Perhaps no greater dilemma has come out of the women's movement in the United States than the consideration of whether women should be combat soldiers. Emotionally and intellectually, on an individual level and a collective level, the issue is one of the critical places where women seeking full equality find themselves, figuratively, on the edge of a mine field.
Some address the dilemma with pacifism--no one should be drafted or fight, neither women nor men. Mainstream feminists have resolved the issue for themselves with the argument that to be fully equal women have an equal obligation and right to fight. Others would keep the spheres of action of male and female citizens separate but equal, but this may not be possible when the concept of a patriotic citizen as a person prepared to lay down his life for his country is a powerful part of the national psyche.
These are the kinds of reflections that concern Jean Elshtain, a feminist scholar and professor of political science at the University of Massachusetts. She believes that a good deal more thinking needs to be done about what it means to be a patriotic citizen. The author of "Public Man, Private Woman," she is now writing a book on women and war and speaking around the country on the subject, most recently at Occidental College where her topic was "On Patriotism: Reflections of a Feminist Citizen."
What women may need to change is not the Pentagon's mind about whether they should be allowed to bear arms, but the age-old concept of the citizen-soldier, she said. "Historically the emerging concept of a citizen was tied to soldiering, being prepared to defend one's country," she said in an interview. "This separates women from citizenship in a large way." Whether women are becoming full-fledged citizens and whether they are prepared to become soldiers in the traditional way are two very different questions, she said. "We need a critical rethinking of patriotism." In her view, and to the detriment of women in their quest for equal citizenship, patriotism is often confused with nationalism--nationalism being concerned with seeing one's country triumph over others, whereas patriotism has to do with concern for one's own country's values.
When this distinction is made, people who opposed the Vietnam War, for example, can be viewed as equally patriotic as soldiers if their opposition was motivated by concern over their country's values. The acts of women such as community political involvement, concern for American values and volunteerism are "genuine patriotism at work," she said, "and more citizens care for values than we realize."
These issues are not new ones. American women in the 18th Century argued against equating soldiering with citizenship, Elshtain said, "an argument I am trying to recapture."
Elshtain said she is not a pacifist, nor does she argue for the right of women to become combat soldiers--an eventuality she said she thinks will not happen anyway. "There's too much female and conservative male opposition to it." Of the NOW position favoring equality of women in military action, she said: "I disagree. We are terribly naive about what modern soldiering represents. We don't have the citizen-soldier anymore and I don't think people should have to buy citizenship by soldiering. We need to reclaim patriotism and rethink citizenship."
The issue is particularly important at this time because "this Administration is trying to revive the citizen-soldier and link it to militant nationalism," Elshtain said. "Compared to this upbeat vision of the country," the quiet patriotic activity of citizens in their communities "doesn't look like much. Equating patriotism with militarism loses sight of all these other evocations of patriotism. The genius of Reagan is to try to keep linking freedom to militarism.
"I would never be cynical about people (fighting for) freedom," Elshtain added. Citing a visit to Poland, she said, "when they talk about American freedom, you feel very humble. We take for granted something people risk their lives to attain."
However, within American society there are numerous ways besides soldiering to support American values, and Elshtain thinks that a military view of defending liberty, with the consequent expansion of the Military Establishment, may undermine freedom here. For example, she said, a physicist who gets his check from the Defense Department has a different set of obligations in his or her work. "To the extent we cast the net wider and absorb more and more people into the Military Establishment--we don't see it, these people don't walk around in uniform--the very thing we do to preserve freedom may be eroding it."
Elshtain said that at her talks on the subject on campuses young men are more concerned and more knowledgeable. "The young men have fought longer and harder about this than women," she pointed out. "This is an issue they have to confront directly. They have to register for the draft. My son who's 17 has worried about this since he was 12.
"Young women 18 to 22 are rather naive. This doesn't have the immediate impact on them in quite the same way. They say, 'we don't want war and fighting.' Well, who does? It is much more complex than that."