- The Washington Times - Thursday, January 13, 2005

You’ve got to marvel at the brass, if not the judgment, of a soldier who tells a superior officer to stuff it. Particularly if that superior officer is the commander in chief.

Somewhere in the bowels of the Pentagon, if not in the E-Ring, someone is determined to assign women to combat over the objections of Congress, set out in law, and against the firm resolution of George W. Bush.

When editors and reporters of this newspaper asked the president, in an interview earlier this week in the Oval Office, about the maneuvering at the Pentagon to eliminate the prohibition of women assigned to combat roles, he said: “There’s no change of policy as far as I’m concerned.”

“And your policy is?”

“No women in combat.”

You might think this would settle it. George W. Bush is neither a shy guy nor a wishy-washy wallflower, unable to make his wishes known. But when the Army sent a spokesman out to answer a reporter’s question about what the Army thought of the president’s emphatic assurance, there was no standing briskly to attention, no salute.

“The [Department of Defense] policy concerning women’s roles in the military is still in effect,” the spokesman said. “The Army remains in compliance with the current policy and public law regarding women in combat. It is premature to speculate about whether we will request a change at this time.”

Note the weasel words and phrases: “still in effect” (but we’re working on it), “remains in compliance” (but not for long if we know how to play the game) and “premature to speculate about whether to request a change at this time” (we’ll pick the right time for the presidential ambush). The Army carefully didn’t say: “The commander in chief gives the orders, and we obey.”

Nobody accuses the Pentagon challengers to presidential authority of “premature speculation.” The men who want to send women to do men’s work — we’re definitely not talking Stonewall Jackson or George S. Patton here — are skillful in choosing just the right time to present their scheme to Donald Rumsfeld, and then, if they can, to sic him on a president who defers, when he can, to his generals.

The Pentagon challengers understand that this administration, like the one before it, is sprinkled with draft dodgers, draft evaders, and others with “other priorities” who maneuvered their way out of taking up the uniform when duty called a generation ago, and who are careful to maintain viability within the system now with deference to brass-studded uniforms. The president, on the other hand, has the fighter pilot’s cocky self-confidence. He’s comfortable challenging challengers when he expects some deference to what he thinks.

The Army can’t say what’s really at stake, which is that there’s no way to fill all the slots in combat support units with men. So the idea is to fill the slots with women and call it something else. The bureaucratic name for this is “the collocation rule.” In the English the rest of us speak, this means that women would be assigned to support units that technically wouldn’t be assigned to combat, but in reality would be.

The civilian bureaucrats at the Pentagon have been able to chew over the scheme in the loo for a long time. If it means that women must be assigned to the meat grinder, well, that’s just a risk the civilian bureaucrats, with titles like deputy assistant undersecretary for latrine orderly readiness, will have to take. It’s not the daughters of the suburban middle class who will be put at risk.

If we can’t defend the country without women, we must do what we must do. But let’s do it with fairness, openness and equity. Let’s have a draft and take the daughters not only of West Virginia and New Mexico and rural Mississippi and the barrios of Texas, California and the South Bronx — inner-city black, Hispanic, linthead and hillbilly kids who can be regarded as easily expendable — but also the privileged daughters of Duke, Wellesley, Harvard and Stanford.

Bureaucrats live in a world of flow charts, briefings and slide-show presentations. The commander in chief doesn’t . The smart money is on the guy in the pointy boots.

Wesley Pruden is editor in chief of The Times.

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