Now that the fighting in Iraq is all but over, it's time we ask some hard questions about the role women soldiers played in this latest American conflict. One woman died, and two others were taken hostage, one of whom was severely injured, because their orders took them close enough to danger to make the military's prohibition against women serving in combat a mere fig leaf. Two of these women, including the female soldier who died, were also single mothers. There is no question that these women performed bravely and honorably, but their individual courage isn't the issue. What remains to be seen is whether it is in our national interest -- and civilization's -- to send young women and mothers into battle in the first place.
The debate over women in combat raged through much of the 1980s after the Supreme Court upheld the military's right to exclude women from the draft largely because they were presumed unfit to serve in combat. But with little notice or fanfare in the early 1990s, female soldiers began performing roles that would take them ever closer to danger once fighting broke out.
At the Clinton administration's urging in 1993, Congress repealed laws that barred women from serving as members of combat aircraft and warship crews. The following year, Secretary of Defense Les Aspin repealed so-called "risk rules" that restricted women from certain jobs if they were deemed at high risk of hostile fire or capture. While the military still bars women from serving in combat per se, it no longer tries to keep them out of harm's way.
Feminists, always anxious to prove women are as tough and capable as men, applaud these changes, though I doubt many rushed down to recruiting offices in the months leading up to the war to put their principles to the test. Most young women who join the military do so to learn a skill, have a secure job with decent benefits and serve their country. Among enlisted women, the desire to fight is minimal -- only 29 percent believe women should be able to serve in combat positions, according to surveys taken by the Army in 1992. But whether some women are willing to kill -- and risk being killed -- to defend and serve their country isn't the point. The real issue is whether we should encourage them to do so.
No matter how much we modernists pretend otherwise, women are different from men, and their roles are not interchangeable. Females are not just smaller versions of males; they are also, on average, far less aggressive and more nurturing, qualities that suit them to be good mothers but not warriors. Not only do women do all the childbearing, but the period of their lives in which they can help perpetuate the species is far more limited than men's as well. As it so happens, females' prime childbearing years -- their twenties -- coincide with the age at which most male soldiers are likely to fall in combat.
Asked about the growing risk the new rules pose to soldiers who also happen to be mothers, one retired Army colonel snapped, "What about the males who get blown away? Which is worse, to lose the father of a child or the mother of a child?" It's hard to believe he didn't know the answer to that question. As tragic as the death of a father is in a young child's life, it simply can't compare to the loss of a mother.
Nor should we be concerned only with the prospect of the ultimate separation of mother and child when a female soldier dies. What about the effects of even a few months' separation of an infant or toddler from his or her soldier mom deployed halfway around the world? The military's only concern is that the soldier has a "care plan" in place so that combat readiness won't be impaired, but a generation of military dependents may be harmed by such indifference to their well-being.
In the name of equal opportunity for women in the military, we've chosen to ignore nature -- or worse, we're committed to altering it. We may succeed in training succeeding generations of young women to become warriors, but we can't begin to know the toll our hubris will take on the individuals involved, their families and our society.