Back to the Dark Ages

Just what is California Rep. Duncan Hunter thinking? The chairman of the House Armed Services Committee and some of his fellow Republicans have gone not only retro but close to batty on servicewomen and combat.

It’s obvious that certain factions of the GOP want to return to the “good old days” (make that the Stone Age) when women didn’t engage in nasty activities such as war or finger-dirtying work. But these days, even Pentagon brass are furious at the prospect of barring women from combat-support units. Why? Our armed services are so short of warm bodies, they cannot spare women.

Hunter ought to be ashamed of his stewardship of an amendment attached to the 2006 defense spending bill before Congress. A hubbub erupted when Republican John McHugh of New York tried to protect our “mothers and daughters” from the ravages of “direct combat” in Iraq. His initial attempt would have banned women in the Army from serving in “any company-size unit that provides support to combat battalions or their subordinate companies,” according to The Washington Post.

But his plan prompted a loud barrage of outcries from Army brass who “conservatively” estimated McHugh’s proposal would have closed almost 22,000 jobs now filled by women to the very women in those posts. In response, Hunter crafted a so-called compromise as the bill moved along to the full committee. But in this case, the cure appears to outstrip the disease in terms of severity and really is no compromise at all.

Instead, the full House Armed Services Committee approved an allegedly narrower provision to reinforce current policy against women in ground combat. Rep. Heather Wilson, R-N.M., is the only female veteran in Congress, and a graduate of the Air Force Academy. She told me that this is the first time in U.S. history that the Pentagon “policy” (barring women from combat) will now be written into law. And instead of just Army women, this amendment stands to cost women across the armed services their positions.

In 1994, President Bill Clinton modified Pentagon policy to allow women to serve in combat-support units, but to bar them from actual combat. Since then, the line between combat and combat support has grown tenuously thin. Some 35 servicewomen have been killed in Iraq, many of them in what civilians might consider to be combat jobs. If you drive a supply truck up to the front lines to feed combat troops, are you in combat, or not? If you eat lunch in an Army mess hall and a suicide bomber walks by to detonate a body-bomb, have you died in combat, or not? Or if you’re sitting on a tank going through an Iraqi village and your tank comes under fire, is that combat?

Why if, as the Pentagon put it, mere discussion of this major personnel change will “undermine morale and hamper operations in Iraq and Afghanistan,” is Congress even considering the question? We are, according to our president, anyway, “at war.” Are these arguments that can be raised and resolved when we are not at war?

Women make up 15 percent of our armed services, with some 20 percent of those serving in combat-support units in Iraq. In debate over these amendments, their status as “mothers, sisters, wives and daughters” was repeatedly invoked by those, such as McHugh, trying to “protect” them.

It was an eerie reminder of a Supreme Court decision handed down almost a century ago. In Muller v. Oregon, the court affirmed the constitutionality of a 10-hour working-day law for female workers, after having struck down a similar law for men just three years earlier. The court noted that a “woman’s physical structure” and public interest in her “maternal functions” justified protection. Those same laws were very shortly thereafter used to justify job discrimination against women.

This is a volunteer force. Women know perfectly well when they sign up that they’re risking their lives. Are the Hunters and McHughs of the world trying to send us back to 1908? Because if not, they’re doing a darned good job of looking as if they are.

(Bonnie Erbe is a TV host and writes this column for Scripps Howard News Service. E-mail bonnieerbe(at)