Beneath the disturbing headlines alleging sexual abuse and harassment in the armed forces simmers a deeply emotional debate about the growing role of women in the military.
The issue: whether women should be allowed to take up arms on the brutal front lines of combat.
It's taken on fresh urgency because a military panel appointed to find ways to decrease harassment may soon recommend increased integration of women, including into combat positions, as a solution. Advocates on both sides of the issue agree the outcome of the debate will transform not only the nation's armed forces, but society as a whole.
Opponents contend that allowing women into combat positions will undermine the readiness of forces, threaten national security, and tear at the nation's social fabric by officially condoning violence against women. Supporters counter that women who meet all of the qualifications for combat will simply enhance their units' readiness, as they have in other divisions of the military. And that success, they argue, will help enhance the societal view of women as leaders and fighters, instead of victims, in a culture where violence is prevalent.
One active duty Army captain, who requested anonymity, says she's ready to shoulder the role. She and her husband have already made contingency plans for child care, just in case she is called into combat. "I've signed up. As soon as the balloon goes up, I'm ready to go and ready to die," she says without hesitation.
Gender makeup of services
Women now make up about 14 percent of the nation's 500,000 Army personnel. As fewer men enlist, the Army is banking on attracting more women to fill the gap. But many young recruits and career women say they enter with a disadvantage: They're excluded from ground combat service in the infantry, armor, and artillery branches, traditionally the paths top military leaders have taken as they move up the ranks.
To defenders of the status quo, that exclusion is the last beachhead protecting the unique "warrior spirit" necessary to an effective, cohesive combat unit.
"Anybody who can get themselves up to do in front of a woman the kind of really nasty, brutal job that's required in combat is not the kind of fellow I'd want to serve with," says Richard Frederick, a retired Air Force lieutenant colonel who served two tours in Vietnam.
He is so incensed by the move to integrate women more fully into combat roles that he took out a full page add in editions of The Wall Street Journal this week, charging that the military leaders' silence on the issue was "abetting the destruction of the warrior spirit in the US Armed Forces."
But retired Air Force Brigadier General Wilma Vaught calls such arguments "utter nonsense."
"My feeling is that women should have the opportunity of serving wherever they're capable of serving, but I'm not in favor of anyone, male or female, being assigned to combat duty if they're not capable of it," says General Vaught, president of the Women in the Military Service Memorial Foundation. "Not every man can do what's required for the infantry, either."
General Vaught says that, in her experience and those of her colleagues, bringing in women has improved readiness of units because "for some strange reason, there's less 'goofing off,' to use the vernacular, when women are there."
Nancy Duff Campbell, the co-president of the National Women's Law Center, which advocates allowing women into combat roles, points to a 1996 Government Accounting Office study that found the performance of both men and women improved in gender integrated units because men didn't want to be "bested" by a woman, and vice versa.
"What tends to happens when you integrate women into nontraditional jobs is there's a transitional period, and it usually starts with sexual harassment," says Ms. Campbell. "Then, as the number of women increases (critical mass is about 25 percent), the men and the women start making distinctions among each other on issues other than gender: 'I can count on John for some things, and Tabatha for others.' "
Impact of lack of women
To bolster her point, Campbell points out the Marine Corps has the most incidents of sexual harassment, the fewest number of women, and they don't have gender-integrated training, as the other services do.
But to opponents of integrating women into the military, such arguments miss the point. She thinks women aren't strong enough to do all the jobs.
"Women do not have an equal opportunity to survive or to help their fellow soldiers survive," says Elaine Donnelly, president of the Center for military preparedness, a nonprofit group based in Michigan that focuses on military personnel issues.
Beyond concerns about physical ability in combat, Donnelly is also worried about the larger social implications of inuring society to violence against women.
"You would have to desensitize the entire nation to brutality against women at the hands of men, that's the reality of what we're talking about. Are we ready to see women's body parts strewn across the battlefield?" asks Donnelly, who was also a member of the 1992 Presidential Commission on the Assignment of Women in the Armed Forces.
But for the young women who hope to dedicate their lives to military service, the issue is much simpler.
"There's so much deference given to the combat arms, and they definitely deserve that respect because of what they do, but I feel like I'm already starting out with a disadvantage," says Pam Wright, a senior cadet at West Point Military Academy. She says she'd simply like the same opportunity to serve the country as her male colleagues.
To Donnelly, that desire is selfish, putting a woman's individual career needs ahead of the institutional needs of the military.
But to supporters, that desire shows a deep patriotism, and if the young cadet is the best person for the job, Campbell says, she is not just advancing her own career, but the national security as well.