Combat for G.I. Janes in Iraq?

About 2 percent of American soldiers killed in Iraq have been women. Is that figure now high enough to officially proclaim that women are effectively serving in direct land combat, and should be allowed to do so by law?

Many female GIs say they're already in combat whenever they're being shot at or bombed by terrorists - even in mess halls. And some Army planners wonder whether the current scramble to find more male recruits means women will be needed in go-get-'em offensive operations soon.

One Army plan on the table, for instance, would reportedly integrate forward support companies, which now include women, within combat units rather than their current backup role.

Step by step, both the Pentagon and American society are inching toward supporting women in combat. In 1994, after women showed skills as good as or better than men in the Navy and Air Force during the Gulf War, the Clinton administration adjusted Pentagon policy to allow them to serve in combat aircraft and on ships. But the prohibition on "collocation" remains for the foxhole and the kicking-down-doors kind of combat on land.

Some military brass worry that public support for a war will erode if women are shown dying in combat. Others say male soldiers wouldn't be as effective or safe if serving alongside women. And some critics say that since it is women, after all, who bear children, they should be excused from combat.

But as the military "transforms" itself for new types of warfare, it's inevitable that the Pentagon will need to keep adjusting its combat rules for women soldiers.

Standards for strength or endurance should not be lowered to allow them into combat. But information on women's roles in Iraq should be collected to see if they react as men do when put in harm's way. And the military can also study whether women bring certain skills to the battlefield that men don't.

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