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A Woman’s Place Is on the Battlefield. Maybe.

By Margaret Carlson
January 29, 2013 6:30 PM EST

I’m all for women building skyscrapers, driving trucks, piloting planes, operating on my daughter, publishing newspapers, directing movies, building roads and flying to the moon. I want 150 million cracks in the glass ceiling and a female president.

I’m on the fence, however, about women in combat. Should women be equal in the military? Of course. Should they serve wherever they can? Yes. Should they get promotions and four stars? Absolutely. But I would feel better if the Pentagon were also doing a lot of other things to improve the lives and careers of military women.

If we ever have a draft again, women will be subject to it the same as men, just as they have been subject to the dangers of war for the past two decades. In Iraq and Afghanistan, more than 20,000 women have served, 850 have been wounded and as of Jan. 24, when Defense Secretary Leon Panetta announced women could serve in combat roles, 152 have died. It’s time they were acknowledged, compensated and promoted for their sacrifice.

The policy was last reviewed in 1994, when the Clinton administration, no slouch when it came to equality of the sexes, decided against opening up infantry, armor and artillery positions to women. That decision was largely based on the cold hard truth that men and women are different -- physically. I’m not talking about how boys like trucks and girls like dolls. This is about a stark difference in upper-body strength that no legislation can correct.

Changing Definitions

Nineteen years later, the pressure to review the 1994 decision was high. Women argue, legitimately, that by being kept from combat units they’re being denied the top jobs. What’s combat and what isn’t has changed in this man’s (and woman’s) army. In the mountains of Afghanistan or the deserts of Iraq, the “front” is an illusion. Women actually serve in combat positions -- they’re just not called that.

Take the case of Major Mary Jennings Hegar, an Air National Guard helicopter pilot who was shot down and wounded in Afghanistan in 2009. The job she did, and the wounds she suffered, were comparable to a man in a certified combat role. Yet she was not eligible for promotion in the same way a man would have been.

That’s not fair. With last week’s policy change, now she will be. Still, many in the military worry whether the newly equal military could be more dangerous: What if you are wounded and your comrade isn’t strong enough to carry you from the field of battle?

The question is so volatile that on Jan. 28, General Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, addressed the “fear” that standards will be lowered. “The standards will be gender-neutral -- the same for men and women.”

And yet, standards have already been gender-normed, if not lowered. A woman can pass through basic training with fewer chin-ups, less rope climbing, and fewer miles run. The question isn’t whether the standards are different for women -- many are -- but whether the standards are germane to the job.

What Dempsey is saying is that a set of standards specific to an infantry job will be developed, and that it will be the same for men and women. If a soldier can’t throw a grenade 15 meters, he or she would be putting the company in danger, not the enemy.

The closer and more present danger for women in the military may be from friendly fire. Just as the Pentagon was welcoming women into its combat ranks last week, Air Force Chief of Staff Mark Welsh was testifying before Congress about the “appalling” number of sexual assaults last year, which he called a “cancer” on the military. Overall, between 20 percent and 40 percent of servicewomen are victims of rape or attempted rape in their careers. The Pentagon says there are two to three sexual assaults for every 1,000 active-duty soldiers.

Sexual Misconduct

The Pentagon really doesn’t have a grip on the sexual misconduct in its midst. Accused military personnel are treated like abusive priests: Commanders don’t have to report their crimes, and they can be transferred from one base to another without anyone knowing. As bad as the statistics are, Panetta acknowledges that the actual number of assaults is much higher.

Welsh testified about episodes at Lackland Air Force Base in San Antonio, Texas, where instructors took advantage of as many as 59 recruits. The Tailhook scandal, in which dozens of women were assaulted, happened in one night. This happened over many months. Only a few of the victims reported what happened at the time.

Aside from the sexual violence, there is an epidemic of unintended pregnancies. In 2008, more than 10 percent of women in the military had unintended pregnancies, a percentage far higher than in the general population. There are lots of reasons: spotty access to birth control over a long deployment, the military’s ban on abortions in military hospitals, and the general tendency of men to be men and women to be women, especially at the tender ages many enlist. And sex between soldiers of the same rank is legal, if not advisable. As in private life, affairs, rivalries and break-ups wreak havoc, all the more troublesome on a battlefield.

There is one big advantage to women in combat that Panetta didn’t talk about last week. The Pentagon needs to do something to reduce the plague of sexual assault among the rank and file, and elevating women to combat roles could help with that. You don’t sexually attack someone you may be in a foxhole with. In that way, it’s still Patton’s army.

(Margaret Carlson is a Bloomberg View columnist. The opinions expressed are her own.)

To contact the writer of this article: Margaret Carlson at mcarlson3@bloomberg.net.

To contact the editor responsible for this article: Michael Newman at mnewman43@bloomberg.net.

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