Our brave women

Posted: Apr 04, 2003 12:00 AM

Pfc. Jessica Lynch has won the hearts and the gratitude of a whole nation. If initial reports are accurate, she showed enormous courage when the Iraqis ambushed her maintenance unit. Though she'd been shot, stabbed and sustained at least two broken bones (though it is not yet clear in what sequence), she reportedly fired her weapon until she was out of ammunition.

As one official told The Washington Post, she was "fighting to the death ... she did not want to be taken alive." They're talking about a Medal of Honor for her. This 5 foot, 4 inch 19-year-old gal from West Virginia sure did us proud. God bless her and her family.

But she should never have been anywhere near the battlefield. Women do not belong in combat.

It isn't that one doesn't respect women -- some of my best friends are women, and oh yes, I am one myself -- and I've no doubt that women are as courageous and as cool under fire as men. But far from representing a new frontier in the struggle for women's rights, putting women in combat represents the victory of a few zealots over common sense and right reason.

How did we get here?

Under current regulations, women are not permitted in direct combat units. But they're allowed to get very close. Until 1994, women were forbidden even in units that were "at risk" for contact with the enemy or capture. Under pressure from feminists who seek to erase all sexual discrimination from the military, President Clinton's secretary of defense, Les Aspin, eliminated "inherent risk of capture" from the risk assessments of non-combat units. Accordingly, women now staff many positions that are close to the front lines, and at least three women have been captured in the first two weeks of fighting.

Have you seen the face of Army Spc. Shoshana Johnson? An army cook who likes to make jerk chicken and curry rice for her dad, she, like Lynch, was captured following an ambush. Her terrified face has since been broadcast around the world. The Iraqis reportedly put her on camera just after they had killed some of her companions. At this writing, her status is unknown. She is the single mother of a toddler. The other missing woman is Pfc. Lori Piestewa, a 23-year-old mother of two preschoolers.

Yes, these women are all volunteers, but the question is not whether they are willing but whether we should ask them to take these risks.

Pentagon studies have consistently found that only about 10 percent of the women in the military services would choose combat if they could. Studies at the military academies have found that women are far less likely to be interested in war fighting courses like strategy and tactics than their male counterparts. And more surveys than you can name have shown that women lag behind men in upper body strength, size and weight. Many women are not strong enough to carry a fallen comrade over her shoulder. Some cannot throw a grenade far enough to be safe from its explosion. Many become pregnant while in the service, eroding readiness.

But the deepest reasons for objecting to women in combat come down to women's inherent delicacy -- a quality we should not lightly dismiss. Captured women are virtually certain to be sexually abused or even tortured. And men will go to extra lengths to protect the women around them -- sometimes at the sacrifice of their own safety, which is why women should be kept well back from the fighting. Feminists say men should stop worrying about us, that we're fully capable of handling ourselves. But most of us don't really want a world in which men stifle all chivalrous feelings for women.

Finally, there is the matter of motherhood. The two remaining women captives are mothers of small children. One is a single parent. The military has traditionally preferred single men to married men, the childless to those with children. Now we are sending not just young fathers but also young mothers into harm's way. This is so unnecessary, and such a terrible price to ask our children to pay. Anne Applebaum declared in The Washington Post that the argument over women in combat is over. Let's hope not.