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Prejudice Will No Longer Do : Women in combat: Revolutionary change in armed services in the making

April 29, 1993

Moving to end the taboo on women serving in combat units, Defense Secretary Les Aspin has told the armed services to begin immediately training women to fly fighters, bombers and attack helicopters, and is preparing to ask Congress to lift the ban that prevents women from serving aboard many warships.

This is a giant and overdue if inevitably controversial step toward making the uniformed services truly gender-neutral. Its aim is not only to put a stop to anachronistic discrimination but to allow the services finally to begin taking full advantage of a hitherto untapped pool of skills and talents. The next step, as a matter of consistency and equity, should be to require 18-year-old women to register for the stand-by draft, as 18-year-old men are required to do.

Resistance to the Clinton Administration's move can be expected from some traditionalists in the military and in Congress. It also has to be expected that the degree and pace of compliance within the services will vary considerably. Because the Army, Navy and Air Force all have women pilots, training some for combat can be done fairly quickly. The Marine Corps, which excludes women from aviation, would have to start from scratch to open its aerial combat ranks to women.

Many of the arguments raised against combat roles for women derive from customs and practices dating back millennia. While women, especially in recent times, have served in irregular combat forces--in Yugoslavia during World War II, most notably, as well as in other guerrilla operations--only in the most unusual of circumstances have they been fighters in organized armies. Other objections turn on directly practical issues, which Aspin recognizes. Thus while it makes sense for women to serve aboard aircraft carriers or cruisers, it could be cost-prohibitive to remodel smaller combat vessels, like submarines and minesweepers, to accommodate women crew members.

The Persian Gulf War was central in helping to erode resistance in the armed forces and in Congress to expanding the military jobs available to women. About 35,000 women served in the Gulf. Many were communications and intelligence specialists and nurses, but a significant percentage were helicopter and transport pilots and mechanics. These women withstood the rigors of the combat zone fully as well as their male colleagues.

Aspin has told the military it must specifically justify any bans on women in combat roles that it wants to retain; invoking old prejudices, in short, will no longer do. Certainly there will be areas where practical reasons require reserving certain jobs for men only. A revolutionary change in the structure of the armed services nonetheless is in the making. Ultimately, the military should be more effective for what it is about to start doing.

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