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Women merit equal role in armed forces

Column by Karl Dishaw

The US invasion of Panama included a milestone in the history of our armed forces. On several occasions female soldiers engaged in direct combat against the Panamanian Army and irregulars. Never before had American women fought in battle without disguising themselves as men to get there. Capt. Linda Bray, commanding a US Army military police company, became the first American woman to command troops in battle.

None of these women were part of the "combat arms." The units that made the direct attacks against the Panamanian Defense Force strongholds were all male. Once the majority of Noriega's forces had been crushed, the Army brought in military police units to help secure the areas which the combat troops had captured. These MP companies averaged 10 percent women, many of them officers. Their duties required them to patrol dangerous Panamanian outposts, as in the skirmish where Bray gained her fame.

The Pentagon's official position on this is "We have a combat exclusion policy for women, but that doesn't mean women are excluded from combat." This could use some translating. The rules controlling the role of women in combat are divided into congressional acts and individual service regulations. The combined effect is keep women out of all positions where they can directly attack the enemy. The Army keeps them out of infantry, tank, and artillery units. The Air Force puts flying fighters and bombers on the restricted list. The Navy has all-male crews on all of its warships.

Other positions on the receiving end of enemy fire are often open to women. Support and supply units containing many women would be choice targets for enemy air and artillery attacks in a major war. Women would certainly be among those killed in a major war, even though none of them would be assigned to combat units.

Panama was not the first time women took an active role in combat. Throughout history many armies have put women on the front line, usually as a desperation measure. The last major power to do so was the Soviet Union, which fielded women fighter pilots and tank crews after the Nazi offensives captured and killed most of its trained regular soldiers. Guerrilla armies from Vietnam to Nicaragua have had women fighting as infantry, often doing better than some male soldiers.

Women in combat is not a phenomenon confined to this century. Many women disguised themselves as men to join the British Army or Navy or the forces of other nations. The French conquests in Africa were delayed by native women who would attack riflemen with swords and spears. Going back to the Greek myths of the Amazons, there has always been a handful of women warriors in every culture.

Very few cultures have easily accepted women fighting as equals to men, however. Once the emergency that brought women into the front lines is over the society once again declares combat a male-only activity. Both the Soviet Union and Israel restrict women to rear roles despite using them in combat earlier in this century. The suggestion that women be allowed to take on all military roles has until recently been automatically rejected. Today Canada and the Netherlands are both experimenting with coed combat units, but there is no certainty that they will make it a permanent policy.

In the United States there has been no coherent force pressing for the introduction of women to combat roles. Women's rights advocates have tended to avoid military issues as much as possible. Traditionalists have been the male voice speaking on the issue, and the military's combat units remain the only official all-male preserve in America. A variety of arguments have been thrown around to justify it, many of them of little value or appealing to emotional reactions.

O+ Women aren't physically strong enough to handle combat. Most positions in today's military require little physical conditioning and a lot of intellectual training and discipline. Infantry troops still have a heavy burden but small and weak men are accepted for that duty without any physical tests. Considering that American women average the same size as Vietnamese men, we might want to think about whether size makes for good fighters.

O+ Women captured in battle could be raped and abused. The survivors of the Bataan Death March and the prisoners of war in Vietnam were brutally abused. Lawrence of Arabia was raped by his Ottoman captors. Anyone who volunteers for duty in the military is accepting a risk of death or crippling injury, even in peacetime. To object to the possibility of women getting raped when they are risking death is purest hypocrisy.

O+ The American people wouldn't accept women coming back in body bags. American women have died in every war in this century. Almost all of them were nurses. Not once did the American people object to nurses being placed in areas exposed to enemy attacks. In any war where the people accept men coming back in bags, they will accept women doing so.

O+ Women lose too much training and duty time from pregnancy and other problems. The military's records show that male troops average more time lost due to drunkenness, going AWOL, and other infractions of discipline than women do. Overall, a female troop is more likely to be fit than a male one even when taking pregnancy rates into account.

O+ Unit cohesion can't be maintained in coed units. A combat unit depends on its "team spirit" -- unit cohesion in military jargon -- to sustain its effectiveness. Combat troops take risks in battle for their friends. If this spirit breaks down the unit is worthless. This argument kept blacks out of the front lines up into the Korean War. Non-combat units, which also need proper cohesion to maintain their effectiveness, have contained men and women for years without becoming worthless. When people are fighting for their lives they don't care if a member of the opposite sex might see them use a latrine.

Combat units containing men and women have performed well in battle. Many recent wars and insurgencies have provided examples of them. The resistance to letting women serve their country on an equal basis with men is due to outmoded cultural views on the proper roles of each sex, not to any rational objections.

The demonstration of women's abilities in Panama has revived interest in this issue. Rep. Patricia Schroeder (D-CO) has introduced a bill to allow a test of putting American women in combat units. If this does bring an end to the current restrictions we would see a number of benefits.

The changing demographics of America are reducing the number of young males available for military service. Even after the current round of cuts, the military may have problems maintaining its numbers without assigning women to combat roles. Already the Navy is "manning" much of its shore establishment with women to free up men for sea duty, since only a handful of its 500+ ships can have women on board under congressional restrictions.

Opening combat roles to women would end the discrimination against female officers in promotion to higher ranks. Almost all women generals and admirals (of the 30 or so in US history) have come from the nursing branches and none have reached the top few ranks. In the current system many talented officers are forced to leave the service or waste their abilities.

The members of America's military serve a vital, if often misused, function in the defense of their nation. To deny women the right to fight for their fellow Americans is to deny them their rights as citizens and should be stopped.

whoKarl Dishaw '89, a student in the Department of Aeronautics and Astronautics, is a completed cadet in the Air Force Reserve Officers Training Corps.