Washington -- Members of the Senate went round and round this week and came out nowhere in the matter of women in military combat. On this touchy issue, nowhere is not a bad place to stand.
The question is, should women in the armed forces be permitted to serve in circumstances of mortal danger? The services themselves are divided. At Tuesday's crowded session of the Senate Armed Services Committee, the Navy said yes, but; the Air Force said yes, maybe; the Army and the Marine Corps said flat-out no.
The immediate question has to do with Title V of the 1992 Defense Authorization Act. As the bill passed the House, it contained Section 512, authorizing (but not requiring) the Navy and Air Force to assign women pilots to combat missions. The section effectively repeals a statutory ban on such assignments.
Curiously, Section 512 provoked no comments at all when the bill sailed through the House last month. No amendments were offered either to strike the provision or to expand it. In committee, even the courtly Sonny Montgomery of Mississippi agreed to the repeal. Rep. Les Aspin of Wisconsin, chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, supports 512, but he is not supporting it loudly.
This is the present situation. Slightly more than 223,000 women now serve in the armed forces. They represent 11 percent of the total personnel. Through a combination of law, regulation and custom, women are now prohibited from serving in combat. They are eligible for almost every other assignment. They drive trucks, type forms, cook meals, perform surgery, repair engines, command supply units, fly cargo planes and so on.
In the Panamanian action, women functioned as military police in areas where bullets were still flying. In the recent war in the Persian Gulf, 35,000 female troops performed superbly. Fourteen women died of various non-combat causes; two were briefly taken prisoner.
These are among the arguments in favor of combat assignments: We live in an age of legal equality, in which discrimination on account of sex is generally prohibited. Women may not be able to perform certain physical tasks in ground warfare, but they are perfectly capable of handling virtually every assignment at sea or in the air. To deny women officers combat experience is to chill their prospects of promotion.
Arguments against combat missions were summed up before the committee by retired Marine Gen. Robert H. Barrow: ''Combat is finding and closing with or capturing the enemy. It's uncivilized, and women can't do it.'' It is further objected that women in combat units would arouse in their male companions either chivalry or lust, and in either event would diminish the effectiveness of a military unit.
For my own part, I am as ambivalent as the pending bill itself. Almost unnoticed in the measure is another provision in Title V. Section 502 deals with females both in the reserves and on active duty. Reservists who are mothers of children under the age of 6 months may not be called to active duty without their consent. Similarly situated women on active duty may not be reassigned without their consent, if reassignment would separate mother and infant.
Plainly, Section 502 reflects the double standard -- the stereotyping, if you will -- that is deeply ingrained in our culture. Otherwise fathers would be equally privileged. My own surmise is that the vast majority of women in the armed forces are pretty well satisfied with things as they are. Women officers may chafe at lost opportunities, but in the enlisted ranks the enthusiasm for blood and guts is something less than overwhelming.
Before voting on the authorization bill, senators will want to look to the future. At present, military service is entirely voluntary, but at some point the draft may have to be revived. Are all women between 18 and 35 then to be subject to compulsory service? Let us think that one over.
It seems to me that a middle ground may provide a not-intolerable answer. I would not permit women to serve in ground operations that presented a serious risk of death or mutilation. This may reflect typical chauvinism, but so be it. Otherwise I would search for opportunities to expand the voluntary role of women throughout the armed services. Women can perform a thousand tasks of skill and intellect. It truly is not necessary to teach them the bloody uses of a bayonet.
James J. Kilpatrick is a syndicated columnist.