An engagement that took place in Nasiriyah, Iraq, on March 23 may reveal whether the Republican Party is now ready to engage in serious cultural combat here on the home front.
The policy question raised at Nasiriyah is profound: Will a Republican government retain or reverse a revolutionary women-in-combat regime put in place by the Clinton administration?
In January 1994, as reported then by Elaine Donnelly of the Center for Military Readiness, then-Defense Secretary Les Aspin eliminated the so-called "risk rule" that barred women from military ground support units whose members faced a "substantial risk of capture."
The consequences of this change struck home at Nasiriyah. Three young American women, all members of the Army's 507th Ordnance Maintenance Co., became casualties. Pfc. Lori Piestewa was killed, while Spec. Shoshana Johnson and Pfc. Jessica Lynch were wounded, captured and later recovered by U.S. forces. Piestewa and Johnson were single mothers. Lynch was only 19 years old.
In all, nine Americans died as a result of the action, and six, including Johnson and Lynch, were taken prisoner.
The details of the engagement remain sketchy. Rowan Scarborough of The Washington Times reported last week that the Army is investigating the incident under orders from Brig. Gen. Howard Bromberg, who heads the 32nd Army Air and Missile Defense Command of which the 507th was a part. The "goal" of the investigation, Col. Joe Curtin, a Defense Department spokesman, told the Times, "is lessons learned. Corrective action."
But if the Defense Department wants to correct the underlying problem highlighted at Nasiriyah, it should start by reinstating the "risk rule" eliminated by the Clinton administration. Then it should re-examine all policies that have moved women into combat and near-combat roles. It ought to do this regardless of what the investigation reveals about the details of combat on March 23.
If the question of putting women in harm's way pivoted merely on practical considerations, the issue raised would be a cold-blooded one: Did the women at Nasiriyah help or hinder their unit's chances?
Yet, as significant as that question is -- and it cannot be ducked by those responsible for ordering men and women into combat together -- there is a still bigger question: Does sending young women into harm's way represent an advance or a retreat for American civilization?
This question can be answered with another, which has been posed by syndicated columnist R. Cort Kirkwood: What kind of father, fearing an intruder had entered his basement in the night, would send his teenage daughter down to investigate?
What kind of mother would encourage her husband to do so in the name of gender equality? Would the family's neighbors admire the family's liberal-mindedness if they discovered Mom and Dad had given their daughter this potentially dangerous assignment?
I have no doubt the same American fathers who work and save to send their daughters to colleges, law schools, medical schools and business schools, and encourage them to be all that they can be in their chosen walks of life, would not feel right sending their daughters down to intercept burglars in the basement.
I doubt even the most committed feminist would tell her husband to sit back, relax and watch Leno on the couch, while sending their 19-year-old daughter downstairs to see what had gone bump in the night.
But, as a nation, we sent Johnson, Lynch and Piestewa into Nasiriyah. They are indisputably and forever American heroines for the sacrifices they made there. But it will not be heroic politics if the Republican Party leaves in place the Clinton-era rule that put them there.
On May 8, The Washington Times asked President Bush about reversing the Clinton-era rule change on women in combat. "I will take guidance from the United States military," Bush said. "Our commanders will make those decisions." A week later, Human Events Assistant Editor David Freddoso asked the Pentagon if Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld was considering reversing the Clinton rule change. "There are no plans to change the rules," said Maj. Sandra Burr, a department spokeswoman for personnel matters.
If Bush and Rumsfeld won't order it, the Republican Congress must legislate it. Or is the entire Republican leadership in Washington willing to send American servicewomen halfway around the world to run risks they wouldn't let their own daughters run at home?