Women in combat: a bittersweet victory

Military parents may have trouble celebrating the end of the Pentagon's exclusionary rule

January 28, 2013|Susan Reimer

It is hard for me to celebrate the news that women will now be permitted to serve in combat roles.

I am pleased for the women in the military who will not have their paths to promotion blocked by artificial limits. Women are, in fact, in harm's way in Afghanistan and other hot spots, and they deserve whatever rewards come with that.

And I agree with retired Air Force Brig. Gen. Wilma Vaught, who told Gail Collins of The New York Times, "I think people have come to the sensible conclusion that you can't say a woman's life is more valuable than a man's life."

It is good that we are over the old "she carries the eggs of the next generation" excuse.

And, since I have both a son and a daughter, I do not want any limits placed on the career path of either child simply because of their gender. But neither am I more willing to sacrifice one child than the other.

That's why this decision by the Pentagon reminds me of "Sophie's Choice."

You remember the novel by William Styron? The mother, played to excruciating effect by Meryl Streep in the movie version, is taken to Auschwitz during World War II and must choose which child will go with her to work in the camp, knowing that the other child will be killed.

A variation of the impossible situation that confronted Sophie could now potentially apply to military parents. Which child would you rather risk in war: your son or your daughter? Do you see what a ridiculous question this is?

For those of us with a son in the military, the idea that our daughters have won the "right" to be put equally at risk is a Pyrrhic victory. I don't see equal opportunity here. I see equal measures of fear and dread. Those parents who say how proud they are of their children in uniform are only telling half the truth.

My neighbor in Annapolis is the U.S. Naval Academy, and I see the young men and women midshipmen, in their crisp uniforms, everywhere I go. I know how hard they work, at their studies, their sports and their military responsibilities, and the idea that the guys would eventually have choices and earn benefits that the women would not makes the feminist in me angry.

But the mother in me is not happy. I would rather they all graduated to carrying clipboards on battleships and none would be as close to death as those in war zones.

More than 20,000 women have served in Iraq and Afghanistan, more than 800 have been wounded and more than 130 have died. I can't imagine that their families are grateful for the equality of that opportunity.

What I am asking for, of course, is the end to combat, the end to war. As insurgencies flare like wildfires all over the world, I realize I am not going to get my wish.

But forgive me if I don't greet the Pentagon's decision with satisfaction. More women in leadership in the military will improve the lives and careers of the women who serve under them, but I don't think it will make anyone in uniform safer from an enemy's bullet.

Polls suggest Americans support this change by a wide margin, and there was much rejoicing among women in Congress, who found the combat exclusion policy archaic, sexist and out of touch with reality of wars where there are no front lines and no trenches.

Meanwhile, conservative groups such as the Family Research Council said, "the people making this decision are doing so as part of another social experiment."

But at the end of the day, I don't believe the families who open the door to a pair of uniformed officers and know the awful message they carry would make any distinction about whether they came with news of a daughter or a son.

Susan Reimer's columns appear on Mondays and Thursdays. She can be reached at susan.reimer@baltsun.com and @SusanReimer on Twitter.com.

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