The Corner

A Discussable Issue?

In today’s Impromptus, I have an item on women in combat. This is a follow-on to an item I had last week — about a development in the Army. The Associated Press reported that the Army was “testing the first body armor specifically tailored to fit women’s physiques.” The AP called this “a sign of diversity on the battlefield.”

And diversity, remember, is good — very, very good.

In today’s column, I make a confession: that I find it impossible to argue about women in combat. This is bad news, because I’m an opinion journalist, whose business is argument. But, in my experience, either you recoil at the idea of women in combat or you don’t.

To many Americans — maybe most — women in combat is a matter of women’s rights. Even civil rights. To these Americans, a woman on the battlefield is basically the equivalent of a black citizen in the voting booth. Hurray! Progress. Forward (as the Obama campaign slogan has it).

To others of us, women in combat represent some kind of civilizational breakdown. The cutting of a cord. An assault on something like nature. “Our mothers, daughters, wives, sisters, aunts, and nieces in combat? You’re kidding? What kind of monsters are we? What have we become?”

I’m going to publish some mail, but one more bit, please, from my column today: After citing a news story out of Israel, I say, “Should there be an Israeli exception? Is Israel too small and vulnerable to exempt its women from combat?” I then say, in a shame-faced punt, “I think I’ll think about this issue another day . . .”

I have had some mail from Israel — all from men, so far. And the tenor of that mail is, “When a soldier is captured and held hostage by the likes of Hamas — a male soldier, that is — it is pretty much unbearable. If a female soldier were taken hostage — that thought simply cannot be borne.”

We could talk about this all day, but I’d like to cite one more letter, from an American veteran, a woman, who served in Iraq. It’s a fascinating letter. I’ll give you some of the beginning and some of the end. She says,

I graduated from the United States Naval Academy with the great class of 2005. In plebe (freshman) Western Civilization we discussed women in combat. I was the only girl in the class (a common occurrence) and the professor put me on the spot. I hadn’t given it much thought but rather lamely defended the idea. I don’t remember my exact argument, but I do remember one of my classmates, who was also in my company and a close friend, saying that he was against the idea. As a chivalrous southerner, he just could not fathom the thought of my suffering at the hands of the enemy, and would go to extraordinary measures to protect me. 

By the way, don’t you love that she used the word “girl”? Anyway, after graduation, she went to Iraq. And she discovered some things there. One of those discoveries was that the men were perfectly happy to have the women do dangerous work, including in their stead. At the end of her letter, she writes,

Here’s the rub: Who else will do it? In general, men of my generation are not chivalrous and many are too lazy to work, let alone serve in the military. Most simply do not care who defends their right to live in their parents’ basement and play video games all day. My chivalrous southern classmate is far and away the exception rather than the rule. Our society has changed so quickly that those primal instincts are being drummed out with political correctness and this issue [women in combat] is becoming obsolete.

Hard to talk about, women in combat, at least in my experience. Either you feel it in your stomach — or you don’t.


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