A very wise discrimination

Eleanor Lee Wells

November 23, 1992|By Eleanor Lee

OVER the summer, I read an article on some hearings held by the House Armed Services Committee. Ostensibly related to charges of sexual harassment in the military, the dialogue, led by Rep. Pat Schroeder, D-Colo., turned to the subject of women in combat. I put the newspaper down and felt terribly sad. Such an augury of disquieting days ahead put me in a blue funk.

Ah, but wait. The posse has arrived in the nick of time -- the posse being, of course, the report of a presidential commission. After eight months of insightful, solid research, the commission essentially supports the status quo: Women should not serve in most combat roles (although they may enter the sacrosanct world of a war ship here and there).

Ms. Schroeder is not one bit happy with the panel's report and hopes the incoming administration will dismiss it. The congresswoman had sought to fuse two lofty equals: "equal treatment" of men and women in the armed services and "equal opportunity" in their jobs -- which would include service on the front lines in times of war.

The ominous conclusion to be drawn from all this equality is that the Military Establishment would cease differentiating women from men. I recall feeling that Ms. Schroeder and those who agreed with her last summer could not really have thought through the implications of such a conclusion, but it is now evident that they were, and are, absolutely serious.

When the threat of armed conflict arises, the community defense begins with a rallying camaraderie, a certain warrior instinct that belongs exclusively to men. The indispensable, practical support in thousands of ways by women notwithstanding, at such critical times a stark, spontaneous imperative exists: the enthusiastic, unbreakable bond of men.

This current impudence of feminist thought, which would

undermine the integrity of that bond, is potentially most detrimental to the nation.

The military officers testifying over these months spoke plainly to the subject. The brooding countenance of Adm. Frank B. Kelso II may have indicated something more far-reaching than he could elucidate or even voice when he addressed the congressional committee. One wondered if he was thinking of the possible slipping away of the rather well-delineated roles of men and women.

Gen. Carl E. Mundy Jr., the Marine Corps commandant, spoke about women on the battlefield needing to be able to kill. He said, "It's not a pleasant job. It's not good, it's debasing. It's something I do not want women involved in."

Air Force Gen. Merrill A. McPeak realized that it was indeed discriminatory to keep women from combat zones. But he commented, "I have thought about it since the sex harassment problems popped up. I still think it is not a good idea for me to order women into combat. Combat is about killing people . . . I have a very traditional attitude about wives, mothers and daughters being ordered to kill people."

These are family men. Their words comforted me in this era of so much social gyration. I know a great many Americans hold fossilized attitudes based largely on the notions of "the weaker vessel," of brave knights protecting fair ladies, of women and children first, of a woman's place in the home -- all straight out of McGuffey's Readers.

But these attitudes have evolved enormously, while losing nothing of their intent. Women are hardly the untouchables they once were. Look around, for heaven's sake, at the brilliance, the ingenuity, of women artists, professionals, elected officials, homemakers, athletes, government figures.

And yes, look at the variety of extremely important, pivotal jobs women perform in the military, without entering into the warrior mode of men, perhaps harmfully diluting it. Why should it be necessary for a woman to be on the front lines, to kill, to hunt, to battle efficiently, in order to feel "equal"? And, denied the opportunity to kill as well as the next man, is someone who did the denying to be assigned sensitivity training? What has become of us?

The time-honored attitudes held by these military commanders are fundamental to the cohesive family structure of this country, to the education of its young people, and have been perceived by other nations as the crux of our strength. But when womanhood is divested of the unique grace of its nature, it is deemed by men unnecessary to protect and by women unnecessary to maintain.

I simply cannot be the only one on the planet who feels that men and women are indeed equal -- equal in their ability to judge independently, to form themselves and to achieve satisfaction -- without the illogical competition of unisex experience that must mar their lives and gnaw at their confidence.

The military chiefs understand what our frenzied political activists are too caught up in to realize. The strengths of men and women are different. The simplicity of this is comprehended by those same gentleman whose thoughtful, courtly discrimination resides beyond the ken of the Schroeder Follies.

Eleanor Lee Wells is a Baltimore writer.

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