WASHINGTON: US commanders are taking a second look at policies that bar women from ground combat, as the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have thrust female soldiers into the thick of the fight.
The Army chief of staff, General George Casey, told lawmakers last week that it was time to review the rules in light of how women have served in the two wars.
His comments came as the military unveiled plans to lift the ban on women serving in submarines, an all-male bastion that navy officers once insisted could never change.
Despite a policy designed to keep women away from units engaged in ground combat, the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan have placed women in battle with insurgents who do not operate along defined front lines.
As a result, women have earned medals for valor and praise for their mettle.
“My best combat interrogator was a woman soldier, my best tank mechanic was a woman soldier,” John Nagl, a retired lieutenant colonel who served in Iraq, told AFP.
Getting the two women in the unit required “a little paperwork sleight of hand,” as the rules formally barred them from that role, said Nagl, president of the Center for New American Security, a think tank.
Nagl and others say the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have been a watershed for women in the US military, and that policies written in the 1990s will have to be rewritten to catch up with the realities on the ground.
“I believe it’s time we take a look at what women are actually doing in Iraq and Afghanistan and to look at our policy,” General Casey told senators.
Defense Secretary Robert Gates has yet to weigh changing the policy but his press secretary, Geoff Morrell, acknowledged that despite the rules, “effectively many women in uniform are in combat missions every day, be they helicopter pilots, be they medics, be they logistical support personnel…”
Even as the military signaled a willingness to break with tradition when it comes to women’s roles, Casey and other top commanders have voiced apprehension and even outright opposition to allowing gays to serve openly.
At a senate hearing, Casey questioned if now was the right time to be repealing the ban on gays when the armed forces were under strain of two wars.
And the head of the Marine Corps, General James Conway, openly broke with President Barack Obama over the issue, saying changing the current law on gays in the military could jeopardize “military readiness.”
But advocates of lifting the ban on gays point to women’s experience in the military to bolster their arguments.
They say similar objections were raised in the past about women serving alongside men, but that the military’s order and discipline did not break down and that women’s contributions only strengthened the force.
The performance of female soldiers in the 1990-91 Gulf war helped prompt an earlier wave of reform, opening the way for women to serve in combat aircraft and naval warships.
The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan are likely to have the same effect, said Nancy Duff Campbell, co-president of the National Women’s Law Center.
Commanders want the most talented people for their units, “and they’re asking why do we have these old rules,” she said.
Future policies should set “gender-neutral standards,” focusing on the skills or physical strength required for a military job instead of assuming no woman could meet the criteria, she said.
Sending women to battle remains a sensitive issue, however, and some lawmakers have tried unsuccessfully in recent years to reassert limits.
Right-leaning commentators question whether mothers in uniform, particularly single parents, should be sent in harm’s way and separated from their children, even if they volunteered to serve.
“What is watching Mommy go off to war doing to some of those children?” author Mary Eberstadt wrote in Friday’s Washington Post.
Army Specialist Alexis Hutchinson, a single mother, attracted headlines when she refused to obey orders to deploy to Afghanistan, because she said she had no one to take care of her baby boy.
She faced criminal charges initially but was eventually discharged.
Advocates of women in combat say such cases are rare, and that the military requires all parents to have firm plans in place for their children before they deploy — or else leave the force.
More than 220,000 women have fought in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and more than 120 of them have been killed in the conflicts, according to the Pentagon.
Ending the ban on ground combat will come sooner or later, Nagl said, as it is “simply recognizing a truth that’s already been written in blood and sweat on the battlefield.”