From theSmall logoarchives - Published from 1982-96, Fidelity magazine was the predecessor of  Culture Wars.

Fidelity logosWomen at War With Themselves

by James G. Bruen, Jr.

From the October 1990 issue of Fidelity magazine


On December 20, 1989, Army Captain Linda Bray, commanding officer of the 988th Military Police Company, led a platoon in a three-hour firefight in Panama against troops loyal to General Noriega at the guard-dog kennel near his headquarters. Her platoon killed three Panamanian soldiers in the fight.

At the White House, President Bush's press spokesman, Marlin Fitzwater, briefed reporters on the battle for the dog kennel defended by Panamanian Defense Forces:

"It was heavily defended. Three PDF men were killed. Gunshots were fired on both sides. American troops could have been killed. It was an important military operation. A woman led it, and she did an outstanding job."

Capt. Bray's exploits ignited fierce debate on the role of women in the military and in combat in particular.

"The myth that women soldiers can't fight was a casualty of the invasion of Panama," opined USA Today. "The combat ban should be lifted. It was based on outdated taboos and on fighting a different kind of warfare than today's. The opposition will say anything to perpetuate the myths that discriminate against women in the military. They'll say women are too weak. Truth is, when her troops were pinned down by hostile fire, Capt. Bray crashed the kennel gate in a jeep."

"U.S. law clearly prohibits the assignment of women to military combat. In our invasion of Panama, the Pentagon openly flouted this law by assigning women to combat duty," rejoined Phyllis Schlafly. "Bray's survival of a three-hour gunfight does not in the least prove that she could endure a war."

Feminists, led by Rep. Patricia Schroeder, agitated for legislative repeal of the combat exemption that applies to women. "This distinction between combat and noncombat units is really a joke," said Schroeder.

The New York Times of course said it saw both sides of the argument as it endorsed a trial of women in combat roles. The more conservative Washington Times also temporized: "Human nature, as discomforting as it may be to feminist ideologues, places real limits on the types of roles that women ought to play in the military.... This is not to say that women ought to be prohibited entirely from combat or from taking on dangerous roles in wartime."

Truth is, though, that Capt. Bray's exploits are a myth. The firefight at the kennel lasted ten minutes, not three hours. No Panamanian soldiers were killed. And, most damning of all, Capt. Bray wasn't even there when the fighting began. By the time she got there, there weren't any enemy troops.

Apparently the proponents of women in combat were willing to say anything to perpetuate the myth. As Mrs. Schlafly noted: "The real lesson we learn from the use of women in the Panama invasion is that most of what we hear about the performance of women in the U.S. Army is grossly exaggerated even to the point of falsehood." After the truth was revealed, the White House's Fitzwater brushed off inquiries about the accuracy of his earlier press briefing by saying he had got his information from newspaper accounts.

In June 1990, the Panamanian in charge of the police dogs charged that Bray's unit unnecessarily killed up to 25 caged dogs in the attack on the kennel. Perhaps Bray, feminist symbol and heroine, more appropriately deserves to be a symbol for animal rights activists.

But myths die hard. Especially when feminists want to use them to force a result. The deployment of American troops in the Persian Gulf and Saudi Arabia in August 1990 reignited the debate about women in combat, and Capt. Bray's example was dragged out again. USA Today still insisted that "Army Capt. Linda Bray, as a military police officer, led an assault on a Panamanian canine unit." And the Independent was still maintaining that she "took part in some of the fiercest fighting around General Noriega's headquarters."

USA Today, enamored with its "truth is" format, kept up the late summer assault: "Those who want to keep women out of combat argue that they aren't as strong as men, can't run as fast or throw hand grenades as well. Truth is, it's a matter of training. Kathy Arendsen of Holland, Mich., throws a softball 96 mph, underhand, and Florence Griffith Joyner runs faster than O.J. Simpson."

So what? The proponents of women combatants are erecting strawmen to blow over. My 12-and 14-year-old daughters play softball too, and while they aren't as exceptional as Arendsen or Griffith Joyner, they throw a ball pretty well and run fast too. Does that mean my adolescent daughters should be eligible for military combat? Does that mean they should be eligible for the draft, the probable result of opening combat duty to women?

Physical ability isn't the only issue involved in deciding whether to expose women to combat. It shouldn't even be the primary issue. Some women undoubtedly are capable of performing well in combat. After all, the Catholic adolescent woman warrior is not unknown in history. In obedience to heavenly voices and visions, St. Joan of Arc led the armies of France to victory over the English at the siege of Orleans. And there are probably combat roles that many women could perform better than most men. The question is not whether women can perform satisfactorily in combat. The question is why should they. As far as I know, although many apparitions are now being alleged throughout the world, no one is today claiming private revelation that St. Joan of Arc's example requires opening military combat to all women.

Whether Capt. Bray single-handedly killed three Panamanian soldiers while she alone captured the kennel or whether instead she was far away while her platoon massacred 25 caged dogs isn't particularly important to resolution of the question of whether women should be in combat. If she wasn't there, she could have been. If she didn't pull a trigger, she could have. She may only be 5-foot-1 and 100 pounds, but that's big enough to tote and fire an M-16. And it's big enough to stop an enemy bullet or stray friendly fire. Public opinion about women in combat may be expressed loudly when television news first shows the injured, maimed, wounded, and dead women shipped home after combat.

Bill Brown's parents, Nat and Ronna, are among the troops President Bush sent to Saudi Arabia to "defend our way of life." Bill is six years old and lives in Georgia; his parents are assigned to an Army tank unit that is in Saudi Arabia. Army spokeswoman Capt. Barbara Goodno explained that "dual service" couples can be deployed but they are required to have a plan delineating who'll care for their kids. Right now, the Browns' plan is working: grandma is caring for Bill in New York. According to grandma, Bill likes to read Bible stories. But, one bomb and his parents are both dead, and Bill Brown is an orphan. Who'll replace his parents then? Who could replace a generation of moms killed in combat? Government day care centers?

Bill Brown's separation from his mother isn't an aberration. In 1989 they were separated for a year while Ronna Brown was in Korea. And grandma also had little Bill in July 1990 while his parents were in California receiving desert training.

Staff Sgt. Faagalo Savaiki of the 501st Signal Battalion at Fort Campbell, Kentucky, was also deployed to Saudi Arabia. When he went to the Middle East, he left a note explaining how to use the bank's automatic teller machine and instructing his kids to pay certain bills. Other than that, his 13- and nine-year-old sons and his 12-year-old daughter were on their own: they didn't even know how to do their laundry. When the children were discovered, the state put them in a foster home and charges were brought against Savaiki. And where was the mother of Savaiki's children? According to the police, the youngsters' mother divorced Sgt. Savaiki and went to Hawaii just before he went to Saudi Arabia.

Mrs. Brown and Mrs. Savaiki (or whatever names they go by) typify the real problem: the willingness of American society and American women to leave children motherless. The Washington Times editorialized that "Bill Brown and other American children like him, whose mothers are hunkered down in the Saudi desert or swabbing the decks of a warship in the Persian Gulf, can be justly proud of the sacrifices their moms are making." But the primary sacrifice those women make is the sacrifice of their children on the altar of the women's choice to do something other than raise their children. That's nothing to be proud of.

Millions of American mothers routinely abandon their children. Some put their children in day care; some leave them through divorce; others are assigned to Saudi Arabia. They think they have something more important to do than raise their children; that can be left for others. These modern American women are prepared to do battle in the business world or in the Saudi desert; they'll live or die for the free market. But they are deserters in the battle between good and evil over the souls of their children. They are agitating for equal opportunity to fight less important battles in Central America and the Middle East while their children are left to their own defenses at home. Most don't even seem to know that that battle for their children is being fought or that they should be in the front line.

Deep down, though, they know where they should be. As People magazine wrote of Air Force Major Jane Fisher in its mid-September 1990 cover story, "Mom Goes to War:"

But nothing in her experience could ease the pain of saying goodbye to her family and the uncertainty of not knowing when she might return. "It was tough," she said before leaving.... "All I could say to Mary Jean is that Mommy's going on a big airplane and is going to be gone a while. And Jayson, who remembers the time I left before, knew from television and newspapers that something was not good. He asked me, 'Mommy, what if you die?' I said, 'Well, I die.' I had to laugh. It was kind of funny. I just hope they can understand that I have to do this," she said quietly, "and I don't know how to express it." She begins, very softly but unashamedly, to cry.

Or, as Newsweek put it in its mid-September 1990 cover story, "Women Warriors": "A few U.S. servicewomen have torn up photos of their children; looking at them was just too hard."

It's already too late to prevent American women from military combat roles. Defense Department spokesman Pete Williams said there wasn't any discrimination in Operation Desert Shield: "Units deployed were not given any directions not to take women." According to Newsweek, "The troops in Saudi Arabia have given this crisis a nickname: the 'mom's war.'" Our country has evaded the question of why should we expose women to combat: since they can do the jobs, they are assigned jobs that will expose them to enemy fire despite a technical ban on women in combat. "Ever since the Pentagon began recruiting women in large numbers in the 1970s, the services have defined 'combat' ever more narrowly, giving women increasingly critical roles," deadpans Newsweek. The women may not be in combat units, but they will be in combat. In effect, American children are already vying, to paraphrase the Viet Nam era lyrics of Country Joe & the Fish, to be the first one on their block to have their mom shipped home in a box.

But the law should nevertheless continue to exclude women from combat. Not only because the exalted honor of being capable of being a mother means women should be protected as much as possible from the horrors of war. And not just because their children need them. But also because law has a teaching function. For example, although it may be impossible to prevent all abortions even if all were made illegal, the fact that American law has become permissive towards abortion has encouraged the acceptance of abortion. If it's legal, it's acceptable. Similarly, if the use of women in combat isn't technically prohibited, it will become more accepted and routine. And, of course, if the law remains in place, perhaps it will be enforced through a court-martial of those responsible for putting women into combat situations or as a result of public reaction to dead and mutilated mothers.

Ultimately, though, the point is that women have something better and more important to do than go off to war: bear and raise children. It's a point that should shape our country's laws and that should guide the consciences and hearts of all people, not just women. Of course, though, this point is unpopular today: it also argues against women in the armed forces, women in the workforce, daycare, contraception, extramarital sex, abortion, permissive divorce laws, and all the other non-negotiable demands of feminism. Motherhood is the most noble human calling. Unless we reinstitute respect for motherhood, women will continue to search futilely for something else to fulfill them, children will continue to suffer, and our society will continue its descent.Fidelity

James G. Bruen, Jr. is an attorney.


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