Learning From Pfc. Lynch

Last week, President Bush brushed aside calls from some social conservatives who want to roll back a Clinton-era rule that lets women soldiers operate in combat zones.

"I will take guidance from the United States military," Mr. Bush said, when asked about females on the front lines. "Our commanders will make those decisions."

With that cue from the commander in chief, the Pentagon might just decide to leave its 1994 rule as is: Women are currently not allowed in units charged with ground combat on the front lines, but they can come pretty close to it in today's no-clear-lines warfare. They can, for instance, fly as pilots over battlefields or deliver supplies to combat troops.

Leaving the rule alone after the Iraq war, however, without a thorough review, would send the wrong signal to women already in the armed services, and especially to young women inspired to join up after learning about the capture, struggles, and rescues of Pfc. Jessica Lynch and, later, Spc. Shoshana Johnson.

American society may be more tolerant of women in combat after seeing their work in Iraq. And the military itself, where 15 percent of soldiers are now female, has more experience with what women can do in war situations.

But this war also saw the killing of one American female soldier who was a single mother of two young children. That casualty has been used by opponents of the rule to wage a campaign to roll it back entirely.

Sending any single parent - mother or father - into harm's way is an issue the Pentagon should address. Single parents who volunteer to be in dangerous situations must make their own decisions, but the military can provide extra guidance and care in the process.

The rule's prohibition against women in direct combat roles may not withstand close analysis if more wars are fought in which it's difficult to define the front lines, as it was in Iraq. Guerrilla tactics - suicide bombers, soldiers pretending to be surrendering civilians, women smuggling ammunition under heavy clothes - make today's lines of combat unpredictable. Military women are being drawn into those lines of duty whether they want to be or not.

Basic arguments still exist about physical and social differences between the sexes. How men soldiers react to women soldiers - often chivalrously - remains an issue for the military to resolve. And can any woman ever operate heavy artillery or carry fallen comrades as well as the weakest man in a combat unit?

Mr. Bush, during the 2000 campaign, spoke in favor of separate basic-training facilities. But he also noted that he would have been "happy" to have had a female pilot fly him onto the aircraft carrier off California where he gave his May 1 end-of-conflict speech.

The Supreme Court has given the military the right to exclude women from combat. But just as more fathers are becoming primary caretakers of children, more women are showing courage, skill, and strength in war zones. The Pentagon should track these trends closely, and adjust.

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