The Right To Fight

To many feminists, the armed forces have been a model for change. A woman has been selected head cadet at West Point. During the Persian Gulf War, women commanders led troops through minefields in the desert. On base, day-care centers are standard issue. But despite these advances, women are still locked out of the heart of the military: combat. Many military women complain that combat is the missing step on their career ladders. "Instead of a glass ceiling, they have a lead ceiling," says Carolyn Becraft, a military consultant for the Women's Research and Education Institute, a Washington, D.C., think tank. But many other female soldiers and sailors say they don't want the right to kill. According to a NEWSWEEK POLL, Americans are almost equally split on the issue. While 52 percent of those surveyed said women should be assigned to ground-combat units, 44 percent said no. And only 26 percent thought women should be assigned to combat on the same terms as men.

This week Congress will take up the debate when the Senate considers an amendment to this year's defense authorization bill allowing women to fly fighter planes. The proposal easily passed the House in May. Supporters say they've heard very few "Hell, no's"-a measure of progress for such a controversial topic. Still, Lawrence Korb, a defense analyst, thinks the Senate will recommend that a commission study the issue, a course that all sides agree is a delaying tactic. "There's never been a group studied more than women in the military, and they do very well," says Rep. Patricia Schroeder (Democrat of Colorado), who cosponsored the House plan. "But everyone still says they don't want them there. How do you deal with that?"

There are hawks and doves on both sides of this issue, but conservative Republicans are the most outspoken opponents of women in combat. "The thought of a woman parachuting out over downtown Baghdad or Hanoi strikes horror into my heart," says California Rep. Robert Dornan. He predicts that coming cuts in the size of the U.S. military will doom any expansion of women's roles. "The chance of reaching out for any kind of affirmative action is nil to zero," he says. "And that goes for homosexuals and lesbians too." But even without the cutbacks, Dornan says, "If I had 200 fighter pilots and an Amelia Earhart came along ... I would still pick the man."

Within the military itself, recent Senate hearings showed an attitude gap between officers and enlisted men. Higher-ranked men said they thought women could comfortably fill in as pilots, submarine captains or on helicopter crews-tasks that require brains, skill and a killer temperament. Men on the grunt level were the most resistant. They said the vast majority of women aren't strong enough for fighting on the front lines. There's also a generation gap. "The people making these decisions are elderly males who don't understand young people," says Korb. "They didn't play soccer with women and go to school with them. They don't understand there's not a sexual overtone in every encounter."

The current proposal wouldn't put women in ground combat. Even some of those who support lifting the ban on fighter-pilot jobs say they would be reluctant to take that final move right now. Conservative Democrat Beverly Byron, who cosponsored the House proposal with Schroeder, would stop at combat flying while Schroeder thinks all barriers should go. In the Senate, Strom Thurmond of South Carolina agrees that women can be fighter pilots, but he, too, draws the line at ground combat. There's also some doubt among military women themselves about ground fighting. "There aren't too many women who want to go into the infantry," says Korb. Many men in the infantry say women would ruin male bonding among the troops, the emotional tie they say is crucial to effective fighting. To Becraft, that sounds similar to the argument used against full integration of blacks after World War II: that whites wouldn't feel "comfortable." "There goes the neighborhood," she quips.

Since the passage of the House bill, there's been a fierce whispering campaign on Capitol Hill, with wild tales of-women's misdeeds in the gulf-everything from rumors of women soldiers turning tricks to stories about the high number of pregnancies (36) aboard a single Navy ship. When asked about the floating maternity wing, Schroeder retorted: "Unless there was a star shining over that ship, I'd say it takes two ... What kind of military discipline do we have that we blame only the women?"

When the smoke clears, Congress will probably choose a middle road that reflects the opinion of a majority of voters. In a NEWSWEEK POII, 63 percent of respondents thought that it would be an advantage to have women pilot jet fighters; 61 percent said women would be an asset on bomber crews. And lifting the ban on flying fighter planes won't dramatically alter women's roles. They already fly support planes on combat missions, and already are in danger of being shot down. In the Persian Gulf, two women were taken prisoner and 11 were killed, five in action.

If the ban on flying in combat is lifted, women may look to Capt. Troy Devine for a role model. Captain Devine, a 1985 graduate of the Air Force Academy, is at the controls of one of the high-flying TR-l spy planes that belong to the Ninth Strategic Reconnaissance Wing at Beale Air Force Base in California. In order to earn that privilege, she agreed not to become pregnant for at least a year and to submit to pregnancy tests every two weeks. It costs more than a half-million dollars to train a spy-plane pilot and the Air Force wants to protect its investment. There's also the risk of damage to a fetus from solar radiation at the plane's high altitude. But Captain Devine doesn't think of herself as a pioneer. Like thousands of other military women, she's just doing her job.

Should Women Be Assigned to Ground Combat Units?

YES 52% NO 44%