With their indiscriminate use of phrases like "died in combat" (when they really mean "died in a combat zone") or "fighting for their country" (when they actually mean something like "supporting the war effort"), the news media have done an excellent job confusing the public about what exactly women do in the military these days. So, I hope you don't mind, Debra, if I try to make clear what we're going to be talking about.
Now, everybody but Debra, listen up! Women in the Air Force and Navy are currently allowed to pilot planes that engage in combat—by dropping bombs or by shooting at an enemy plane. They are allowed to serve on combat ships—which are used to launch cruise missiles and the aforementioned fighter planes. But in the Army and Marines, the services that supply the people who toil on the ground, women do not take direct combat jobs. In a combat position, as the Department of Defense puts it, a GI's "primary goal is to engage, close with and [neutralize] ... the enemy." Pvt. Jessica Lynch, for instance, an Army supply clerk, had been trained to use a gun to defend herself and her unit if need be, but she wasn't supposed to go around proactively "engaging" the enemy (and, of course, she didn't).
So, our question is, should the Army and Marines be forced to change policies that prohibit women from taking combat jobs in their infantry and artillery units? The question was brought up ad nauseam after Gulf War I (since we'd entered a period of peace and prosperity and had time to address nonessential concerns), and if we're lucky enough to have bought ourselves more peace and prosperity I think we're gonna hear it again.
But I sure hope not. The only people who truly want to see women in combat are some TV producers who think it's a "sexy" issue and approximately 500 cranks assembled on college campuses and in NGOs around the Beltway.
The national argument might be worth having if there was some vast, seething body of women longing to personally stick it to the enemy, but Debra, we both know there is not. I have friends and acquaintances up and down the rank structure and from every service—tough, bright, feisty gals all—and I have never met, and they have never met, a woman who burns to join the ground-pounders. (Several large-scale surveys back me up on this.)
The truth is, there are only about 200 women a year who could meet the physical standards required, and even fewer who would select this MOS (military job). So, we'd have a lot of tsores over a few people. And if we launch a legal battle on the subject, we'll open ourselves up to a Supreme Court ruling that might require a female draft for combat positions—and that would be a real debacle.
No, this debate has been dragged in front of congressional committees and made the subject of conferences, newspaper articles, and lawsuits by a very small claque made up of feminist academics (of both sexes), women's groups, NGOs, and a few retired female officers. These women never came very close to combat themselves and have found second careers haunting congressional hearing rooms, trying to extract maximum drama from military tours that were largely bureaucratic.
These advocates' concerns have never been practical. It's all about ideology for them. We need further integration, they say, because—like the fight to integrate the services racially (a totally unsuitable analogy)—it is the simply the right thing to do. There is an entire genre of books about why it is so essential, and it is hard to summarize, but the gist, as I can glean it from these jargon-laden tracts, is that women will never be respected as much as men or paid as much as men unless they are granted this—admittedly crucial—societal role. These advocates also think, as the president of NOW put it, that "[combat] exclusion promotes the view that women are weak, inferior, and need to be protected."
Well, there's a jumping-off point for you, Debra. Is that why you think we need a policy change?