Annie, get your gun -- and then fall in, soldier!
By 2016, it’ll be "officers and gentlemen and gentlewomen." Defense Secretary Leon Panetta will order the military to open combat roles to women, the last barrier to full engagement. That’s nearly a quarter of a million job openings in every branch of service.
Some countries, like Sweden, already allow women to take combat roles; others, like the U.S., let women perform combat support duties only. It’s a paperwork distinction in some cases. Combat support duties don’t get women assigned to actual combat but can expose them to the same risk of enemy fire.
Remember the American women taken prisoner and killed in the Iraq war? Lori Piestewa, the Hopi soldier in the Army’s quartermaster corps, was the first female casualty of that war and her comrades, Jessica Lynch and Shoshana Johnson, its most famous POWs. American society did not fall to pieces because the dead and the captured were females. On the contrary, it lionized the petite, blond Lynch (but not so much Johnson, a woman of color).
In the last decade, at least 100 women service members have been killed in action in Iraq and Afghanistan, in spite of the fact that they’re not technically allowed to be in combat roles.
Here is what then-House Speaker Newt Gingrich told his history class students 18 years ago about women in combat:
If combat looks like trench warfare, "females have biological problems staying in a ditch for 30 days because they get infections, and they don't have upper-body strength." But, he said, if combat "means being on an Aegis-class cruiser managing the computer controls for 12 ships and their rockets, a female again may be dramatically better than a male who gets very, very frustrated sitting in a chair all the time because males are biologically driven to go out and hunt giraffes."
Gingrich prides himself on being a historian. He should know, then, that it was American frontier women who broke the sod and tilled the soil alongside their men, who hunted when they had to and wore themselves out in drudgery, working to exhaustion on chores that would have taxed any man, who struggled through the agonies of childbirth and soldiered on, as this country was settled.
But heaven forfend that women, with all their messy lady parts, should be assigned out there on the front lines -- so much ickier to contemplate menstruation than shrapnel-shredded limbs or harrowing head wounds.
But California Republican congressman Duncan Hunter, a Marine combat veteran, wants Panetta to explain how this decision "increases combat effectiveness rather than being a move done for political purposes, which is what this looks like."
(Some exceptions apply: Special units like the SEALs may get exemptions from having women in their ranks.)
Part of the reason for the change is that combat has been the glass ceiling to women’s advancement in the military -- the brass ceiling, they call it. Without a combat and command record, it’s virtually impossible to ascend to the upper reaches of any branch of the military.
Anybody see "Courage Under Fire"? It stars Meg Ryan as a female helicopter pilot posthumously nominated to be the first woman to receive a Medal of Honor for combat. (The actual first, and only, female Medal of Honor recipient, Dr. Mary Edwards Walker, got it for volunteering her services as a surgeon during the Civil War.) It raises questions of who is fit to serve and of male insubordination to women in command.
America’s policymakers, from chickenhawks to pacifists, have secretly and not so secretly wondered whether women in combat would make a difference in how and how often Americans are willing to wage war -- if its women, mothers, daughters, sisters (Meg Ryan!) were coming back in body bags. But is that really any worse than fathers, sons, brothers dying? And if we find out that it is, what does that say about us?
Those who don’t like the idea of women in combat worry that women will ruin the "band of brothers" esprit de corps of guys hanging out together.
Well, war is a job, a high calling, not a corner bar. You want esprit de corps? The character of Pvt. Jenette Vasquez in "Aliens" could be a recruiting poster for macho esprit de corps.
Opponents to women in combat also raise the specter of female soldiers being raped and molested.
Who are they kidding? Women in the military have to deal with rape and molestation and sexual harassment already -- from their supposed comrades in arms, their fellow soldiers. At least 20% report being raped -- actually raped, not just a grope or a lewd remark -- and many more evidently do not report it, which isn’t surprising, considering that so few cases ever get prosecuted and that the victims themselves are likelier to find their careers damaged than the men they’re accusing.
Women at the elite Air Force Academy reported that sexual harassment and even rape were par for the course among the "officers and gentlemen" they shared classrooms with. Four years ago, the military’s top expert on sexual abuse was ordered not to show up at congressional hearings on the subject, in spite of a subpoena ordering him to do so.
Which is another point to make: Women shouldn’t fight alongside men, the argument goes, because men can’t control their sexual urges.
That doesn’t speak very well of military training and discipline. A military that can order men to kill ought to be able to order them to keep it in their pants, and if they can’t, it’s disobeying orders, plain and simple, and it shouldn’t be excused or diminished, any more than insubordination or desertion.
Historically, some white American servicemen behaved contemptibly toward black soldiers, and entire units were officially segregated. Nearly three years after the end of World War II, President Harry Truman issued Executive Order 9981, desegregating the military. The order declared that "there shall be equality of treatment and opportunity for all persons in the armed services without regard to race, color, religion or national origin. This policy shall be put into effect as rapidly as possible, having due regard to the time required to effectuate any necessary changes without impairing efficiency or morale."
You could just plug in the word "gender" for "race," etc, and you’d have it.
Except that Congress has to be in the loop on this. Panetta has to notify Congress of the plans, and it could conceivably block the change. The Pentagon in 1994 barred women from serving in military jobs that could put them into direct ground fighting.
And 32 years ago, in 1981, the Supreme Court ruled that it was constitutional to exclude women from the draft because they were excluded from combat.
Oh yes, there still is a draft -- not an active one, but men who turn 18 still have to register with the Selective Service. It’s anybody’s guess whether sending women into combat will force the question of changing the law to require women to register for the draft.
We have a volunteer military now. There are women I’ve known whom I’d trust to defend my life, and men I’ve known whom I couldn’t count on to swat away a wasp.
They know who they are. And now, finally, our military can too.