With one single mother from the U.S. Army killed in Iraq and another wounded and captured, some conservatives are urging the military to halt its march toward gender equality and restrict the deployment of mothers in war zones.
"Healthy, responsible nations do not send the mothers of small children to or near the front lines - that violates the most basic human instincts," said Allan Carlson, a historian affiliated with the Family Research Council.
For now, the cause has found few champions in Congress or at the Pentagon; politicians and commanders are pleased by the all-volunteer military's performance in Iraq and proud that three ambushed servicewomen became national heroes. But the critics - mostly from groups opposed to the feminist movement - vow to maintain pressure in hopes the Bush administration might one day review deployment policies.
Bush, asked about the matter Thursday, said it would be "up to the generals" to determine if any changes are warranted.
Among the fiercest critics of current policy is conservative activist Phyllis Schlafly, president of the Eagle Forum, who recently wrote a commentary titled "Does the Military Have the Nerve to Celebrate Mother's Day?"
She said the women caught in the ambush of the 507th Maintenance Company in Iraq - Jessica Lynch, who was rescued by commandos, and single mothers Lori Piestewa, who was killed, and Shoshana Johnson, who was wounded - did not volunteer for the Army with the ambition of serving in combat.
"The reason these sorry things have happened is that the men in our government and in the U.S. military lack the courage to stand up to feminists and repudiate their assault on family and motherhood," Schlafly wrote.
In a telephone interview, Schlafly said she was frustrated that the Bush administration, which she supports on many issues, had made no effort to roll back Clinton administration initiatives allowing women into a greater range of war-zone duties.
"There is no evidence in all of history that you win wars or advance the cause of women by sending women out to fight," Schlafly said.
Some critics of current policy hope that the Pentagon's postwar assessment of deployment in Iraq will look in depth at such issues as pregnancy, motherhood and single-parenthood. Carlson, for one, would like the military to exclude mothers with children younger than 3 from any war zone deployment.
Col. Catherine Abbott, a Defense Department spokeswoman, said any such special treatment would be difficult to implement, especially if mothers were treated differently from fathers.
"Obviously, it's something that tears on the heartstrings," she said.
"But young dads miss their kids as well. People in the military are volunteers. When they raise their hand (to take the oath of service) they know what they're going into."
Rep. Ike Skelton, D-Mo., ranking Democrat on the House Armed Services Committee, said he knows of no one on Capitol Hill eager to revisit the issue of women - mothers or not - in combat.
Women who have children or expect to have them "don't have to volunteer," Skelton said. "But they do, and they perform their specialties well."
About 210,000 women serve in the active-duty forces, 15 percent of the total force of 1.4 million. As of September, there were about 24,000 single mothers on active duty and 65,000 single fathers.
Lory Manning, an expert on women in the military with the Washington-based Women's Research and Education Institute, said the motherhood issue is being seized upon by critics because they can no longer make headway with claims that uniformed women lower troop performance and morale.
"The stuffing has been knocked out of their old argument," Manning said. "So their new argument is, 'We can't have mothers at war.' It's a very loaded argument; it ignores the fact that there are lots more single dads than single moms."
Though the military doesn't exempt single parents from war duty, it does try to ensure their children's well-being. Holly Gifford of the Army's Family Programs Directorate said single parents must prepare a plan outlining arrangements for their children's care that accounts for financial and medical contingencies. A soldier unable to make adequate plans can be discharged, Gifford said.
Linda Chavez, who heads the Center for Equal Opportunity, a conservative think tank, said the military should not equate fatherhood with motherhood.
"As tragic as the death of a father is in a young child's life, it simply can't compare to the loss of a mother," she wrote in a recent commentary.
Still, Janice Shaw Crouse of Concerned Women for America, another conservative group, said that with the victory in Iraq still in fresh in Americans' minds, it may be too soon for policy-makers to reopen the debate.
"It's an issue that will have to be handled very carefully," she said. "I expect the Bush administration will address it, or else be in trouble with some very basic parts of their constituency."
On the Net:Defense Department:
Eagle Forum: Schlafly column on women in war
|The military's rules for deploying women in and near combat
After the 1991 Gulf War, Congress eased rules that had banned women from combat. Some examples of current policy:
Women now can command combat military police companies, fly jets and work as tactical intelligence analysts. They can drive trucks delivering supplies to front-line troops, or train people who will be fighting there. Female chemical specialists can go to contaminated areas, and female helicopter pilots can land infantry in combat areas during assaults.
Important restrictions remain in force. Women are not allowed into units most likely to see ground combat - infantry, armor, artillery and Special Forces.
In the Navy, women are assigned to all combat vessels and all units except coastal patrol boats, Navy SEALs, submarines and units directly supporting Marine Corps ground forces.
Most Air Force posts are open to women, but they cannot be air combat controllers, whose job is to take over runways so military planes can land.
Women in the Army cannot be assigned to combat units at the battalion level and below because those units go near the front lines. They can serve in infantry, armor and artillery units at the brigade level and higher; those units stay behind combat battalions on the battlefield.
In the Marines, women are not allowed in the infantry, artillery, tanks, amphibious assault vehicles and some intelligence jobs, but many women have become Marine helicopter and jet pilots.
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