When Women Go to War

The argument about women in combat is over. In fact, it was over three years ago, when two female sailors were among the victims of the bombing of the USS Cole. Women had been serving aboard U.S. combat ships only since 1994, yet these deaths — the first time any female sailor had been killed in hostile action onboard — did not lead to a reversal of policy. No special outrage accompanied the sight of “women in body bags” being brought home for burial, as many had predicted, either then or during the 1991 Persian Gulf War. Now, as we fight a new Gulf war, women constitute nearly a sixth of the armed forces. More than 90 percent of service positions, including most combat positions, are open to women. Although these facts have been noted once or twice in recent days, they have provoked no special angst. Right now, women are flying helicopters, launching missiles and dropping bombs on Iraqi cities, and American civilization has not collapsed as a result.

But if the argument about women in combat is over, the conversation about women in the military should not be — just as the conversation about women in the law, or in business, or in factories did not end when more women took those jobs. To see why, look no further than this week’s front pages, some of which feature the face of Army Spec. Shoshana Johnson, a POW in Iraq and the single mother of a 2-year-old. Johnson’s fate is heartbreaking, but it is not entirely unique. Johnson’s child is one of tens of thousands who have been left behind while their mothers — or their mothers and their fathers — go off to war.

Is there anything wrong with that? That is, is there anything wrong with the fact that Johnson was where she was when she was, “in harm’s way,” as the Army puts it? Some think not. Carolyn Becraft, assistant secretary of the Navy in the Clinton administration, puts the case like this: “This is a volunteer military. Everyone who stays is there of their own free will. This is their job. These are the conditions of their employment. If they have children, they still have to be available for worldwide deployment.” Official policy is no different, and no wonder. After the long struggle for acceptance, higher-ranking women in particular loathe the idea of treating mothers and fathers differently.

Dig a little deeper, though, and the angst is palpable. Very far off the record, one high-ranking Pentagon official admits to being deeply disturbed by photographs of women hugging their babies before leaving for war. “We’re the United States of America. How can we ask a young woman to leave her infant?” A military women’s Web site burns with acrimony. “My husband is on a ship already and we are overseas. I have no one to care for my child if we are both underway,” writes one. Another has no sympathy: “As a childless single woman working hard to cover up the slack that foolish pregnant women like you give the military, I and others have every right to be mad.” The awareness of a stereotype — that women get pregnant on ships in order to be sent home — leads another to describe the “shame” she felt after a planned pregnancy led to her discharge from the Navy and to write of how she longs, once again, “to serve my country with pride.”

Should she be able to? In civilian life, it would be easy. Whereas many among the first generation of female lawyers, like the first generation of female fighter pilots, took two-week maternity leaves or refused to have children at all, those in the second generation — my generation — happily take off a year, or five years, or work three days a week indefinitely. This isn’t because younger women have sold out, but because they, and the working world, have made a series of imperfect compromises. Women give up some seniority, and sometimes some money. In exchange, they get some time. Many, if not all, find this a fair compromise.

It is in this sense that the military now needs to catch up to the civilian world, to make that same generational shift. The American military offers its enlisted men and women enormous choices of training and education. Why shouldn’t they also be offered the chance to take a few years off, and then to reenlist, with no stigma attached? The military takes dozens of factors into consideration when it deploys people. Why shouldn’t single mothers be deliberately kept out of harm’s way? Military traditions make some of these questions starker and harder than they would be in civilian life, but it doesn’t make them illegitimate. In fact, it is only when the armed forces are comfortable enough with women to treat them differently, and only when military mothers are comfortable enough to be treated differently, that we will know they have truly arrived.

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