BOSTON. — In the aftermath of Desert Storm, it's all begun to seem like a mirage. Women ''manning'' Patriot missile launchers? A ponytail sticking out of the cap of a helicopter pilot? A woman shot down in her plane and captured? Is that sand in my eyes?
Americans had believed there was a law against women in combat. Indeed, the most compelling argument against the Equal Rights Amendment all those years ago was that women might face combat. What happened? We got the combat without the ERA.
The war against Iraq will be remembered as the time when military myths met reality, when women soldiers came into their own. And now in the postwar days, many of these soldiers are hoping that memory won't fade as quickly as yellow ribbons. This could be the war that breaks the last barriers.
It turns out the rules against women in combat are less rigid than we knew. There is no law against women serving in combat zones for example. There never was. The Navy and the Air Force have laws that prevent women from being assigned duty to vessels or planes that are expected to engage in what they call ''combat missions.'' The Army goes along with those laws.
But what is a combat mission in a modern war? In popular theory it means being on the front lines. In current battle doctrine, the front lines aren't always the most dangerous place. First strikes are designed to knock out the supporting infrastructure deep in the rear. That's where the women are.
More to the point, relegating women to work that isn't defined as offensive -- to refueling planes or other unarmed vehicles -- doesn't ensure their safety. Ask Maj. Rhonda Cornum, the flight surgeon who was on a medical rescue flight when her plane went down and she was captured. ''In my experience,'' the former POW says dryly, ''you're better off being armed than unarmed.''
The lines dividing combat missions from non-combat missions exist largely on paper and in the imagination. As a combat support officer, Capt. Carol Barkalow moved into Iraq right along with 24th Infantry in the early, scary hours of the war. ''We were a prime target and we didn't have any firepower,'' she says now and adds, ''Whether you are killed by a direct hit or an indirect hit doesn't matter.''
If military policy for women isn't truly a prohibition from combat, what is it? ''It's really a prohibition against giving women weapons,'' believes Carolyn Becraft, a consultant on the military for the Women's Research and Education Institute.
If military policy doesn't protect women from harm's way, what does it do? It successfully keeps them from the surest routes to promotion.
Captain Barkalow, just back from the Persian Gulf and a gung-ho graduate of the first West Point class to accept women, believes that ''in Desert Storm, we experienced a new kind of relationship between men and women. There was real professional respect. We went through the same things. We pulled together in conditions that were worse than horrible. For our generation of women,'' she says with conviction, ''Desert Storm is going to bust the glass ceiling.''
General Schwarzkopf, Defense Secretary Cheney, and others down the line praise the 33,000 women in the Persian Gulf who did their jobs. Even Sen. John Warner, ranking Republican on the Senate Armed Services Committee, agrees that ''the case for examining the lessening of restraints on women in the military has been getting strengthened by the experience of women in the Gulf.''
It's past time to repeal the laws that pretend to ban military women from combat, and to encourage change. It's past time to begin the careful, calculated opening of a wide range of new roles. To allow Navy women to fly the planes they teach men to fly. To allow women who have been exposed to fire a seat in the vehicles that can return fire.
The current ''let's pretend'' policy not only hurts the military women bucking for promotion and eager for action. It also hurts those reservists and regulars who truly believed that as women, they would be out of harm's way.
In the Persian Gulf War, every politician and general learned to acknowledge our military ''men and women.'' The law now must catch up with reality. Before the last parade, end the charade.
Ellen Goodman is a syndicated columnist.