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The Telegram
  • Editorial: Women in combat worth a try, but military must maintain readiness

  • Should women in the U.S. military be allowed in combat? Defense Secretary Leon Panetta and the members of the Joint Chiefs of Staff think so, as they have recommended to President Obama that a 1994 Pentagon rule excluding women from front-line combat positions be rescinded.

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  • Should women in the U.S. military be allowed in combat?
    Defense Secretary Leon Panetta and the members of the Joint Chiefs of Staff think so, as they have recommended to President Barack Obama that a 1994 Pentagon rule excluding women from front-line combat positions be rescinded.
    In part they have taken that position because the answer to the above question is this: They already are. In many ways this is just a case of policy catching up with reality.
    Indeed, nearly 300,000 women have served in Afghanistan and Iraq over the last dozen years. More than 130 of them have been killed in the course of their duties and more than 800 have been wounded. One of the latter was elected to Congress from Illinois last November: Tammy Duckworth lost both legs while flying a helicopter mission in Iraq in 2004. Women are piloting fighter jets, serving as medics in the line of fire, acting in support positions when the convoy they’re in crosses paths with a terrorist-planted IED, returning fire when called upon to do so. Many have served admirably.
    Of course, any formal policy shift here would take matters further, potentially planting women in on-the-ground infantry and Special Forces units that may find themselves in the field, in rather primitive living conditions, for extended periods of time. Those environments can be quite different, and considerably harsher, than what one might find on board an aircraft carrier or at an established military base.
    Dissenters argue that such front-line situations are a different animal altogether. They point to biological gender differences in strength and aggression. Privacy is an issue. Fraternization between the sexes in stressful situations could be problematic. Some fall back upon age-old notions of chivalry. They say Americans who generally support this move in polling will view it quite differently when more women start coming home in body bags.
    Some thoughts:
    First, there are physical differences between men and women, no question about it. But the tools of modern warfare also have helped to narrow some of those gaps. A female can pull a trigger as easily as a man can. The battlefield also has changed, shifting in many instances from the trenches to urban neighborhoods in which terrorists seek refuge. Ingenuity, improvisation and composure also are desirable skills in war.
    Equal opportunity must come with equal minimum standards. Female soldiers will have to be able to cope with all of the physical endurance tests and performance expectations that their male counterparts do. In fact women are excelling in many fields where men once dominated. We even saw that in last year’s Summer Olympics, where the U.S. women, to put it bluntly, kicked butt. On the whole men will be stronger and faster, but don’t be surprised if not all of them will be. One wouldn’t underestimate the women here.
    Page 2 of 2 - Beyond that, we heard some of the same arguments against allowing blacks in the military, and then decades later, gays. Experience has shown that those fears were largely unfounded. These are relatively disciplined people in a relatively disciplined culture. The military has done a better job than almost any institution in American society of integrating people from the most disparate of backgrounds and providing them training and opportunities for upward mobility.
    That said, the issue that trumps all others here is the effectiveness of the fighting force. The military is different than other occupations. Feel-good measures have less of a place there. Standards must be maintained — the Joint Chiefs have insisted they will be “gender neutral” — because they may signal the difference between life and death. There may be some situations where co-ed units don’t work out, and military leaders should be given the flexibility to recognize that and act upon it, for the safety of all of our troops. Implementation will be critical.
    Someday we may fight our wars with robots — it’s not just the stuff of science fiction anymore — and this whole issue will be moot. But ultimately women who wish to volunteer for these dangerous assignments deserve the chance to prove themselves, as they have in so many other areas of American life where once they were told they can’t. It seems likely that military service will continue to appeal to mostly males (with women representing about 15 percent of our 1.4 million strong active military force now).
    This is not imminent. The president can act unilaterally, but hasn’t yet. Barriers are falling all around us, and this one will, too. And then we’ll see.
    Journal Star of Peoria, Ill.
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