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Annie, get your grenade launcher

Leon Panetta, departing Secy. of Def., has removed restrictions on military women serving in combat roles. The Times has a story tracing his thinking on the subject. The head of the Joint Chiefs, Martin Dempsey also describes the development of his views.An accompanying story reports on instances of women in "non-combat" roles being drawn into combat when serving in combat units. Each service will be given time to assess the criteria for different forms of combat: e.g., special services, infantry, etc. One of the benefits often cited is that it will allow women to rise to the highest ranks (four-star, etc.), which are reserved for those who have served in combat.The trajectory for the decision seems inevitable, but I am sure there are questions that need answers. What do you think?

About the Author

Margaret O'Brien Steinfels, a former editor of Commonweal, writes frequently in these pages and blogs at dotCommonweal.



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If women can pass the tests I think they should be able to get the jobs. They already do a lot of fighting but some of this stuff is about promotions and esprit de corps. This interview with a female former Marine Commander explains why the decision makes sense ...

I am sure that women can serve as well as men in many combat positions, and I trust the military to decide if there are any where they can't. If it turns out that the physical demands for being in certain elite military units (say, Navy Seals) are such that only a scant few women can qualify, I don't see that it would be sex discrimination to keep such units all male. The order is the lifting of a ban, not an order to have equal numbers of men and women in every military role. Some are asking how we will feel about this when women start coming home in pieces in body bags. The first answer is that they already do. But I think many of us (including me) have an emotional reaction to the idea of women being blown to bits in combat. And of course I have seen many heartbreaking stories about men who have been severely injuredsometimes almost beyond human recognitionin combat. I think we have a gut feeling that it would be worse for a woman to lose all her limbs or be so severely burned that she has no face than it is for a manalthough of course such things are extraordinarily tragic for anyone. I tend to think those are probably emotional feelings that should not influence our decisionsparticularly in the case of women who want to serve and make a fully informed decision to do sobut I think the feelings should be taken very seriously.

Hi, Margaret:What do I think? I think your headline is demeaning to the brave women who have fought alongside men in every war. The fact that they no longer have to disguise themselves and take on masculine names, etc., is good. As a very little girl, I loved the posters of the WACS and WAVES. (I think we're from the same age cohort. Did you not admire the women in uniform then? How I loved my Red Cross Nurse doll!) My admiration for servicewomen has only increased over the decades. Seeing the first women graduate from West Point was thrilling, etc.There have been women in every war. In the Civil War, e.g., the nuns who cared for wounded soldiers learned not to be surprised to find women among their patients. 55 million leads to "women fighters dressed as men civil war." of mocking "Annie," what about thanking her and celebrating her courage?

Red Cross dolls were all well and good. But Annie of "Annie Get Your Gun," was a role model for some back in 1946!

Yes, my neighbor boy loved Annie Get Your Gun. And I admire the real Annie Oakley very much. she wasn't in combat. (On an official level. The suffering she endured from the people she called "the wolves" might count as warfare.)(I wish you'd open a thread on all aspects of Annie: the Broadway show, the t.v. show, the movie, the real Annie Oakley, etc., etc.)

Not surprisingly, the WSJ published an op-ed disagreeing with the decision. Be warned--it is a bit graphic. What thinks thee?

Anthony Andreass,Of course, we don't yet know if women will be in those exact same situations as men. But it seems to me that if men and woman find themselves together under such dire circumstances, vanity and modesty would be very low on their list of concerns. I have never been in combat, but I have had a couple of miserable stays in the hospital, having all kinds of indignities perpetrated on me by doctors and (more often) nurses. In my experience, after the first day you couldn't care less.

@Anthony Andreaass (1/25, 11:44 am) Former Marine Goldie Taylor was on TV the other night saying she'd been in plenty of situations like the ones described in Ryan Smith's op-ed column. Bottom line, in Taylor's view, "if a woman meets every physical and mental criteria for a job, she should be allowed to do it and be formally recognized for it."

I'm not gung-ho on the military or the foreign policy debacles that have led to some of our current involvements, but given that some wars are necessary evils in the actual defense of our nation, I have no problem with women being called on to assist in any capacity for which they are fit. What rational person could?Raber, a Navy vet, noted that women have only just been allowed on submarine duty in the last year or so, something he could never quite fathom (urgh, no pun intended) because it's a job that calls less for strength and more for job precision and nerves of steel. You have to withstand claustrophobic conditions for months on end and a fair amount of disorientation.

AA: WSJ article...agree it's pretty grim picture, and he doesn't even mention claustraphobia!!! But somehow I think body yuck and hygiene are likely to be the least of the issues.

Just to punch up this discussion a bit, let me suggest a read at Pat Lang's blog. Not for the politically correct, etc. Many are combat veterans, but several comments also pay attention to structural and organizational issues. "What did you do in the army, Mom?"

I have no problem with the military making a case by case determination on particular jobs that might not be appropriate for a woman, but they should also do a similar determination on jobs unsuitable for a man.

And the "Nuns of the Battlefield" Monument, honoring the sisters who served as nurses during the Civil War first saw it in a Sisters of Charity newsletter; one of the twelve sisters depicted on the monument is a Sister of Charity.

In the absence of the draft, at first glance it seems like a non-problem; women who don't want to be in combat don't have to join the military. It seems only fair that if a woman who is informed about the risks wishes to enter the armed services, she should have the same career advantages as a man. There are several problems that need to be addressed. One is the difficulty of making an informed decision when one has never seen combat. We realize that some don't come back alive, others come back physically maimed. How many come back mentally and spiritually wounded? We call it PTSD now, but it has existed as long as wars have been fought.Another problem is thinking of the military as a primarily a career opportunity. We forget that the military exists for one reason only. I believe that there is such a thing as "just war". I also believe that most of the conflicts we have been involved with in the past 50 or 60 years do not fit that definition. The question we should be asking shouldn't be limited to whether our daughters should go to war. We should also be asking whether our sons should go to war. We are sacrificing our young men and women on an what? We need to ask the hard questions. War should be a last resort, an act of desperate necessity, not an industry to employ our young people during a soft economy.

If a woman can meet all of the physical tests necessary to engage in front line combat, then they should be allowed to do so. Military women already serve in numerous combat roles, including fighter pilots, naval officers, and logistics that are often in harms way.But another thought occurs to me. If we had a military draft, would we still be fighting in Afghanistan eleven years after 9/11? Would we have invaded Iraq on such flimsy pretext? As callous as it sounds, perhaps the notion of women serving, dying and being maimed in combat will have a leavening effect on our bellicosity. Right now, for the most part it is not 'our' sons who serve, it is other people's sons. Maybe some of the collective protectionism that exists for our women will bring the horror of war closer to our collective imagination.

Hi, jbruns:The problem with the long wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, imho, is not about "our" anything. It's about the profits made by the contractors and their pet congresspeople, safe in their berths, as long as they play ball.The "collective imagination" does not seem to be focused on those wars at all. Who ever talks about the wars? Who is collecting grease, newspapers, rubber, milkweed down, etc., for the war effort?The young men and women sacrificed Over There mean nothing to the big shots who have increased their wealth and will continue to do so, even after Johnny comes marching home. The blather about cutting spending, etc., is bogus, obviously. If the money wasted on those phony wars had been spent on education, Americans might realize how we're being scammed, and that would never do.

JBruns: "if we had a military draft".... You're right to wonder if we'd still be in Afghanistan. Would we have even gone to Iraq? Possibly, but not for long as we did. Of course, if we had a military draft, how would the citizenry react to women being drafted? By happenstance, on the news the other night there was a clip of an officer testifying before Congress about sexual harassment in an (Army???) training center, i.e., trainers harassing trainees, apparently women trainees. There seems to be a certain amount of this already in the military generally; will allowing more women into combat increase the incidence of harassment. Stay tuned...for some more congressional hearings!!

Here is an interesting angle from a very conservative fellow who is also a conservative Catholic and a classicist. He is basically arguing, 'who will fight to protect the women at home if they are on the battlefield instead of huddled with the children?'?

jbruns: I've always heard/read/thought that men in battle protect one another. Those in their unit. The country, the flag, the people safe at home are forgotten, and instinct and training kick in. I've heard/read that in World War I and World War II, as the casualties mounted, men still alive refused to learn the names of new recruits sent to replace their "fallen" comrades. They knew they wouldn't last.

From JBruns link: "If you want men to have nothing to fight for, this is the way to proceed." This sounds a bit like Hannah Rosen in "The End of Men." Her argument is full of holes and so too is this concluding sentence.

I daresay that the women without the physical strength to do the grunt jobs won't be allowed in the infantry, and I suspect that is a big majority of women. The services have always prohibited men from jobs they couldn't do physically.

Not all women can lift 104# artillery shells; not all men can lift 104# artillery shells.Not all men can qualify for the membership in the Navy Seals; not all women will be able to qualify for membership in the Navy Seals.Prejudging on the basis of gender is simply perpetuating myths that males have developed, not only in the military, but also in the police and fire services, to name just 2 others.One of the best officers I served under in the Air Force was a female Lt. Col. Unfortunately in those days women were not allowd to fly, so her promotion above where she was at that time was pretty if not totally limited.And is it OK to see men come home in body bags, but not women? If so .... why?

" ... trainers harassing trainees, apparently women trainees. There seems to be a certain amount of this already in the military generally; will allowing more women into combat increase the incidence of harassment."I am sure that after HST integrated the US military this problem existed. It was overcome with hard work and strict discipline, up to and including prison and dishonorable discharge.This, too, shall pass ... as a few recalcitrant males will learn to their large and undying regret.BTW, many gays and lesbians are still reluctant to "come out" for fear of what they know will happen to them from the "normal grunts," non-coms and officers.

As I understand it, an officer cannot rise above a certain rank (two star general?) if he has not served in combat. This, apparently, is one of the big obstacles to women receiving high promotion in the Army.

As Lady Mary (of Downton Abbey) would say, "We're all agreed then."

Would that THIS adaptation of what Ann said above were true: "a politician cannot serve on any armed services committees if (s)he has not served in combat."This country has been in the grip of too many chicken hawks for way too many years now.

If JM's adaptation was followed, that would make Rep. Tammy Duckworth (D.-IL) a candidate for speaker of the house. Dang those seniority rules.

As Lady Mary [of Downton Abbey fame] also said: "Don't fret, Edith. It's so middle-class!"

Really??? Sounds more like the Dowager Countess, the grandmother of Lady Mary (Maggie Smith).

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