Armchair Warriors Strike Again

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As if it wasn’t enough that people like Attorney General Alberto Gonzales and Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld were telling military interrogators how to do their jobs. That got us into the Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo detainee scandals. But now it looks like politicians just can’t get enough of telling the Army how to do its job. Yesterday, the House Armed Services Committee passed a measure that will ban women from serving in units that would put them in a situation of direct ground combat.

According to the Washington Post, “Army leaders strongly criticized the legislation to Congress yesterday, saying women are performing ‘magnificently” in a wide range of units, where battlefields have no clear lines.” This last part is the most important: where battlefields have no clear lines. Fighting an insurgency in Iraq doesn’t lend itself to a clear concept of who will and will not encounter “ground combat.” Add to this the fact that the passed legislation is distinctly broad in its definition of what positions that women will be prohibited from, and you’ve got a recipe for confusion. Not to mention a big question mark as to what positions women will and will not be able to take.
Indeed, the Army’s vice chief of staff, Gen. Richard Cody sent a letter to the House yesterday, noting, “The proposed amendment will cause confusion in the ranks, and will send the wrong signal to the brave young men and women fighting the Global War on Terrorism. This is not the time to create such confusion.” This could very well translate into a situation where a competent and willing female soldier is deprived of a crucial job (or indeed, dissuaded from even enlisting to begin with) simply because the powers that be aren’t sure whether she might encounter ground combat.

Considering that we have a very limited number of men and women who are currently fighting a pretty intense war, it’s pretty crummy timing to be blocking the women we do have there from positions that they deserve and want. Note that this legislation comes at the same time as the House Armed Services Committee has pushed for the Army to declare a suspension of all recruiting on May 20th in order to retrain personnel in the laws and ethics of recruitment. After the Army has missed its target of enlistment for three months in a row, it has come to light that recruiters have been employing tactics that are at best highly unethical, and at worst, highly illegal. But many recruiters are skeptical about how successful this “retraining” will be. The underlying factor is that the Army desperately needs more conscripts.

Tell that to House Armed Services Committee Chairman Duncan Hunter (R.-Calif.), who pushed for the recent legislation, noting, “The American people have never wanted to have women in combat and this reaffirms that policy.” Beyond the immediate issue of this being an incredibly poor move for our already overstretched troops and low-recruiting capabilities, this is flat out sexism. As Phillip Carter writes,

Those who support this legislation will argue that they are, in fact, advancing military readiness by restricting combat billets to the men who can do the job. I couldn’t disagree more. This is simply sex discrimination masquerading as readiness legislation. If you truly care about enforcing combat standards, then set a standard and enforce it. Once you sift through all the stereotypes and gender generalizations, there is nothing about sex per se which ought to make it a disqualifying condition for combat duty. It may be true that women cannot meet the standard-but that is also true of many men. I led female MPs and served with female soldiers who were more than capable of doing their duty. Let’s put the focus on combat readiness, not on gender.

Let’s hope the Senate listens to the people who actually know what they’re talking about.

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