Do US women belong in the thick of the fighting?

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

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

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.

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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.

"To pretend that women would have an equal capability of doing that is a dangerous philosophy, and lives could be lost as a result of it," says Elaine Donnelly, president of the Center for Military Readiness and one of the most outspoken critics of current military policy on women in war zones.

Validating violence against women?

For some, part of this concern involves the number of women killed and wounded in combat, which is accumulating at a much higher rate than in previous wars. (Only one American woman was killed by hostile fire in the 10-year Vietnam War.)

But there's more to it than that. In a way, there are similarities among US political/cultural conservatives and Islamic traditionalists, both of whom are opposed to women as "war fighters."

"If we as a nation endorse the idea of women in combat that engages the enemy deliberately, we would be saying that violence against women is OK as long as it happens at the hand of the enemy," says Ms. Donnelly. "That would be a setback for our civilization."

That may be a debatable point, and public opinion surveys aren't clear on how many agree with it. But women in Iraq have been decorated for directly engaging enemy fighters and saving other soldiers' lives as a result. Army Airborne Capt. Kellie McCoy earned a Bronze Star with combat "V" (for valor) for a 2003 incident in Fallujah. Leading a patrol that got ambushed and took casualties, she hopped up into the Humvee's machine gun turret, killed a couple of the attackers, then led her men to safety.

But this deeply emotional and personal issue is not clear-cut for many people, no matter what their politics or world view.

Beth Coye is a retired US Navy commander who served from 1960 to 1980. She describes herself as very liberal politically, a staunch feminist, one who thinks women should be able to serve aboard US submarines. Still, she can't bring herself to accept the notion of women as front-line ground troops.

"Women are performing well in Iraq, and we knew they would and could," says Commander Coye, who has taught at the Naval War College. "But for me, the deal still is rifle carrying and all that. I can't quite get there myself; I really can't."

All put to the same test

Sam Huff's parents aren't planning anything special for Memorial Day. After three services for their daughter, "We're pretty memorialed out," BobHuff says. They know they need to get on with their lives.

Still, they remain close to Sam's military friends, and find that a comfort. "The recruiters who worked with Sam have been coming by the house, and we have a real good relationship," he says. "The military in general and the Army in particular have done everything they possibly can to make us comfortable, to make us feel a part of their family, and to try to take some of the burden off of us."

What advice would he give others whose children may want to enter military service? "I would just say the obligation on the parents' part is to make sure the child or young adult knows the risks and consequences involved, and knows as much about what war brings as they can. It's the responsibility of the parent to make sure they make an informed decision, but ultimately the choice has to be theirs."

On the question of gender and military service, he still believes, as his daughter did, that "they should all be put to the same test, and if they can cut it, there is absolutely no reason in the world that they shouldn't serve."

And he adds, "Thank God that we have the number of young people we do who are willing to fight for their country."

But there is another kind of equality here, too, Sam Huff's father acknowledges: "If your child dies in a war in a foreign land, male or female, it's going to hurt just the same."

How Memorial Day came to be

Memorial Day traces its roots to the years after the Civil War, though there are competing claims over its origins.

Waterloo, N.Y., received the official nod, in 1966, as the "birthplace" of Memorial Day. There, a ceremony on May 5, 1866, honored local veterans who had fought in the Civil War.

Two years later, a Union veterans' association established Decoration Day as a time to decorate soldiers' graves with flowers. May 30, when most of the country was in bloom, was the chosen date. The first observance was at Arlington National Cemetery, where small US flags were placed on each grave.

After World War I, the observance was expanded to honor fallen veterans of all wars.

In 1950, Congress asked the president to issue a proclamation calling on the American people to observe each Memorial Day as a day of prayer for permanent peace, and designating a period that day when they might unite in prayer.

Memorial Day became a national holiday in 1971.

This year, President Bush declared May 30 as a day of prayer for permanent peace and the hour of 11 a.m. as a time to unite in prayer.

Sources: Websites of US Department of Veterans Affairs, the White House, and the White House Commission on Remembrance.

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