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John Lynn, expert on military history
On Thursday (Jan. 24), U.S. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta announced that a ban on women serving in combat roles was coming to an end. John Lynn, an emeritus professor of history and the author of “Women, Armies, and Warfare in Early Modern Europe” and “Battle: A History of Combat and Culture,” is all for it. Lynn has lectured at war colleges and other military institutions in the U.S. and abroad, and served as president of the U.S. Commission on Military History. He says women have been integral to armies and military campaigns through the centuries. He spoke with News Bureau social sciences editor Craig Chamberlain about the recent announcement and the role of women in the military – past and present.
This change in policy came after a unanimous decision by the Joint Chiefs of Staff, the nation’s highest military leaders, and did not appear to be forced by politicians. Did that surprise you, especially given the previous resistance to gays in the military?
Yes, I was surprised, but only because I had not known that this was an issue that the administration had prioritized. In any case, I wholeheartedly agree that the time for eliminating the restrictions on qualified women in the military is, if anything, long overdue. While both the end of “don’t ask, don’t tell” and the end of restrictions on women in combat are similar because they are issues of inclusion, I believe the dynamics of the two debates are different, and I anticipate much less opposition to women in combat roles.
Part of your book on women, armies and warfare deals with stories of women in combat, but is that what you think is significant for the issue now?
There were some women who assumed male identities to serve as soldiers in Europe before 1815, but they were very few in number, although their stories caught the public imagination then and now. The infinitely more important fact is that during the early modern period hundreds of thousands of women went on campaign openly as women, marching with armies during wartime and sharing all the hardships of campaign short of standing in the front ranks during combat. These were formidable people: strong, tough and brave. Their history argues against those who might think that women by nature are not up to the rigors of combat in the field.
In what ways, if any, are women accommodated now in the military? And should there be any accommodations for those serving in combat roles?
There is little room for giving women special accommodations and conditions in combat. They will have to deal with the same discomfort, danger and loss of privacy as the men. If they do not bear the same duties, labors and risks as the men, they will not command the respect of their male comrades. Military women are up to the task.
Many of those praising the policy change are highlighting the new opportunities it opens for women, since combat roles are often the route to military promotion. You note, however, that it also introduces an issue of inequality. How so?
For there to be true equality, qualified men and women must have the same opportunities to serve, but also the same level of compulsion in being assigned military roles. If women have the option to take on a combat assignment but men are compelled to do so, then there is a double standard. The military will have to be certain to treat women and men evenhandedly.
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