At a time when the Army and Marine Corps are struggling to fill their ranks, many conservatives are determined to limit the ability of women and gays to contribute to the war effort. Are they more concerned with winning culture wars at home or winning the war on terrorism abroad?
The issue of women in combat has arisen again because the Army wants to assign mixed-sex support units to work with combat battalions. Almost all jobs in the military already are open to women. They're allowed to serve as fighter pilots and medics, truck drivers and police officers. But Pentagon policy keeps them out of ground-combat battalions and some attendant support units. Anti-feminist activist Elaine Donnelly charges that "politically correct group-thinkers and Clinton-promoted generals in the Pentagon" are conspiring to traduce this policy.
To block this nefarious plot (actually hatched by Rumsfeld-promoted generals), some House Republicans introduced legislation to prevent the Pentagon from opening any more jobs to women and to reassign 22,000 women already serving in forward-support companies. Opposition from the Army, which wants the flexibility to assign personnel as needed, killed this measure. Ranking minority member Ike Skelton rightly called the bill a "solution in search of a problem."
The role of women has been steadily expanding since -- no coincidence -- the end of the draft in 1973. An all-volunteer military can't afford to ignore half of the population. The integration process was not always smooth, as scandals like Tailhook attest. But today, 212,000 women (15% of the active-duty force) play an integral role in the military. Keeping them out of combat is impossible, whatever the law says, because in a place like Iraq everyone is on the front lines. Thirty-five female soldiers have died in Iraq and almost 300 have been wounded.
Even as women have taken on roles once reserved for men, the disastrous consequences predicted by naysayers have not come to pass. In 2000, the late Col. David Hackworth wrote: "What the British longbow did to the French army at Crecy in 1346, the failed military policy on gender integration has done to the U.S. armed forces at the end of the 20th century: near total destruction." Yet in the last five years, "near total destruction" has been the fate not of the U.S. armed forces but the Taliban and Baathists they have battled.
Far from being crippled by the presence of women, the military has found that female soldiers can perform some jobs that men can't, such as searching Iraqi women. As long as standards are not compromised to allow women into jobs beyond their physical capacity, I don't see why we should reverse the trend toward greater opportunities for women.
I also don't see why we are still barring all gays and lesbians from serving openly. Between 1994 and 2003, according to the Government Accountability Office, the military discharged 9,488 homosexuals, including 322 with badly needed knowledge of such languages as Arabic, Farsi and Korean. In other words, the fight against gay rights is hurting the fight against our real enemies. That's a compelling reason to change the law, even for those of us who used to be supporters of the gay ban.
In 1993-94, when the current "don't ask, don't tell" policy was promulgated, I was persuaded by the warnings of Colin Powell and other generals that opening the door to gays and lesbians would hurt morale and cohesion. But in the intervening decade, society has become more accepting of homosexuality.
In a survey of the military last year, 42% of respondents said gays and lesbians should be allowed to serve openly; 50% said they should not. Among junior enlisted personnel the figure was 50% in favor of acceptance. In the rest of the population, it's 79%. I suspect that in a year or two, attitudes will tilt even more in the pro-gay direction, making the existing policy unsustainable.
It may still make sense not to assign gay personnel to ground combat units, where they might have trouble fitting in, but why kick out gay translators or technicians? Sooner or later, the U.S. military will follow the example of Australia, Britain and Israel and lift its ban on openly gay service members. In the struggle against Islamic fanatics, we can't afford to turn volunteers away.
Max Boot is a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations.