glasser, then-Executive Director of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), questioned Buckley on the issue of physical strength. Seeing the debate as a matter of equal opportunity, Glasser admonished Buckley for wanting to ban the one Canadian woman out of 102 who successfully completed infantry training in 1989. (In that year Canada’s Human Rights Tribunal repealed all of women’s combat exemptions to advance equal opportunity, not military necessity.)
Buckley defended policies affecting whole classes of people. “I can find you a 13 year-old,” he said, “who is brighter than a lot of 18 year-olds. But she can’t vote.” Noting that the Constitution also specifies ages of eligibility to run for Congress and the presidency, he argued that sound categorical rules should not be repealed just because some individuals are denied. When Glasser tried to argue that issues of eligibility should be decided on individual qualifications, Buckley countered, “Shall we go in quest of the unrapeable woman?”
Buckley did not apologize for being a gentleman, saying: “I’m not at all ashamed of being a protective male.” A majority of presidential commissioners saw it the same way, realizing that deliberate exposure of women to combat violence in war would be tantamount to acceptance of violence against women in general. Commissioner O’Beirne framed the issue best, “Good men protect and defend women.” If more mothers taught their sons what it means to be a gentleman, cultural influences that encourage or condone violence against women would be less pervasive than they are today.
This edition of Firing Line, which people told me they remembered many years after it aired, was the last debate of its kind. Neither the House nor the Senate held hearings on the extensive findings and recommendations of the Presidential Commission.
Women have been serving courageously in major deployments since 9/11, but under conditions of risk far more difficult than their predecessors in the first Persian Gulf War. Many of the predictable problems highlighted in the Firing Line debate still remain. These include the reluctance of Congress and military officials to discuss and evaluate the consequences of unprecedented social change in the military, objectively, and from more than one point of view.
It was a privilege to participate in this co-ed combat of ideas. William F. Buckley, Jr. was a consummate gentleman who advocated respect for all women, and showed it by taking this issue seriously as a matter of culture as well as national defense.