Men Are Not Disposable

The American packet ship Poland was traveling from New York to Normandy when, in May 1840, it was struck by lightning. A fire broke out. A Bostonian later recalled that his fellow passenger, a Frenchman, responded to the captain’s call to abandon ship with the suggestion that seats on the lifeboats go to “women and children first.” Everyone agreed to this then-novel idea. This order of priority became known as the Birkenhead drill, after a British naval ship that sank in 1852 and followed the same protocol.

Originating in 19th century notions of chivalry and paternalism, “women and children first” became enshrined in popular culture with the Titanic disaster and (exaggerated) accounts of men disguising themselves as women in order to secure a coveted seat on an escape vessel. Interestingly, international maritime law still does not require men to disembark a sinking ship last—nor for the captain to go down with their ship.

            Gender equality is generally taken for granted in Western culture. As a protected class under U.S. federal law, it is illegal to discriminate against women in housing, the workplace and other public spheres. Though it has not yet achieved equality, the feminist movement—which has fought for women’s rights based on the argument that women are equally capable as their male counterparts—has reduced income disparities based on sex and fought to give us female CEOs, senators and now a vice president.

            Equal rights imply equal social responsibilities. And women are now increasingly expected to share custody and hold a job after a divorce. Women join the military and serve in combat. As the fight for equal rights continues, however, the corresponding burden also remains less than equal. Men are much more likely than women to be arrested by the police; men convicted of the same crimes as women are twice as likely to be jailed and receive sentences that are 63% longer. Even though female soldiers have served with distinction in armed conflicts around the world, American women have never been required to register for the draft. (Transwomen, however, have to register in accordance with their gender identity at birth.)

            “Women and children first” may be seductive to the two-thirds of women who quite understandably do not want to get drafted to fight, kill and die in one of America’s endless stupid wars. Since it relies on the paternalistic argument that women are weak—as weak as the children with whom they are grouped in the aphorism—it’s a trap. Those who are weaker, like the kids to whom society does not grant the vote or the legal right to drink alcohol, are assumed to be unworthy of the same privileges as the dominant class, i.e. men.

            Which is why it’s surprising to hear so many educated people, like journalists, liberals, progressives and even leftists who ought to know better approvingly repeat the idea that “women and children” both are weak, in need of protection and inherently more valuable. Men, by implication, are disposable—made to die, more acceptable as targets, to be mourned less when something happens to them.

            Hardly a day goes by in Israel’s brutal war against the Palestinians in Gaza that “women and children” aren’t carved out for special mention by both the U.S. authorities who fund and arm the IDF as well as the pro-Palestinian protesters who oppose them.

            The Gaza Health Ministry separates its daily death and injury count for women and children from those of men, whose numbers do not distinguish between civilians and combatants. Since Hamas is an Islamist militant group, that’s to be expected.

But what of Joe Biden? During his 2024 State of the Union address the President decried the Israelis’ killing of “thousands and thousands of innocentswomen and children.” Under Biden’s definition, men cannot be “innocent.”

Reuters, the UK wire service, uses the linguistic construction that has become standard throughout the conflict: “Israel’s military conduct has come under increasing scrutiny as its forces killed 34,000 Palestinians in Gaza…many of them women and children.” We’re supposed to care about women and children.

Men, not so much.

“Attacking a camp sheltering civilians including women and children is a complete breach of the rules of proportionality and distinction between combatants and civilians,” the United Nations said in a statement after an IDF attack. Got a camp sheltering dudes? Fire away!

This not the 19th century. Men are not disposable.

Even if you’re a misandrist, you still have to care about guys. We’re your brothers, your fathers and hopefully your friends.

Aren’t we?

(Ted Rall (Twitter: @tedrall), the political cartoonist, columnist and graphic novelist, co-hosts the left-vs-right DMZ America podcast with fellow cartoonist Scott Stantis. His latest book, brand-new right now, is the graphic novel 2024: Revisited.)

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