Ackmann in Newsday.com: "Restricting Women's Military Role Hurts All"

Tuesday, April 8, 2003 - 12:00

This opinion piece ran in the April 8, 2003 issue of Newsday.com.

The rescue of Jessica Lynch starkly reminds us that women soldiers are on the front lines in the war with Iraq. Emerging details about the ambush of Lynch's convoy indicate that the 19-year-old Army private tenaciously fought for her survival in a fierce struggle.

Now debate has resurfaced about U.S. military policy concerning women in military roles, including that which officially prohibits them from serving in most ground combat units. But as Lynch's encounter with Iraqi troops points out, warfare rarely follows the textbook when it comes to when and where violence will erupt.

While no one wants to see men or women endangered, the calls for stronger restrictions on women in combat roles are particularly dubious. All too often appeals to protect women end up prohibiting women from what they have a right to do.

Certainly the case of Lynch's ambush is a tragic one. Along with other members of her 507th Maintenance Company, Lynch was attacked outside Nasiriya on March 23. Members of her company were killed and captured, including two other women. Shoshana Johnson remains a POW, and just days ago Lori Piestewa was confirmed dead.

The country reacted to the news of Lynch, Johnson and Piestewa with the same respect that is shown their male comrades. But some have used the case of the 507th ambush to argue that women in the military should be better protected.

Last week, Elaine Donnelly, president of the Center for Military Readiness and a former adviser to President George H.W. Bush, argued in Washington for a reversal of the Clinton administration's lifting of some restrictions concerning women's military assignments.

Donnelly says the risk of sexual assault necessitates the prohibition of women in combat. The prospect of enemy rape and sexual abuse hands women an unequal opportunity to survive.

Donnelly is correct about one matter: The threat of sexual assault diminishes every woman's life, whether she is on the battlefield in Iraq or jogging through Central Park. But attempting to curtail rape by restricting women from professional opportunities in the military is a little like forbidding women from going outside their homes to make sure they won't be attacked. The Elizabeth Smart case makes chillingly clear that women and girls are not safe even while they are sleeping in their own homes.

Certainly women cadets who were raped at the U.S. Air Force Academy may have been protected if they never had tried to get an education at the military academy. I doubt, however, that the international epidemic of violence against women would have been reduced if they had stayed home.

Violence against women happens because cities, states and nations regard it as a fact of life - a fact that we do not have the will to change.

Women have served with distinction in military operations from World War II, when they ferried bombers, to Operation Enduring Freedom, when they captained ships sent to support troops. But the renewed call for women to be prohibited from combat roles has repercussions for all who seek work that may put them in dangerous situations.

It is not much of a leap from asserting that women should not be in threatening military jobs to claiming that women should not be war photographers, for example, or astronauts. We must be reminded that photojournalist Molly Bingham, recently released from being held captive in Iraq, and astronauts Kalpana Chawla and Laurel Clark, who lost their lives aboard the Columbia shuttle, freely chose their work and loved it. We should respect their choices and their ability to make decisions for themselves.

It is no small bit of irony that a few weeks before West Virginia was celebrating the successful rescue of Lynch, its native daughter, the state legislature was embroiled in a controversy about the design of a new statue commemorating women veterans. The statue of a weary female vet dressed in fatigue pants, a T-shirt and her hair pushed under a baseball cap was not feminine enough for some members of the state Senate Military Committee. Some said the statue appeared too muscular; others said she should be wearing a skirt instead of pants. "You can't tell if it's a man or a woman," they argued.

Here's an idea. If the committee can hold off for a little while on the debate about what women soldiers should look like and how much muscle they need, perhaps they should ask Jessica Lynch. By then she probably will have recovered, and I bet she'll have an answer.

Martha Ackmann, who teaches in the women's studies program at Mount Holyoke College in South Hadley, Mass., is the author of the forthcoming book "The Mercury 13: The Untold Story of Thirteen American Women and the Dream of Space."