ARLINGTON, Va. -- Far more serious than the short-term consequences of some poorly armored vehicles in Iraq are the potential long-term consequences of putting female soldiers in ground combat units.
Critics of placing women in combat units say the Army is manipulating language in rules governing such placement to achieve a social objective that would substantially and significantly change the way America fights wars and possibly put all soldiers -- men and women -- at greater risk.
What has raised concerns is a Nov. 29 briefing by a senior Army officer responsible for Army personnel issues at the Pentagon, along with a civilian. The briefing by these two people was for Lt. Gen. James Campbell, director of Army staff. It included this phrase: "The way ahead: rewrite/eliminate the Army collocation policy." Collocation is military-speak for deploying mixed-sex noncombat units alongside all-male fighting units. The official Army policy prohibits female soldiers in units specifically designated as combat units. But some Army officers think they see a loophole large enough to drive through their social agenda.
The linguistic questions revolve around a policy memorandum written Jan. 13, 1994, by Defense Secretary Les Aspin. After "restrict[ing] women from direct combat on the ground," Mr. Aspin wrote: "The Services may propose additional exceptions, together with the justification to the Assistant Secretary of Defense (Personnel and Readiness)." (Emphasis mine)
What the briefers at the Nov. 29 meeting suggested is that those who wish to place women in combat units alongside men may do so without authorization from the secretary of defense or the White House.
One of the slides used at the briefing suggested the Army under Department of Defense policy "may" include service restrictions based on collocation, cost and other factors, and the Army would have to notify the secretary of defense in order to add restrictions. It also said the policy is silent on dropping restrictions.
The language choice is significant. In Mr. Aspin's 1994 memo, the word "may" appears after the four restrictions on women in combat. The word "propose" follows "may." Mr. Aspin did not say the Army has the power to act unilaterally, as the Nov. 29 briefers apparently contended when they claimed Army policy is "silent on dropping restrictions on women in combat." Adding weight to Mr. Aspin's memo is a July 28, 1994, letter from Mr. Aspin's successor, William J. Perry, who said he "approves" of the Army's "proposal."
With National Guard enlistments down and with orders to extend currently serving guardsmen and other service personnel beyond one year of duty in Iraq, there are some who apparently want to use the need for more personnel to ram through their social objective of placing women in combat.
For all of the reasons argued against such a policy in the past, including unit cohesion, increases in sexual harassment, rape and pregnancy, and the social revulsion most feel about seeing women wounded or killed in combat (or tortured or beheaded by the enemy) -- not to mention that these are policies that should be set at the top and not by lower-ranking military and civilian authorities -- overturning restrictions on women in combat would weaken our military.
When Congress returns, the House and Senate Armed Services committees should hold hearings on this issue and call the briefers and General Campbell (and any others who were at the briefing) to testify about whether a change in the rule governing women in combat is being contemplated. If necessary, Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld should be asked whether he and the president will permit the policy to be altered by people without the authority to do so.
There are enough challenges to our military at the moment. Changing such a significant policy banning women from direct combat, especially during a time of war and with no input from those who have the power to set policy, is a bad idea that is not in the ultimate interest of women, men or the strength of our armed forces.
Cal Thomas' syndicated column appears Wednesdays in The Sun.