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T he other day in Parade Ponchitta Pierce wrote a fascinating piece about Sheila Widnall, the first woman ever to head up a branch of the U.S. military (as Secretary of the Air Force).

And except for one thing (and I will get to that shortly, be assured) she is a terrific success story and inspiring role model. Ms. Widnall has a doctorate from MIT, was the first woman to head its faculty, is happily married with a couple of grown children, and at 56 last summer she and her husband climbed Mount Rainier.

And Secretary Widnall has also been for three years managing a vast bureaucracy with a deft hand at the same time the Air Force is being downsized. And, of course, she's had to cope with the usual male chauvinisms of the career military.

On just about all these fronts Sheila Widnall gets exemplary grades. But then, in speaking with reporter Pierce, she gets off this extraordinary bit of bunkum:

"If women want to go into combat, I don't see any reason why they shouldn't."

And by "combat," the Secretary made clear, she wasn't talking about women pushing buttons that send missiles on their way, she means ground combat. Here is the exchange:

Noting that, "Women may still not be a part of rescue operations or direct-combat ground units," Ms. Pierce asked the Secretary "if she agreed with that policy."

Secretary Widnall replied, "No. Women in our country have historically defended their homes and families. When you had the covered wagons going across the country, there were lots of examples of women engaged in ground combat. If women want to go into combat, I don't see any reason why they shouldn't."

Well, even on that basis, leaving it up to the individual to decide if she'd like to go out and shoot people and get shot at herself, is a pretty dumb idea. In that it sets up immediately the sort of two-track military career situation we had before (men versus women). Except now it's to be, if Secretary Widnall has her way, those who opt to fight and those who don't. Anyone doubt who gets promoted first?

Then there's the difference between defending one's home, whether it's a covered wagon or a log cabin, by shooting Comanches with Ol' Betsy; and being a combat infantryman. Ground combat isn't simply defending yourself and your place. Sometimes you've got to go out and track down and kill other people. And you are expected to do it over and over again, month after month. Years, maybe. Most wars aren't the raid on Panama or the 100-hour ground war of the Gulf and then you come home for the ticker-tape parade.

There may be worse human conditions than ground combat (prison, perhaps) but not many. Even the coal miner after his day spent underground and at risk, goes home at night to a hot tub and decent meal and the TV. Infantrymen eat, sleep and fight in their own filth, exhausted and frightened, deprived of comfort and privacy and safety and rest, all the underpinnings of civilization. In combat we become again savages. Worse, we become animals. To wish this on anyone is foolishness. And Secretary Widnall is no fool.

What she is engaged in here I think is gender-driven cheerleading as if out to prove that not sending women into this somehow diminishes them. Women are as good as men if not better. You don't have to debase them to confirm this.

You can be intelligent, strong and courageous (I know I couldn't either get into MIT or scale a 14,000-foot peak), and still not be able to do the job of an infantry grunt. I think Secretary Widnall knows that and she is talking humbug.

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