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Last updated: Sat. Jan. 26, 2013 - 06:06 am EDT

COLUMN

GI Jane should be prepared to fight like a man

Pursuing combat diversity by lowering standards would get people killed

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I was in ROTC at New Haven High School when the program went co-ed, and let me tell you: Those girls carried their fake rifles and performed drills in the parking lot as well as any of the boys. Monroeville never invaded, so I suppose you could say mission effectiveness was not compromised.

The stakes and potential dangers inherent in the elimination of the Pentagon's ban on women serving in combat are considerably greater, however – which is why those cheering this week's decision as a victory for “fairness” are both misguided and premature.

Those who care more about military readiness than political correctness are right to be concerned, however, because history is littered with cases of how performance standards have been sacrificed on the altar of inclusiveness.

As the Associated Press reported this week, the Marine Corps opened its infantry course to women last year – and the only two women to volunteer washed out. Perhaps that's why, in Army boot camp, men are required to do 35 pushups, 47 situps and run two miles in 16 minutes and 36 seconds – while women must do only 13 pushups, 43 situps and two miles in 19 minutes and 42 seconds.

So the woman who gushed on TV the other night that women will now be able to prove that they “are as strong as men” was wrong: Although there will be exceptions, women in general are and will remain the “weaker sex" -- a reality that will inevitably create pressure to lower physical standards for combat service in exchange for the desired level of diversity.

In 2011, for example, a federal lawsuit challenged the physical test for admission to the Chicago Fire Department, alleging that it was unfair because women failed more often then men. The test placed too much emphasis on strength and not enough on firefighting ability, the suit alleged. And you don't have to look very far to find other examples of how standards have been adjusted to promote diversity in everything from college admissions to police departments.

The military is different, or should be, because the very fate of the nation hangs in the balance. Contrary to the integration of races in the 1950s or the recent open acceptance of gays – ending practices that had been justified not by the limitations of one group but by the perceived reaction of another - the ban on female combat troops was based on the understanding that, as a group, women were not as well-suited to combat as men.

In a sense, that is an un-American notion in that it judges individuals as members of a group. If an individual woman can meet the same rigorous standards as a man, why should gender alone keep her out of combat?

But even then, it's not quite that simple.

As the military itself recommends, for example, women who are menstruating should “have daily access to bathing” to prevent a host of problems. That is not always possible – with or without consideration for gender-based modesty -- in a combat setting.

And as the Reuters news service reported just this month, a recent study found that more than 10 percent of women in the military experienced an unintended pregnancy in the previous year – a rate 50 percent higher than in the general population. That can, and has, affected units' readiness. Nor is birth control always readily available on the front lines.

According to some studies, between 20 percent and 40 percent of military women have experienced rape or attempted rape. That's not their fault, certainly, and not in itself a reason to exclude women from combat. But it is another potential problem, nevertheless.

Real life is not like the movies, where women regularly hold their own or even defeat much larger men in hand-to-hand combat – the kind of combat that still exists even in an increasingly push-button age.

Remember Bobby Riggs? He was a 55-year-old former professional tennis player who in 1973 spouted off about how he could beat even the best female players. And he did handily beat 30-year-old Margaret Court before losing just as handily to 29-year-old Billie Jean King in the nationally televised “Battle of the Sexes.”

It's almost forgotten now, but two top professional tennis pros of similar age met in 1992, when Jimmy Connors defeated Martina Navratilova despite rules that allowed Connors only one serve to Navratilova's two, and allowed her to use the larger doubles' court.

War, on the other hand, is no game. Neither chauvinism nor old-fashioned chivalry justifies keeping qualified women out of combat, but the safety of the nation and its servicemen and women would. Shouldn't preserving security – not pursuing “fairness” – be our main concern moving forward?

Women who consider themselves fit for combat should demand no less.

kleininger@news-sentinel.com


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