Just as the U.S. military is indoctrinating troops to accept open gays in their ranks, a federal commission is pressing the Pentagon to make the force more diverse by, among other ideas, opening infantry and armor units to women.
With the Military Leadership Diversity Commission's report out this month, its leaders have briefed Deputy Defense Secretary William J. Lynn and plan to deliver its 162-page report to every member of Congress.
The commission says it wants the military to resemble the ethnic makeup of America. It is urging the Army, Navy, Marine Corps and Air Force to "validate" the standards — such as education, test scores, criminal records and drug use — that disqualify large numbers of blacks and Hispanics.
"Racial/ethnic minorities are less likely to meet eligibility requirements than are non-Hispanic whites, and that gap is widening," the report says.
The commission said women should be allowed into male-only land combat units to "create a level playing field" in promotions "for all service members who meet the qualifications."
The Pentagon seems open to the prospect of repealing a 1994 law that prevents women from joining direct land combat in infantry, most artillery and tank units. Congress enacted a law that did allow women on combat ships, as well as on bomber and fighter aircraft.
Part of the momentum for women in direct combat units stems from the fact they have engaged in firefights in Iraq and Afghanistan as military police and been subjected to enemy fire and homemade bombs, called improvised explosive devices (IEDs), just like the men.
Pentagon spokeswoman Eileen Lainez said the Defense Department "is committed to performing the comprehensive and expansive review" of the combat exclusion law.
"The nature of today's conflicts is evolving," Ms. Lainez said. "There are no front lines in Iraq and Afghanistan. While women are not assigned to units below brigade level whose primary mission is direct combat on the ground, this doesn't mean they are not assigned to positions in combat zones that could place them in danger."
Hardened combat veterans say there is a big difference between a female MP exchanging gunfire with insurgents and the upper-body physical demands of an Army Ranger or Navy SEAL engaged in intense close-in violence.
"I believe there is a broad lack of understanding of exactly what direct ground combat is," retired Gen. Carl Mundy, a former Marine commandant, told The Washington Times.
"The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have left an impression that being subjected to IEDs or even enemy small-arms fire, or that being captured, wounded or killed is direct combat. It isn't.
"Closing with and destroying the enemy by the most violent means available — and often at eyeball-to-eyeball range — is direct combat. Moreover, the units which are trained into the teams to engage and defeat the enemy directly exist on the basis of masculine cohesion.
"I believe that female service members bring tremendous skills and talents to many sectors of our armed forces, but I believe equally strongly that they are not best suited for the unique demands associated with direct combat units."
With the commission report done, the issue has become a policy question for Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates and a political-military decision for lawmakers.
Republicans appear cool toward making a change, in the aftermath of losing a heated debate on allowing gays to serve openly, a promise President Obama made in the 2008 presidential campaign.
"This is the last thing the military should be thinking about," said Rep. Duncan Hunter, a member of the House Armed Services Committee who saw combat in Iraq and Afghanistan as a Marine officer.
"Our military is engaged in a shooting war," the California Republican added. "This is just another distraction that can't interfere with what's most important — winning in Afghanistan. Some people seem to think the military is a staging ground for social testing, and that attitude only puts lives at risk."
Spokesmen for several senior committee Republicans did not respond to questions.
There is an indication that the Senate Armed Services Committee will write language about women in combat when it produces a defense budget and policy bill this spring.
Bryan Thomas, spokesman for Chairman Carl Levin, Michigan Democrat, said, "Sen. Levin has not made a public statement about the recommendation and likely will not, as it is an issue that may be addressed in the National Defense Authorization Act."
The 31-member diversity commission was set up by the Democrat-controlled Congress more than a year ago. The panel contained a sizable number of civilian equal-opportunity professionals, as well as retired and active military personnel.
Its report calls on the Pentagon to elevate diversity to an unprecedented level among national security priorities. It warns that as the white population decreases and the Hispanic numbers increase as a share of population, the military is in danger of not looking like America.
"The armed forces have not yet succeeded in developing a continuing stream of leaders who are as demographically diverse as the nation they serve," the report says.
The commission wants the defense secretary to appoint a diversity czar who reports directly to him. At confirmations, all senior officer nominees must show the Senate Armed Services Committee that they have a rich background in promoting diversity, it said.
The commission, led by retired Air Force Gen. Lester Lyles and retired Army Lt. Gen. Julius Becton, did not take a roll-call vote of its recommendations, including the one on women in combat. Instead, it wrote recommendations based on consensus. Not all members supported the women in combat proposal, but the panel's transcripts make it difficult to discern who opposed it.
At a December meeting when the combat recommendation was written, Lt. Gen. Robert Neller, the top Marine on the panel, said, "I'm still struggling with this, and I don't mean to be difficult."
Earlier that year, then-Marine Commandant Gen. James Conway, now retired, made it clear that he, and female Marines, did not want a change.
"I don't think you will see a change because I don't think our women want it to change," he testified.
"There are certain demands of officers in a combat arms environment that our women see, recognize, appreciate, and say, 'I couldn't do that. In fact, I don't want to do that because I don't think it best prepares me for success if I am trying to do those things against the male population at lieutenant, captain, major and lieutenant colonel [ranks].'"
He added, "Now that's not to say that we don't have women doing a tremendous job in combat where you have a pretty amorphous environment, no real front lines in a counterinsurgency environment. And their contributions are appreciated and recognized and rewarded.
"In talking to them, I think they feel like that's probably enough. So I don't see the day coming where we would change our culture necessarily, and, in the process, go against what I think the vast majority of our women would want to see — stay pretty much like it is."
One commission member predicted there would be no rush by women to try to qualify for the infantry.
"If you asked most women … should women be able to go infantry, 99 percent of the women will say yes, if they're qualified they should," retired Army Brig. Gen. Rebecca Halstead said.
"The second question should be, do you want to go to infantry? And 99 percent of the women would probably say no."
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