An Argument Against Women in Combat Author and syndicated columnist Kathleen Parker talks about her op-ed that appeared in Saturday's Washington Post, where she argues the women do not belong in combat.
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An Argument Against Women in Combat

An Argument Against Women in Combat

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Author and syndicated columnist Kathleen Parker talks about her op-ed that appeared in Saturday's Washington Post, where she argues the women do not belong in combat.

SCOTT SIMON, host:

Iran's capture and then release last week of the 15 British sailors and Marines raised plenty of questions and renewed debate about the role of women in combat. One of the sailors captured and shown prominently in the very public so-called confessions was a woman, Seaman Faye Turney. And over the weekend, syndicated columnist Kathleen Parker argued that Iran's president, whom she calls a thug, nevertheless scored propaganda points when he wondered, quote, "Why a once-great power such as Britain sends mothers of toddlers to fight its battles."

As Parker asserts, that positioning women to become pawns of propaganda is called aiding and abetting the enemy, and it may risk their lives when their best efforts can and should be devoted to being mothers of young children. She joins us in a moment, and we welcome your calls.

Do women belong in combat - not as a question of equity, but effectiveness? The number to call: 800-989-8255. That's 800-989-TALK. And you can e-mail at talk@npr.org. Kathleen Parker is a syndicated columnist for the Washington Post Writers Group. Her upcoming book is called "Save the Males," and she joins us by phone from Washington, D.C. Kathleen Parker, thanks very much for being with us.

Ms. KATHLEEN PARKER (Syndicated Columnist, Washington Post; Author): Thanks for having me.

SIMON: And you're not saying that women can't be good soldiers, but just maybe that they shouldn't be.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. PARKER: Well, no, I'm not saying that exactly. You hit the nail on the head. The question is effectiveness. Are they as effective as men in combat, and does it serve our military well to involve women in combat, to put them in peril? And I don't have to form an opinion about this based on my instinct, but rather on empirical data. There's plenty out there.

And the reason we don't have women in combat - as a matter of fact the law prohibits that. Right now, we don't have any boundaries. There are no battlefields - you know, no front lines in Iraq, so those lines have been compromised. But, in fact, women are not supposed to be in combat. That is the way we - our laws are thus - are written at present.

But the reason they're not supposed to be in combat is - are based on very solid reasoning. There are physical reasons, there are psychological reasons, and there are practical reasons. If you want to just start with the - I'm sorry, did you want to say something?

SIMON: No, no, not at all. Please.

Ms. PARKER: We'll just start with the physical - and by the way, I'm not at all criticizing women who go into the service, and yes, there are places for them to serve in the military. I'm talking only about combat.

It's not a matter of women's willingness, their bravery or any of those issues. It's really just - it comes down to what is most useful to our military effectiveness? That is the only thing that I care about.

Physically, women are simply not on the same level as men, and, you know, everybody knows this. There's a reason there are no women in the NFL. But if you want to just go down the line, there are statistics out there, there have been studies, plenty of them. We pretend that they don't exist, but they do. Women are five inches shorter, on average. They have half the upper-body strength of men. They have a lower aerobic capacity. They have 37-percent less muscle mass. They have a lighter skeleton and are prone to more stress fractures.

SIMON: You're not talking about my wife, clearly…

(Soundbite of laughter)

SIMON: …who supersedes me physically in all important respects.

Ms. PARKER: Does she? Well, you know, there are exceptions.

SIMON: Well, all right. We've got a couple of differences, too. I noticed everyone's eyebrows go up in the control room. Yeah, okay.

Ms. PARKER: Well (unintelligible) husband, too.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. PARKER: There are clear exceptions, but we're just talking about as a rule, and the averages. I mean, if you - you know, if you put men and women on a continuum, you are simply going to have men bunched on one end and women bunched on the other as a rule.

Psychologically, you know, women are not - no matter what we say - they are not as equally geared toward aggression as men are. That has to do with testosterone, which we admire - I do, at least. And you know, men have about 10 times the amount of testosterone. That's the hormone that feeds libido and aggression. That's well known.

And as a practical matter, you know, as we've seen in this particular case, women are used differently by our enemies. There's no question that we responded - we being the West - responded differently to this woman's capture.

We were sympathetic to the mother of a 3-year-old, and, in fact, if you hear -listen to what she said upon her release, her concerns when the Iranians offered her a deal, she said okay, I can either sign these - write these letters in a certain way so my family knows that I'm faking it and thus get home in time for my little girl's birthday because she had promised little Molly that she would be there - or I can go another route. But clearly, the first thing in her mind was her daughter's well-being. That's how mothers operate.

And the other issue in her mind was she was afraid she was going to be raped -terrified that she was going to be raped. That's always the first concern of women. Now here's the question: Do men care? Some don't, but some absolutely do.

Women bring out the best and worst in men, and there's a fact that we do - can affect their behavior. Men in the Israeli army found during the 1948 war of independence that they were more disturbed by women being hurt than they were by their fellow male comrades. They tended to want to protect them. I've had -by the way, I've been researching this for my book, so that's why I have all this on the tip of my tongue, and I've got tons and tons of research and interviews with military people. So none of this is just my opinion. This is really pretty solidly researched - very solidly, excuse me.

SIMON: Mm-hmm. Let me just…

Ms. PARKER: Yeah, I know, I'm on a rant here. I know you don't want to interrupt me.

SIMON: No, no, no, we want you to talk. I just want to tell our audience, remind them this is TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News, and let's take a caller, if we can - Carrie in Cincinnati.

CARRIE (Caller): Hello?

SIMON: Hi there, Carrie.

CARRIE: Yes, this is Carrie. I joined the military back in 1964 when, as my recruiter told me, nice girls didn't join the military.

(Soundbite of laughter)

CARRIE: I retired from the military, and I personally feel that Kathleen is basically lumping all women together. We're not individuals.

I would rather be on the frontlines fighting than sitting cowering in a basement, waiting for someone to come through and rape me. I would rather be trained. Not everybody is geared for combat, male or female, and as for the physical qualifications, I'm not talking about necessarily humping a 100-pound rucksack - although if you can, fine. What I do believe is that it is will, and it is my right to do this.

Women have been in battle going all the way back. They picked up rifles, and they defended their homes. They were very effective in Vietnam, and I am so tired of somebody else sitting there because she doesn't like it, saying that I shouldn't be able to do it.

SIMON: Kathleen Parker?

Ms. PARKER: Well, I respect you very much for joining the military, and I certainly don't think women don't belong there, but I do have a couple of comments. I do think there is some alternative to either being in combat on the frontlines or cowering in a basement waiting to be raped. There's something in between there, surely.

And as to anyone's right to do anything, that's an interesting point. I've heard it a lot, and I certainly think you have a right to serve in the military, but you know, the military's not a democracy. It's a dictatorship, and the high command decides what is appropriate for you to do. You give up your free speech. You give up most of your freedoms when you go into the military.

So you also give up your right to do whatever. And your right ends when it interferes with someone else's opportunity to survive, and to me that's the biggest point both for women and for men. You know, you may be perfectly capable of doing everything that some men can do. You know, not every man is as strong as the strongest man.

But the ultimate feminist argument, from my point of view, is that women don't belong in combat because they simply do not have the same opportunity to survive that men do. They also do not have the same opportunity to help another soldier in distress, and I've heard this from dozens and dozens and dozens of men.

I've noticed that mostly retired military people come forth to speak about this because they just know that it's not acceptable to question any of this. It's, you know, political correctness gone amok. And, you know, it's not a personal -I don't mean any personal offense to anyone. I greatly admire these women who are so brave, but it really comes down to what is most useful to the military.

SIMON: Ms. Parker, let me interject with something. I certainly have to point out, just being familiar with it firsthand, that women have been very effective snipers, for example.

Ms. PARKER: Exactly.

SIMON: In the war in Bosnia and other conflicts - I guess Soviet snipers in World War II.

Ms. PARKER: Right.

SIMON: There are roles in combat for women.

Ms. PARKER: Well, there are certain - I mean, a sniper, you're not in a hand-to-hand situation, necessarily. You know, I've heard from Vietnam vets who -well, let me skip forward to this woman who wrote for The Daily Mail in the U.K. a couple days ago, Major Judith Webb. She is retired now, but she was the first woman to command an all-male field-force squadron in the British army, and she retired in 1986 at age 37 and became a mother.

She makes the argument that mothers absolutely don't belong in combat. But she also says she's completely changed her mind about women in combat for a number of reasons - and she mentions some of the physical and psychological reasons I've already expressed - but also, she makes a very strong argument for some of the jobs that women are very, very good at.

Women are exceptionally good marksmen, as you point out. They are also very good pilots, but she - and she makes the argument that they're particularly well-suited, for example, in intelligence positions. You know, it's a field that comes with its own dangers, but women are well-suited to it. You know, there's never going to be any - probably any role in war that is completely risk-free.

SIMON: Another interjection: Weren't women in the Viet Cong often fantastically successful against U.S. troops?

Ms. PARKER: I don't know, but I'm not Vietnamese, and you know, I don't know why - you know, women always want to go back to these primitive arguments. Well, you know, the Amazons did what-what. I mean, evolution has to count for something. I mean, we have evolved a certain civilized notion in our country, and I don't know why we feel like we've got to deviate from that.

SIMON: That was just 30 years ago.

Ms. PARKER: Yeah, well, honestly, I don't know. I can't speak to the Viet Cong women. I don't know how successful there were, I mean, how many died. And as far as Vietnam, you know, we always talk about women and men in Vietnam as though they were all equally slogging through the rice paddies. Fifty-seven thousand American men died in Vietnam and eight women, and they were nurses. I don't - that does not diminish their sacrifice in any way, but I don't think we can talk comparably about women's and men's contributions in that war.

SIMON: Syndicated columnist Kathleen Parker, thank you very much for being with us.

Ms. PARKER: …so much.

SIMON: Her forthcoming book from Random House is called "Save the Males." The number to call us is, well, 800-989-TALK. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

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