Hey, hey Captain Jack, Meet me down by the Airborne track. With that rifle in my hand, I'm gonna be a shootin' woman.
The chant goes on to extol drinkin', fightin', lovin' women, and my platoon and I wheezed the lyrics proudly each morning during my three-mile run at Fort Benning's Airborne training facility. Earning those silver wings was a ticket to self-confidence for me and many other women who have qualified as paratroopers. Having them shining on my uniform gives me a little extra credibility when arguing (usually with men) about the issue of women in combat.
Manpower shortages in the All-Volunteer Force, coupled with questions about women's ability (or right) to fill those personnel gaps, have prompted discussion within the services about role expansion for females, specifically into non-traditional and combat jobs. Passionate words are quick to surface, and I've heard them all: raging hormones, revisionist anthropology affirming the Neanderthal credo of Man as Warrior, hysterical assertions that female tank commanders would have to stop their columns to breast-feed.
There are also more level-headed concerns: pregnancy, female lack of upper-body strength and the will of the public. But key topics in the debate need to be addressed:
* Citizen duty and responsibility. Gruesome as it may seem, women have the right and perhaps the duty as citizens to arrive home in body bags. It is ridiculous to preach the horrors of war, bewail our daughters' marching off to it and utter nary a peep about our sons.
* Judging worth on an individual basis--in the battlefield and in the boardroom. The Air Force has standardized physical tests for each USAF specialty code, and the other services are developing gender-free criterion also. This helps eliminate both men's complaints that women "have it easier" and women's feelings of not being accepted on an equal basis. Twenty pushups are 20 pushups, no matter which sex is grinding them out.
* The definition of combat. Warfare is no longer of the "you swing your club, I'll swing mine" genre, although you'd never know it from listening to some of those in the put-them-back-behind-the-typewriters set. Combat now ranges from bayonets in the rib cage to flying F18s, and this needs to be taken into account.
During Airborne training, I had trouble getting my kit bag over my head after packing a parachute in it. I would have been a sitting duck in a wartime drop zone. Because of this experience, and my miserable chin-up record, I have doubts about women as ground-pounder infantry soldiers.
I do not cotton to the pronouncements of men such as Gen. William Westmoreland, who said a few years ago: "Women cannot live in a foxhole and go for a week without a bath." What makes the general an expert in women's personal hygiene preferences?
Women have qualified to land on the decks of aircraft carriers at sea, and the Navy's Women-in-Ships program has been quite a success. Female flight instructors have been trouncing opponents in the air for a couple of years now, much to the chagrin of male student pilots. Today's sophisticated military hardware is the great sexual equalizer: it calls for brains and skill; women have plenty of the former and can learn the latter.
We need to go beyond rhetoric and sweeping paternalistic generalizations when discussing women in combat. Women should not be fobbed off with pats on the head and oratory about how females cannot handle the rigors of national defense.