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Poll Finds Split Over Women’s Combat Role : Military: 47% oppose ban, while 44% back it. Public sentiment will be a key in determining future duties.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Two years after the Persian Gulf War put a new spotlight on women in the U.S. military, a significant number of Americans believe women should no longer be banned from holding combat jobs in times of conflict, a new nationwide survey has found.

Forty-seven percent of those polled said they opposed current government policy excluding women from front-line duties. Slightly fewer, 44%, supported the ban.

Yet since the poll, conducted in July by the Roper Organization, has a margin of error of plus or minus three percentage points, it failed to show a clear majority on either side of the issue. As a result, officials looking to it for an unmistakable signal of public sentiment will be disappointed and military considerations, rather than equal-opportunity concerns, could prevail in future deliberations over any major changes in military policy regarding women.

The survey is the first comprehensive gauge of the public’s views on the politically charged issue, which is being pressed with new fervor by women’s groups, some elected officials and reform advocates in the armed forces.

The results are expected to play a role in shaping future policy and influencing the conclusions of the Presidential Commission on the Assignment on Women in the Armed Forces, which commissioned the poll. The survey consisted of 1,700 telephone interviews.

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Lawmakers and senior military officers, many of whom are wary of adopting an unpopular position on the issue, have said that public sentiment would be a key factor in determining future roles for military women.

The President’s commission heard testimony about the poll Friday as members began their final stage of deliberations. They have until Nov. 15 to make recommendations to the President about which, if any, combat jobs should be open to female military personnel in the future.

Congress repealed laws last year that excluded women from many combat positions, but lawmakers and the Pentagon agreed that any changes in military policies would await the President’s decision.

On Friday, the commission’s 15 members responded cautiously to the survey.

“The public is divided,” declared Elaine Donnelly, one of the commission’s most outspoken opponents of combat roles for women. A fellow skeptic, retired Army Gen. William Darryl Henderson, warned that apparent support for a change in policy could be fleeting.

“If you get a different international involvement that doesn’t turn out as happily (as the Persian Gulf War), public opinion will turn rapidly,” Henderson told commissioners.

But Carolyn Setlowe, the pollster who conducted the survey for the Roper Organization, said its findings were consistent with the thrust of public opinion data collected over recent years.

“Americans readily support policies which they perceive as allowing people the greatest degree of choice,” Setlowe said. “So, rather than either forcing women into combat, or excluding them from such assignments, Americans favor offering women the right to volunteer, or to choose.”

“We do,” Setlowe added, “see a tendency to express fairness . . . to want to provide choice.”

But while those surveyed favor giving military women broad choices in the armed services, many opposed specific assignments that placed women in close combat with an enemy.

Majorities ranging from 58% to 69% favored assigning women to warships, submarines, combat aircraft, special operations teams operating behind enemy lines and tank and artillery crews.

But when asked whether women should be assigned to Marine landings or infantry teams in hand-to-hand combat situations, support dropped to 42% and 38%, respectively.

The survey also suggested that many Americans favor giving women the ability to volunteer for combat roles, but they are uncomfortable forcing them into those assignments.

For example, almost half of those interviewed who initially voiced opposition to women’s combat service said they would favor such assignments if they were voluntary, rather than compulsory.

The survey’s fine print also could contain a warning to politicians who have been vocal in opposing the introduction of women into combat. The poll soundly rejects three of the arguments that opponents of women in combat have most frequently invoked.

Only 28% of those polled agreed with the statement that women aren’t aggressive enough to serve in direct combat, while 68% disagreed. Just over 40% of those polled rejected the argument that allowing women to volunteer for combat jobs will lead to other women being drafted and compelled to serve in combat against their will.

Similarly, 41% of those polled rejected the argument--voiced frequently by military commanders--that women would break the “male bonding” and erode the effectiveness of the small combat units.


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