House Debates Role of Female Soldiers in Combat

Alex Chadwick examines a debate over the role of women in combat that took place in the House Armed Services Committee on Wednesday. The panel debated whether women should be barred from jobs that would place them in direct combat.

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ALEX CHADWICK, host:

From NPR West and Slate magazine online, this is DAY TO DAY. I'm Alex Chadwick.

Coming up, the latest on California's landmark stem-cell research initiative.

First, the lead: a conversation about women in war. This is a complicated national question right now. We're going to begin with some voices from the debate--all men, I'll note. Last night, the House Armed Services Committee voted to bar women from direct combat. New York Republican Congressman John McHugh voted in favor after he saw an article that described women in Iraq doing all kinds of combat-related jobs.

Representative JOHN McHUGH (Republican, New York): It would say that when it comes to women and direct ground combat, that could not happen without a direct act of Congress. I happen to believe it's the responsible thing that the Congress, the Senate and the House and the president ought to act proactively to hand an M-16 to a woman, put a pack on her back and say, `You're part of the infantry.'

CHADWICK: But it's not the ability of women to serve, says military expert Michael O'Hanlon; he's a scholar at The Brookings Institution. Rather, he says, the entire country is just squeamish about putting women in the line of fire.

Mr. MICHAEL O'HANLON (The Brookings Institution): I think it really is a chivalrous view, that war is not something that should not directly involve women having their limbs and their bodies exposed to mortal wounds or severe injury the way that men have.

CHADWICK: Here's part of the complication, though. The military already faces recruiting problems. One military leader says it would cause, quote, "confusion in the ranks" if women suddenly were pulled from key positions. And the secretary of Defense, Donald Rumsfeld, says Iraq is just a lot of different from earlier wars.

Secretary DONALD RUMSFELD (Defense Department): There isn't a battlefield line. It's an asymmetrical battlefield. And so there are not clear lines where battles taking place on one side and not on the other.

CHADWICK: Voices from the debate about women in combat.

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