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Doris writes a weekly column for LaGaceta, the nation's only trilingual newspaper, which has pages in English, Spanish, and Italian.  Begun in 1922 for Tampa's immigrant community, it continues to thrive more than a century later.  Her column is titled "In Context," as it aims to put contemporary issues in the context of the past.

Women Aren’t Authorized to Be Killed

Conservatives love to say that they revere history -- but by definition, they also are unlikely to learn from it. Over and over again, progressives lead humanity past historic milestones, while conservatives deny the actuality. It simply is in their nature to refuse to acknowledge realities that conflict with their unbending views. This is especially likely if the new precedent was established by someone unlike themselves.

And so goes the interminable debate about women in combat. I am so thoroughly bored with these questions that don’t want to write about the topic, but I guess I have to. I met a man at a recent Chamber of Commerce event who impressed with me the need.

Women in combat was an exciting idea to me back in the 1980s, but since then I’ve published two books on World War II, and I guess I figure that this is old news. I know that some people buy these books on women and the war: the second one I wrote at the request of an editor, and even though it’s expensive, I began getting royalties on it within a year of its 2010 publication.

The first one was published in 1990, and I don’t know how many copies it has sold – but it has been published with four different covers and (amazingly to me) -- translated into Japanese. A pirate company is selling it on the internet, but because my agent for that book now is in her 80s and because I abhor the business side of publishing, I choose to ignore its sales. But you can buy it on the net – American Women and World War II.

* * *

It begins with the members of the Army Nurse Corps (ANC) who were bombed by the Japanese while stationed at Sternberg General Hospital in Manila at Christmas 1941. Some escaped to Australia, but others continued to work in an underground hospital in the giant cave that is the rock of Corregidor. When that fell, 68 ANC members and 11 members of the Navy Nurse Corps (NNC) became prisoners of war. Interned for the next three years, they were close to starvation when liberated early in 1945.

Nor were they the only women there -- and civilian women caught in combat situations always face greater risks, as they have no protection in international codes of war. Scholarly estimates of the number of civilians who were POWs in Asia during World War II vary wildly, but the lowest reputable estimate is 130,000 – and tens of thousands of these were women. Of course women were and are in combat, and they have been since biblical times. Check out the Book of Judges for Deborah and other examples.

When times are truly tough, all nations have depended on their women to bring them through. Indeed, the conclusion I reached in my WWII research is that Hitler lost the war largely because he limited German women to “kinder, kirche, and kuche” (children, church, and kitchen). In contrast, American and British women not only went to work in defense plants by the millions, but they also joined the military. All four branches of the American military opened to non-nurses, and British women were required to serve: if not in the military, then in defense factories or in agriculture.

Although revisionists have tried hard to get Americans to forget that the Soviets were our allies in WWII, we never would have won the war without them – and Hitler’s supreme stupidity in fighting on both eastern and western fronts. We owe a huge debt to Russians, including their women. Russian women flew bombers and fighter planes; some earned decorations for hundreds of Nazi “kills.” American media acknowledged their bravery at the time. Colliers, for example, wrote about the female engineer who raced her explosive-laden train out of Moscow while German planes dropped bombs.

Nor did the distinction between civilian and military matter when it came to the defense of Stalingrad. This very week, the first week of February 2013, marks the 70th anniversary of that major turning point. In February 1943, Russians stopped the German advance on the eastern front and began chasing them west, where they would face the Americans and British. Some of the city’s fiercest defenders, who gave their lives fighting the Nazis, were teenage girls.

* * *

The guy at the Chamber dinner argued that he didn’t want to risk being wounded and having to depend on “a 140-pound girl” to pull him from danger. I explained that the ANC has been around since 1901 and the NNC since 1908, and during that time, their nursing skills saved many men. Because these women had to meet much higher educational standards than enlisted men, nurses always were officers: male medics who did the menial work were under their command. Generals and admirals don’t carry litters or clean up battlefields either, and it is the distinction between officers and enlisted personnel that is the point in the current debate.

Anyone who has spent any time around the military knows that one simply cannot reach the highest ranks without combat experience. This is true for both men and women, but until now, women were barred by gender from obtaining that experience. They actually have combat experience, of course, as front lines have disappeared in modern warfare and women are exposed to as much danger as men, but they don’t get credit for it. As my husband, who was an Army captain in the Vietnam era, said succinctly, “Women aren’t authorized to be killed.”

Correcting this inequity is the goal of Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta, and those members of the military who speak out against it in the press should be demoted. That is a second major principle: we live in a democracy in which the Constitution – so ostensibly revered by conservatives – designates that the elected president also is the commander-in-chief of the military.

You are free not to join the military (these days), but once you have taken that oath, you no longer have the right to second-guess your superiors. President Harry Truman was absolutely right to fire General Douglas MacArthur when MacArthur criticized Pentagon policy back in the 1950s -- and if I were President Obama, I would be showing the door to Marine General James Amos, who grabbed headlines by commenting negatively to the press.

* * *

I thought of these things while watching the Super Bowl. My husband monitors right-wing radio and told me that there was controversy over the first black referee at the game, a milestone that I would have thought was passed years ago. Sports indeed has been a hugely liberating factor for racial minorities -- and for the occasional woman. NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell is leading the way on gender by offering a seat next to him for nine-year-old Samantha Gordon, who made 35 touchdowns for her otherwise all-male team last fall.

It’s not that every girl or woman wants to play football or join the combat military: it’s just that everyone who wants to try should be allowed to demonstrate her mettle. Like race, gender never should be a barrier to any potential achiever.

And the nation and the world will be better off for it. Remember the “what ifs” in the 1970s, when women finally were allowed to join the ranks of firefighters and police? Conservatives predicted all sorts of horrors – they always do – but now we have a female police chief in Tampa, and crime is down.

The point to remember is that the inherent nature of conservatism is fear, not hope. Their “what if” scenarios emphasize what cannot be done, not what can. When they say that they value “liberty” and “freedom,” many subconsciously are limiting that to themselves and those akin to them. But we all should be free to aim for our goals and have the liberty to fulfill our potential.

Doris Weatherford writes a weekly column for La Gaceta, the nation's only trilingual newspaper. With pages in Spanish, Italian, and English, it has been published in Tampa since 1922.
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