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Originally published January 18, 2008 at 12:00 AM | Page modified January 18, 2008 at 11:14 AM

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Guest columnist

Women warriors: Shouldn't we talk about this?

In one of the most affecting scenes in Homer's "Iliad," a condescending Hector, knowing he is about to face the indomitable Achilles in single combat, in essence, tells his distraught wife Andromache not to worry her pretty little head because "War shall be the business of men."

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In one of the most affecting scenes in Homer's "Iliad," a condescending Hector, knowing he is about to face the indomitable Achilles in single combat, in essence, tells his distraught wife Andromache not to worry her pretty little head because "War shall be the business of men."

The scene is affecting for its dramatic irony. We the readers know, as Andromache would have known, and as I believe Homer knew, that war has never been and never will be just the "business of men." Women have always supplied the sons and husbands and lovers who fight and die — and in Homer's day and beyond, of course, women were typically counted among the spoils of war.

I am reminded of this passage every time I hear that another woman warrior has been seriously wounded or killed in Iraq. The irony is that women are still barred by law from serving in direct combat roles, but the distinction long ago became meaningless with so many women assigned to direct combat-support roles in an unconventional war with no front line.

Personally, as a Vietnam veteran of a certain age, I don't have a problem with women serving in combat. I look at this development in the same way that former New York Mayor Ed Koch viewed allowing women to join the Fire Department. In his book, as long as a woman could carry a 180-pound mayor down a ladder, Koch observed, she was qualified. If a woman can hack the training and wants to do it, then so be it. What surprises me is that we, as a culture, have evolved to this point with so little discussion or debate.

I remember, for instance, all the controversy when women were first admitted to the service academies in 1976. One pundit on the conservative side predicted that the American people would react with shock and outrage when the first servicewomen come home in body bags or missing limbs.

That pundit was wrong. From Jessica Lynch onward, a lot of women have come back seriously wounded and maimed, others have been killed, and there has been nary a ripple of protest based on gender from the American public.

Clearly, the question of whether women can or should serve in combat has been overtaken by events. The fact is, women are doing the job and doing it well. We might as well amend the law to reflect the current reality.

But the unanswered question, it seems to me, is why the American public has been so accepting of this development. Are we now acknowledging that women can and should be allowed to do it, or are we merely willing to relegate military service to whomever will do it, regardless of gender?

The Army's current recruiting difficulties suggest the latter.

Either way, one thing is certain: War is no longer the business of men. Or, to fall back on a retrograde advertising slogan of some years ago: "You've come a long way, baby."

The problem is, you seem to have gotten to this point largely by default.

Edward F. Palm, a former enlisted Marine and a Vietnam veteran, is dean of the Social Sciences and Humanities Division at Olympic College in Bremerton.

Copyright © 2008 The Seattle Times Company

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