Founded by Drew Pearson 1932
Women in combat
By Douglas Cohn and Eleanor Clift
WASHINGTON – In the early 1970’s, before women were allowed to attend West Point, some of the more forward-thinking cadets noticed that among the celebrated generals pictured in a huge mural at one end of the dining hall was a woman, Joan of Arc, keeping company so to speak with Napoleon, Alexander the Great and Hannibal, among the other great captains of history. It struck them as a little odd to extol one 15th century woman as a warrior at a time when there were no female cadets at the academy.
The federal service academies put more enlightened policies in place by the mid ‘70s, and the 1980 graduating class at West Point was the first to include women. There was a great deal more controversy then about those first steps toward gender equality than was evident last week when Defense Secretary Leon Panetta and the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs, General Martin Dempsey, announced that the military was lifting its exclusionary rule against women in combat.
To put their announcement in context, it’s really not a question of whether women should be allowed in combat, but whether women have the physical qualifications to do every single job. The services have three years, until January 1, 2016, to assess the practicality of fully integrating women and dropping the barriers that exist.
Some jobs like the highly competitive and coveted spots with the Army Rangers or the Navy Seals may never be realistic options for all women, but that will be determined. The pool of men for these units is extremely competitive with physical tests that stretch the boundaries of human capability. Few men can meet the test, but it is possible that there may be women out there who are their match. This rule change opens the door to women but it does not guarantee their inclusion. The burden will be on the service chiefs to say which jobs, or which covert operations, should remain closed to women, and for the Secretary of Defense to judge whether the exclusions are justified.
Other militaries around the world, notably the Israelis, have a broad role for women and it’s no big deal for women to fight alongside men. What’s happened in the U.S. armed services as a result of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan is that women are being pulled into combat without being officially designated to participate at that level. To use the parlance of the military, they are “attached” rather than “assigned” to combat units.
On the battlefield it is a distinction without a difference. Women are wounded and dying alongside men, but they are not receiving credit for combat experience. At least 139 female soldiers have died in Iraq and Afghanistan. Without combat as part of their record, their eligibility for promotion is hampered. Opening this path for them to combat does not compromise military readiness in any way; it simply ratifies what is already happening on the ground, and allows women to compete for jobs they are well qualified to perform.
There was a time when eligibility for combat was determined by physical strength alone, but the modern military has moved well beyond that point. The evolution of military science and technology means that brain power along with the ability to manage stressful conditions matter more than sheer brawn, which is why it makes no sense to deprive the nation of more than half the population from serving in combat. Intellectual prowess is not gender exclusive.
The muted reaction to the entry of women into combat is a testament not only to the cultural shifts in society but to the needs of a modern military.
© 2013 U.S. News Syndicate, Inc.
Distributed by U.S. News Syndicate, Inc.
END WASHINGTON MERRY-GO-ROUND