Women at War

Wednesday, May 18, 2005

THE HOUSE ARMED Services Committee is expected today to take up the emotional issue of women in combat. Given the large numbers of servicewomen risking their lives in Iraq, in a war with no front lines, this debate has a certain detachment from reality. President Bush has said that his position on the subject is clear -- "No women in combat" -- but such an edict isn't simple to apply. Though theoretically banned from combat, women in today's military routinely find themselves in combat situations. As one female sergeant leading a search team that guards the gates of Baghdad's Green Zone told The Post's Ann Scott Tyson, "If he said no women in combat, then why are there women here in Iraq?"

The narrow question before the committee is whether the Army, in reorganizing to create more flexible, deployable units that combine combat soldiers and support troops, is stealthily violating the ban on women in combat. Existing policy prohibits women from serving in units that are "assigned a primary mission to engage in direct ground combat" or that routinely operate alongside such units. Having women in such forward-support companies, some lawmakers argue, runs afoul of that second category. An amendment to the defense authorization bill -- sponsored by committee Chairman Duncan Hunter (R-Calif.) and approved by a subcommittee last week -- would bar women from serving in such companies. Proponents of the amendment argue that it would affect only a handful of women, but the Army staff director, Lt. Gen. James L. Campbell, estimated that it would close about 22,000 positions to female soldiers, and the Army considers that a conservative estimate.

The Army may be stretching the limits of the no-combat rule. But the more critical question is whether it makes sense to exclude women from these forward-support positions. Even if the prohibition on women in combat still makes sense -- which isn't clear to us -- why apply that ban in a way that limits the military's flexibility when its ranks are already stretched? Why, when the services are having trouble recruiting, tell women that their options will narrow as the Army modernizes? Since female soldiers aren't being kept out of harm's way in any event, why not let them perform the jobs for which they trained?

At a minimum, lawmakers ought to consider this issue thoughtfully, with hearings and informed debate. Instead, Mr. Hunter's amendment was sprung on the subcommittee last week in a last-minute surprise. Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld has been silent on the issue, but the Army's leadership vehemently opposes the amendment. Lawmakers should pause to understand why before acting precipitously.

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