Women in Combat

June 20, 1991

At this point in history, the law technically permits a woman in uniform to become head of the Joint Chiefs of Staff but she cannot jump into a foxhole as an infantry grunt in a shooting war. Not for long. As a result of the gulf war, the movement in Congress to remove legislative obstacles to women in combat has become as irresistible as Stormin' Norman's storied offensive.

The House has already approved the elimination of restrictions on the assignment of women to aerial combat. In the Senate, there is a movement to remove all gender-oriented impediments from the law books and to leave military assignments to the Pentagon brass and their civilian bosses.

This is where such decisions belong. Congress is passing the buck, and is right to do so. The nation's top officers and their field commanders -- should be able to use their own best judgment. While the bulk of them (including General Schwarzkopf) rightly question putting women into the trenches or in cramped warships, they know how to salute. That leaves final authority in the hands of the president and his civilian entourage at the Pentagon while wiping gender discrimination in military assignment off the law books.

Behind this controversy are deeper questions: What about choice? Since men who enlist in the all-volunteer armed services do not have the choice of whether they will draw combat assignments, should women have this option? And what about the draft? Once gender differentiation has been removed from the law books in regard to military assignment, it is doubtful that present statutes excluding women from conscription would stand. Any American male called up could file a lawsuit on grounds of sex discrimination.

The nature of modern war also intrudes into the current debate. Artillery and missiles, as well as aircraft, blur distinctions between front and rear echelons, and the dangers inherent in each. Among the 13 women who were killed in the gulf war, the circumstances of death bore little relevance to their military assignments. Perhaps if the battle had been longer and tougher, with the infantry and Marines taking heavy casualties in hand-to-hand combat, the statistics on dead and injured would have been more traditional -- and sobering.

It is only fitting that the role of women in the military will expand in an institution that has been the cutting edge for black advancement. Near the end of the Vietnam war, there were 55,000 women in uniform, 2.5 percent of the armed forces. Now there are 223,000, or 11 percent. The nation has reached the point where the laws pertaining to military service should become gender-neutral. Once that milestone is passed, we can count on so many women to rise so high in the ranks that their judgment, as well as the judgment of their male peers, can be counted on to maintain a sensible assignment policy.

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