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Not so fast: Women on frontlines 'distracting,' say critics

Critics of the Pentagon’s decision to allow women to serve in many combat positions accused the military of putting social experimentation and political correctness ahead of the fighting power of American troops.

The decision, announced Thursday by Defense Secretary Leon Panetta, appeared to be met mostly with approval on Capitol Hill — and jubilation among women who have served in the armed forces.

But others, including some combat veterans, Republicans in Congress and culturally conservative groups, expressed deep reservations or outright opposition.


One former Marine infantryman, Ryan Smith, said that combat readiness could be harmed by the decision. In an Op-Ed article published Thursday in The Wall Street Journal, Smith focused on some of the more unseemly aspects of combat service.

During the American-led invasion of Iraq in 2003, he wrote, his unit went more than a month without showering and then was lined up naked to be pressure-washed.

“It would be distracting and potentially traumatizing to be forced to be naked in front of the opposite sex, particularly when your body has been ravaged by lack of hygiene,” Smith wrote. “In the reverse, it would be painful to witness a member of the opposite sex in such an uncomfortable and awkward position.

“The relationships among members of a unit can be irreparably harmed by forcing them to violate societal norms,” he concluded.

Republican Rep. Duncan Hunter of California, a Marine combat veteran who served two tours in Iraq and a third in Afghanistan, said that the question was whether the change would “actually make our military better at operating in combat and killing the enemy.”

“What needs to be explained is how this decision, when all is said and done, increases combat effectiveness rather than being a move done for political purposes,” Hunter said in a statement. A spokesman told NBC News that the congressman believes the decision was rushed, and that it was unclear how the Pentagon reached its decision.

Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., and a former prisoner of war in Vietnam, quickly announced his support for Panetta’s decision. But he said Thursday that he wants to be sure “to make sure that the standards, particularly the physical standards, are met so that the combat efficiency of the units are not degraded.”

For the past 10 years, women in the U.S. military have served at the frontlines in Iraq and Afghanistan but never as ground combat troops. That will soon change as a ban against women in combat is lifted. NBC's Jim Miklaszewski reports and retired Col. Jack Jacobs gives his take.

In remarks as he was entering a confirmation hearing for Sen. John Kerry as secretary of state, McCain said that allowing women in combat was “the right thing to do.”

When a reporter suggested that American military women were already in combat roles — more than 150 women have died and nearly 1,000 have been wounded in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan — McCain said, “Well, not really.”

“It’s one thing to be some place where a rocket hits and be wounded, and it’s another thing to be out there on a night raid against al-Qaida,” McCain said. “But the fact is that this is a — I support this decision, and I think that women are fully qualified to carry out that mission.”

A senior defense official told NBC News on Wednesday that exceptions would probably remain, and that elite special operations positions among the Navy SEALs, Army Rangers and Delta Force, another branch of the Army, would probably stay closed to women.

There were about 166,000 women serving in active duty in 2011, the most recent year for which figures are available. They accounted for about 14 percent of the active armed forces. Women were most represented in the Air Force, at 19 percent, and least in the Marines, 6 percent.

There were about 36,000 women among active-duty officers, or about 17 percent.

Polls consistently show broad support for allowing women in combat roles. Support ran almost 3-to-1 in a Quinnipiac University poll conducted last February.

Still, a conservative Christian activist group, Concerned Women for America, was blunt in its opposition to the shift.

“The point of the military is to protect our country,” the group’s president, Penny Nance, said in a statement. “Anything that distracts from that is detrimental. Our military cannot continue to choose social experimentation and political correctness over combat readiness.”

Some critics of Panetta’s decision expressed concern that women would not be able to meet physical-fitness requirements of the military, or that the standards for physical fitness would be lowered, weakening the force, to make them fair to women.

Anne Coughlin, a University of Virginia law professor who helped form a group that inspired a lawsuit against Panetta last year, opposing the ban, said that she saw no merit in any of the arguments for the ban.

Arguments about unit cohesion, she said, rely on a stereotype — that men and women will get up to “mischief” in close quarters. She said that she applauded strict fitness requirements, physical and psychological, and that there was no reason to expect that the military would endanger troops by lowering them.

“Some women, just like some men, may not be able to satisfy some of those standards,” she told NBC News in a telephone interview. “It seems preposterous to me to think that the secretary of defense and the people who are in charge of designing the military standards would put the nation in peril in this way, and they are certainly not be being asked to do that.”

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