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Do US women belong in the thick of the fighting?

By Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / May 26, 2005

Maggie Williams and her daughter Sam Huff had much in common.

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As a teenager 35 years ago, Ms. Williams joined the US Marine Corps and became an air traffic controller, directing jet fighters and helicopters in Vietnam as the war there was winding down. Back in the United States, she began a career in law enforcement, married a police officer, and raised a family.

When she was just 16, Ms. Huff told her parents she wanted to join the US Army right out of high school, and later start a career with the FBI. She toughed out boot camp last year and then joined a military police unit driving Humvees through the mean streets of Iraq.

But there the mother-daughter similarity ends.

On April 18, Pfc. Huff's Humvee hit a roadside bomb in Baghdad, and she was killed. Posthumously awarded a Bronze Star and a Purple Heart, she was buried at Arlington National Cemetery recently. She was 18.

As Memorial Day approaches, one might say that Maggie Williams and Sam Huff are bookends for the history of women in the US military in the modern era. As a marine, Williams did a job that was very traditionally male. Huff - the 37th (and latest) American woman to be killed in Iraq - epitomizes the current debate over whether women, even if they volunteer, should be fighting alongside men.

Congress has been debating the issue this week. Some lawmakers want to assert more congressional control over Pentagon policies that have opened up more and more jobs to women in recent years, including those that increasingly put them in the thick of the shooting.

Of the 37 women lost, 25 were from hostile causes such as rocket or grenade attacks, ambushes, and roadside bombs.

In a way, the job expansion is a pattern that has occurred since the Vietnam War: Women demonstrate excellence in such positions as fighter pilot, military police officer, and heavy equipment operator, and then are more likely to have perilous assignments - particularly during a recruiting shortage. Some welcome the opportunity; but some do not, according to surveys of women in uniform.

Here, too, the changing nature of war seems to accelerate the pattern.

"Modern wars will be fought 360 degrees, which means women will be on the 'front lines' whether the Congress likes it or not," says retired Army Col. Dan Smith, a military analyst with the Friends Committee on National Legislation in Washington.

Though many servicemen in Afghanistan and Iraq have children, it is the mothers in the war zones who seem to raise greater concerns. (Army Pfc. Lori Ann Piestewa, the first American woman to be killed in Iraq, left two small children to be raised by their grandparents.)

Until recent years, if a woman in uniform got pregnant or adopted a child, she had to leave the service. Loren Thompson, a military analyst at the Lexington Institute in Arlington, Va., says his parentsare a good example of what happened in the past. His father was an Army colonel who served with Gen. "Vinegar Joe" Stilwell in China. His mother was an Army major on Gen. Douglas MacArthur's staff during the occupation of Japan. They met in Korea and married.

"Some time later I was conceived and Mom got the boot, even though she appealed her involuntary retirement all the way to the Senate Armed Services Committee," recalls Dr. Thompson.

While the general trend toward more rights for women in the United States has advanced steadily in recent decades, those gains aren't necessarily exportable - particularly in wartime.

Waging a counterinsurgency war in one of the world's most traditional societies is a reminder that American values cannot be the only factor shaping military policy, says Thompson.

"The first lesson of effective counterinsurgency is respect for local peoples and their cultures, so this could become a test of American flexibility," he adds.

"This is one case where it may not be feasible to honor American values and those of the people we propose to liberate at the same time," he says. "Our attitudes toward gender equality and relations between the sexes may simply be too different."

Illustrating this point is an Army Reserve unit based in Richmond, Va., which will soon go to Iraq to train Iraqi soldiers. They will leave behind some 20 female drill instructors because of such sensitivities.

"I understand each culture has different morals and customs, and I have to respect that," Staff Sgt. Stefania Traylor told the Richmond Times-Dispatch. "But on the other hand, it's quite different from our culture, so I do have a problem with that. If you are getting experience, knowledge, and guidance from an individual, it shouldn't matter whether you are male or female."

Those who argue otherwise note the physiological differences between men and women - for example, the upper-body strength necessary to operate some heavy weapons effectively or to pull a fallen comrade out of harm's way.