The U.S. Congress defeated an effort last week designed to reassert its control over the types of jobs women in the U.S. military are allowed to do, especially in combat zones like Iraq. The move renewed the debate over what military women should do, and not do, as they volunteer to help fight the war on terrorism.
Women are nearly everywhere in the modern U.S. military. Nearly everywhere. They fly aircraft, drive trucks through dangerous areas, carry automatic weapons, guard prisoners and help provide a variety of critical functions, including their more traditional military roles as nurses and doctors.
But there is one main thing they do not do. U.S. military women are barred by law from being in units like the infantry and artillery batteries whose job it is to go out and engage the enemy in combat. But increasingly, there is a fine line between combat and non-combat jobs, especially in a place like Iraq, where there is no front line, and any unit can find itself in a firefight at any moment.
Women make up about 15 percent of the U.S. military. Some 35 American military women have been killed in Iraq, and hundreds have been wounded, some of them very seriously. A few have been taken prisoner.
Some in Congress and private advocacy groups have accused the U.S. Army of stretching, and even breaking, the rules by putting women in, for example, military police units that go out on patrol and are fairly likely to encounter enemy ambushes, and combat support units that live and work with the combat soldiers.
The Chairman of the House of Representatives Armed Services Committee, Congressman Duncan Hunter, tried to get the Congress to restate the rules last week, a move that was seen as potentially forcing the Army to scale back the types of jobs U.S. military women have been doing.
"We are saying that if you make a change, and you want to put women in direct ground combat, you've got to come to Congress," he said. "That's not one that we can deflect or contract out. That's our constitutional obligation."
That particular congressional effort failed. But activists continue to pursue the issue.
Elaine Donnelly is the president of the Center for Military Readiness, a private advocacy group based in Michigan, and she was a member of the 1984 and 1992 government commissions that helped establish the current rules covering what women can and can not do in the U.S. military. For Ms. Donnelly, the issue of American military women in combat has to do with their physical abilities, but also with the law and morality.
"We are a civilized nation, it's that simple," she says. "Civilized nations do not subject women to combat violence. We sometimes don't have a choice about sending young men into war, but we do have a choice about young women. And we decided as a commission, in the majority, to say that, 'No, violence against women, we do not endorse that. We support women in the military, but we don't have to submit them to direct violence in combat.'"
Ms. Donnelly says she honors the service of the tens of thousands of women in the U.S. military, and supports their presence in a variety of non-traditional jobs. But she draws the line, and she says the law does too, when it comes to putting women in units that actively seek out hostile contact with the enemy.
"We know that women are coming under fire. We know that they are in danger," she says. "Everybody in Iraq is in danger. But we're not talking about the risk from being hit by an ambush or an RPG [rocket propelled grenade] when you're in a transportation unit that comes and goes. We're talking about the direct ground combat units, such as infantry and armor, special forces. And the demands and the consequences of putting the women there would be much greater than they are in support units where they already serve."
U.S. Army spokeswoman Major Elizabeth Robbins says there is no effort to illegally put military women closer to combat.
"There is no move afoot within the Army to expand the jobs available [to women] to include infantry, armor or special forces, and I think most soldiers of all genders are comfortable with that," she says.
There have been reports from Iraq of some U.S. Army women who do want to be assigned to combat units. Already, they are guarding convoys and bases, and frequently engage enemy forces in firefights. But Major Robbins says that is different from actually seeking out combat.
"Women are making tremendous contributions to our efforts to fight and win the war on terrorism," she says. "And these women, like their male counterparts, are sometimes exposed to combat scenarios. That's distinct from sending women soldiers into a known combat situation."
Major Robbins says that would be against the law, and against Defense Department policy, and will not happen.
On the surface, it sounds like Major Robbins and Ms. Donnelly agree. But Ms. Donnelly accuses the Army of finding ways around the law.
"The Army, I'm afraid, raised a lot of confusion because they were trying to redefine and play word games in what the regulations actually said," she says.
And Major Robbins denies it.
"There is no change," she says. "We do not have women assigned to combat units below the brigade level."
It is a delicate balance, particularly in a battle zone with no front line, like Iraq.
Any change in the rules governing what U.S. military women can do could have a profound impact on the military's ability to accomplish its many missions. For now, the controversy has passed. But U.S. military women continue to put themselves at risk every day in Iraq, and elsewhere, many of them coming under fire and returning that fire. And activists like Elaine Donnelly continue to work to ensure that what they see as the proper limits of the women's role in the military are not changed.