GI Janes caught in culture wars crossfire

Why did he do it? In mid-May, Rep. Duncan Hunter, a California Republican and chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, sponsored an amendment to a defense appropriation bill to close the Army's Forward Support Companies to female soldiers. Had the House not abandoned the issue last week, the Army could have been forced to withdraw or reassign thousands of young women currently serving in Iraq and Afghanistan.

According to one Hill staffer, "the adults" - presumably Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and the Army's senior leadership - got Mr. Hunter to dilute the amendment into a recommendation that the secretary of Defense review the issue. Others within the Beltway have taken to calling Hunter "American Taliban" for his opposition to American women going in harm's way.

This is unfair to Hunter, an astute and staunchly pro-military politician who is neither a child nor a terrorist. But the Army is increasingly and irrevocably dependent on women, who are now routinely serving - and serving well - in combat environments and situations. To remove them would be to cripple an Army facing a serious recruiting and retention crisis. So if Hunter did something so utterly at variance with military reality and necessity, there must be other motivations at work.

There are. The women-in-combat issue is now part of America's cultural wars as well as its shooting wars. But the real question isn't about women or war; it's about the 2006 election.

To explain, I borrow a bit from cultural historian Philip Gold, author of "Take Back the Right." According to him, Culture War I, a 1960s-to-1990s affair, ended in a conservative rout but also in the burnout of the left. This is hardly surprising. Most revolutions burn out, and the farther you advance, the more vulnerable you become to counterattack. And now it's Culture War II.

Under President Bush, the right has counterattacked in a complex "Take Back America" campaign involving an array of "hot-button" issues, from abortion and gay marriage to judgeships and, now, women in combat. Indeed, last February, in an Oval Office press conference, Mr. Bush stated his opposition to women in ground combat, giving his supporters carte blanche to work the issue. In May, after several months of preparatory publicity in the standard conservative publications, Hunter did just that.

But why? The answer is that conservatives have discovered an effective political tactic. The well organized, well funded, and well motivated cultural and religious right saved Mr. Bush in 2004 by emphasizing "values" over substantive debate. It worked, but just barely, over a lackluster opponent in an election boycotted by 40 percent of the electorate.

This is small comfort, when the Republican Congress must face what Dr. Gold calls the "Year Six Curse" - the last president to serve six or more consecutive years without a major disaster or scandal was Teddy Roosevelt. Given the situation in Iraq, the hemorrhaging of jobs and mounting debt, the porous border, and myriad other issues, 2006 may prove a nasty year for the incumbents.

Conservatives know this. So what better way to immunize themselves by pushing "values" over reality. No need to disavow or even criticize the president as the results of his policies become apparent, let alone offer serious, workable solutions. Just change the subject.

But for those at war, reality can't be wished away so easily. During the two months I spent in Iraq and Afghanistan as a journalist embedded with combat troops and as an author researching a book on military women, I met, talked, and went on missions with a variety of women soldiers.

Some of these women accompanied Army and Marine infantry to interact with Iraqi women; others went with Army Special Forces and Navy SEALs on multiweek patrols in Afghanistan's rugged terrain. A handful of them lived under austere conditions at Forward Operating Base Ghanzi amongst a battalion of infantrymen - men who did not assault or harass them, but said things like, "I trust them with my life."

They were, in every sense of the word, soldiers: brave, competent, and accepted by the men who depended upon them. For these soldiers - male and female - are members of a generation accustomed to equality since birth and, like all good soldiers, aware that when stuff starts flying, all that matters is whether you can depend upon each other.

And yet, I can't avoid the impression that the right is willing to do - indeed has started doing - to these women what the left did to Vietnam veterans: steal their valor, despise or trivialize their accomplishments, and ignore their pain or use it to score political points.

Duncan Hunter is a Vietnam veteran who served in two legendary Army units. He certainly remembers what his brothers endured, there and at home. I cannot believe that he now wishes to do the same thing to his sisters. No one should.

Erin Solaro is working on a forthcoming book, "Beyond GI Jane: American Women, the War on Terror and the New Civic Feminism."

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