I claim I want to better understand war. But my gut reaction to the news about women being allowed to serve in combat positions? Queasy. As if what the headlines are shouting is: “Hooray! Women will now be allowed to do the most dangerous, spiritually challenging, morally ambiguous dirty work on the planet!”
New York Times columnist Gail Collins set me straight, reminding me that “They killed the Equal Rights Amendment to keep this from happening, but, yet, here we are. And about time.”
Collins goes on to recall the words of retired Air Force Brigadier General Wilma Vaught, who once told her: “I think people have come to the sensible conclusion that you can’t say a woman’s life is more valuable than a man’s life.”
The logic is clear: if we invest our nation’s security in professional warriors and if we believe women deserve equal access to all career paths, then women who make the personally huge commitment to serve in the United Sates Armed Forces must not be barred, on the basis of gender, from combat roles.
So why my retrograde queasiness? Because, like any pacifist, I find it so difficult to turn my thoughts to combat at all, no matter what the context. But—as I learned from Karl Marlantes’ book, What it is Like to Go to War (see last week’s post)—I know turning our backs on war is not the answer. Especially the wars we support with our tax dollars.
It has been 40 years this month since we ended the draft. It has also been 40 years since the Supreme Court’s Roe versus Wade decision, which legalized abortion. Though Roe v Wade was rightly hailed as a victory for women’s rights, the court’s decision had the unintended consequence of pumping up the volume on both sides of the larger movement for equality to such a level that passage of the Equal Rights Amendment quickly spiraled from assumed to doomed.
The language was so simple—“Equality of rights under the law shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any state on account of sex”—many of us were stunned when it failed. How could our fathers, brothers, boyfriends, husbands—let alone other women—oppose something so basic? And yet, as Gail Collins reminds us, it was the very idea of women in combat that ultimately killed the ERA. Perhaps for a nation still recoiling from the Viet Nam War, still without any bedrock confidence that the draft would not be reinstated the very next time Congress had a good excuse, the thought of sending sons and daughters to war was just too much, illogical though that may seem to us now.
Forty years is a long time. Our hearts and minds have changed. On Inauguration Day, we heard President Obama invoke not only rights for women and minorities but also, for the first time in an inaugural address, gay rights. As he poetically put it, “We, the people, declare today that the most evident of truths –- that all of us are created equal –- is the star that guides us still; just as it guided our forebears through Seneca Falls, and Selma, and Stonewall.”
Obama went on to say that “our journey is not complete until our wives, our mothers and daughters can earn a living equal to their efforts.” And now wives, mothers and daughters who want to earn their living on the battlefield can officially do so–not just unofficially, as so many already have. Which could mean, ten years from now, we’ll have more women generals and admirals. We don’t know yet how this might change military culture (especially regarding epidemic sexual assault) or the way we fight wars. But we can hope it will.
This Thursday, January 31, 2013, I’ll be reading as part of the Writers in The Schools writer reading at Richard Hugo House. 7:30 to 9pm. The bar will be open and admission is free!
Radio lovers: you can hear the Restless Nest commentaries every Tuesday at 7:50 a.m., Thursdays at 4:54 p.m. and Fridays at 4:55 p.m. on KBCS, streaming online at kbcs.fm and on the air at 91.3 in the Seattle area. Podcasts available.
Here’s nest artist Kim Groff-Harrington’s website.