Thursday, July 27, 2017
Transgenders in the military - some practical considerations
President Trump made headlines yesterday by announcing his opposition to allowing transgendered persons to serve in the US armed forces.
I don't propose to go into moral and/or ethical considerations regarding the ability of transgendered persons - about whom I've written before - to serve in the US armed forces. I have opinions on the matter, but so has everyone else. There's no point in debating feelings and emotions, when what's needed is a hard-headed, medical/scientific approach to the transgender issue in general, and a practical approach to their military service in particular.
As anyone who's served in any reputable military will confirm, the basic training through which all recruits must pass is designed to form individuals into members of a group. The training frequently consists of team evolutions. If a team fails because one or more individuals can't or won't make their required contribution, the whole team is punished. The implied lesson is that either you work together, or you fail. In the South African armed forces in the 1970's, it was not at all uncommon for recruits or trainees to physically assault the person or persons who caused the group to fail. What's more, this was implicitly encouraged, and certainly tolerated, by those in command. It was a grim, sometimes brutal lesson in "get with the program, or else!" Sometimes suicides resulted. Fortunately, today that sort of thing is much more rare . . . but I'm willing to bet it still happens.
That attitude of group rather than individual focus continues into military service proper. A ship's crew must work together at all times to operate and safeguard their vessel. If any one person fails to do his or her job, it places everyone else aboard at risk. There's no room for 'special snowflakes' who want to do their own thing. The same applies, more or less, to army units on patrol or in combat, or an air force squadron where everyone - air and ground personnel alike - has to pull together to accomplish the mission they're assigned. It's a team approach.
This is why the introduction of women into physically demanding combat roles in the armed forces has created such controversy among military veterans. We know, historically and experientially, the demands placed upon personnel in a war situation (and, let's face it, the fundamental reason that an armed force exists is to fight). No matter how you slice it, there's no way on earth that any woman I've ever known can exert as much physical strength in combat as a man can. You need to have timbers and plates manhandled into position to plug a leak aboard ship, and stop it sinking? You need to drag or carry a combat casualty for dozens, perhaps hundreds of yards, to get them out of the danger zone to where their wounds can be treated - and then go back for the others? You need to hurriedly refuel and rearm a combat aircraft, or load supplies into a transport, to get it back into the air and 'on task' as quickly as possible? All those activities, and many more, require the maximum possible exertion and physical capability. I don't care how fit and strong a woman is, she will never, repeat, never be capable of performing such activities at the same level as a fit and strong man, even if they're of comparable size and heft. It's a physiological reality, not a matter of opinion. This may become, literally, a life-threatening problem.
(Let me emphasize that I mean no disrespect to women by saying that. My strength training coach is a woman, for whom I have great respect; and I've had female superior officers during my military service, and supervisors or managers during my commercial career, whom I also respected. They didn't have to be physically stronger than me to earn that respect, because physical strength wasn't an issue. However, we're not talking about that sort of thing here. I specifically referred to women in physically demanding combat roles. In that instance, in almost every circumstance, sooner or later, physical capability is a factor. I know. BTDT.)
This immediately brings up the first issue with transgender persons in the military. According to what standards of physical performance are they to be measured? A male 'transitioning' to female is likely to be stronger and more physically capable than the women around him, because - with vanishingly few 'intersex' exceptions - his chromosomes, his physical makeup, are still male. He/she will likely outperform the physical performance standards established for women. However, a female 'transitioning' to male cannot and never will measure up to the physical performance standards established for men, because - with vanishingly few 'intersex' exceptions - her chromosomes, her physical makeup, are still female. How can a self-proclaimed, formerly-female 'male' suffering under such a limitation be accepted by a unit relying on typically male strength to repair damage, rescue casualties, or perform any of the dozens of other tasks that require performance at the level of the physical standards established for men? The units in which I served would have a short, very simple (and undoubtedly profane) answer to that question. It can literally be a matter of life or death - so feelings and opinions simply don't count. Reality bites.
There's also the issue of "keeping one's eye on the ball". Armed forces exist to fight wars. That's their primary purpose. There are others, such as aid to the civil power in disaster situations, or 'showing the flag', or what have you; but all of those go by the board when war comes. Training, equipment, organization, and everything else must be focused on and serve that basic purpose, or that armed force will fail when asked to do its job. Even if it doesn't completely fail, it will take unnecessary casualties, lose far more equipment than necessary, or handicap itself in other ways, before it can get its head out of its collective fundament, re-focus on essentials, and eventually succeed.
It's been my (admittedly limited) experience that most (but certainly not all) transgendered people exhibit greater or lesser psychological or psychiatric issues. They demand attention; they demand acceptance; they demand tolerance. They aren't willing to shut up and demonstrate, by the way they live, that they're valuable members of society who can be judged and accepted (or otherwise) on the basis of what they do. Instead, they're vocal in demanding acceptance based on their own (in most cases, medically flawed) definition of what they consider themselves to be. That can't and won't work in the case of a unit preparing to fight. It has to keep its eye on the ball, and perform as a team. There's no time and no place for special snowflakes demanding special consideration and/or treatment. I'd say four out of five transgendered individuals in my experience (and I know, or have known, a couple of dozen of them) simply could not function like that.
Allied to that group focus is the basic reaction of normal human beings to what's out of the ordinary. It's all very well to say that people must change their ideas, and accept as normal what they have culturally been raised to regard as abnormal, even disgusting. That doesn't happen very easily even in civil society, where there's time to make one's case, and the opportunity for leisurely discussion and a slow evolution of cultural and social norms. (It sometimes results in tragedy - for example, as was reported this week in both Maryland and Mississippi.) It's far less easy to make it happen in the stress of the military environment. I've heard many complaints from military friends of mine that so-called 'sensitivity training', and other officially-mandated forms of political correctness and cultural relativity, are consuming so much time out of the training schedule that their units' military preparedness and readiness is suffering. When you have to take so much time, and make so much effort, in an attempt to change human nature, you have to accept that your warfighting ability will suffer accordingly. That's reality. You can't expect your armed forces to be as strong as you want them to be when you're wasting their time on non-military activities like this! What's more, you can't expect average troops to shed their instinctive cultural and social reactions under the stress of combat, when reactions are automatic and instinctive - because if they're not, you die!
Finally, there are financial issues. I've been informed (but have no way of confirming) that after the Obama administration relaxed military recruitment standards to encourage transgendered persons to enlist, there was a wave of applicants who expected the military to pay for their transition (including surgery, hormone treatments, ongoing counseling, etc.). This would have entailed costs of at least several hundred thousand dollars per individual during their service; some said the overall costs of establishing and maintaining such programs, in armed forces that had never needed them before, might amount to millions of dollars per individual. I'm sorry, but I have no sympathy whatsoever for such recruits. If they want to transition, let them do so in their own time, on their own dime. As a taxpayer, I see no reason whatsoever why they should do so on mine! The military claims to have insufficient funds to do all it wants and needs to do. Why should more of its limited resources be diverted from its primary task to pay for their personal needs?
For all those reasons, I think President Trump is correct in his decision to prevent transgendered people from serving in the armed forces. I doubt there's any personal animus involved, or distaste, or any sort of sexual or gender discrimination. Furthermore, I don't think it has anything to do with their being 'worthy' or not (as one former SEAL has alleged). I think it's purely and simply a matter of practicality.
I also think that the arguments advanced by some, that transgendered persons can serve perfectly well in non-combat roles, are dubious at best. Sooner or later, in any typical armed service, many non-combatants end up in a combat zone, and all too often in combat as well. Examples are legion. When that happens, all my reservations outlined above come into play; so I don't think an exception should be made for non-combat positions. I don't see this as discrimination. I see it as understanding and accepting reality.
If some of my readers disagree, let's discuss the issue in comments below this post. Let me say, however, that if dissenters have not experienced combat, I don't believe they can fully understand the realities of military life. It adds a dynamic all its own. It's like the difference between sex education and sex training. The first is academic. The second . . . not so much; and, once experienced, one's understanding changes radically and completely. That's just the way it is.