Barack Obama has consistently and very publicly staked out policy positions far to the left of the American public on such issues as taxes, abortion, and same-sex marriage. But one issue has slipped quietly under the radar: If elected president, the Illinois senator would require women to register for the military draft. As commander in chief, he would also consider assigning women to roles in close combat, also known as "the point of the spear."
"Women are already serving in combat [in Iraq and Afghanistan], and the current policy should be updated to reflect realities on the ground," Obama spokeswoman Wendy Morigi told the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette on Oct. 13. "Barack Obama would consult with military commanders to review the constraints that remain."
While it is true that some women are already serving in combat, they are usually doing so in support units and against the Pentagon's own rules. In 1994, Clinton defense secretary Les Aspin issued the "direct combat assignment rule" that today still governs in theory, though not in practice. In a Jan. 13, 1994, memo, Aspin wrote that women might not be assigned "where units and position are doctrinally required to physically collocate and remain with direct combat units that are closed to women."
Elaine Donnelly, president of the Center for Military Readiness, said the military now routinely assigns women to support units embedded with close combat elements. The Army is also assigning them directly to infantry units, she said.
"Women joining infantry support units should know they will be in harm's way-there's no disputing that," Donnelly said. "However when they are told they will not be assigned to a close combat area, they should expect not to be. That breaks faith."
Feminist groups have long complained that men and women in the U.S. military should serve in identical capacities. During a CNN/YouTube debate last year, Obama compared the role of women in today's armed forces to that of black soldiers and airmen in World War II.
"There was a time when African Americans weren't allowed to serve in combat," Obama said. "And yet, when they did, not only did they perform brilliantly, but what also happened is they helped to change America, and they helped to underscore that we're equal."
That's true for men of all races, but not for men and women in the demanding environment of war, said former Army Capt. Michele Jones. "It's not a matter of opinion; it's just a fact," said Jones, who from May 2004 to June 2005 commanded a truck company out of the 89th Transportation Corps base at Fort Eustis, Va. "Women are not built the same as men. They cannot carry 150 pounds on their backs. They can't carry fully loaded, heavy weapons for long distances."
Ground commanders also cannot realistically deploy them in the same way as men. "There were a lot of times I was tasked to provide armed security for convoys staffed entirely with local nationals, all male," Jones said. "There was no way I was going to send women to provide security for a convoy full of nothing but foreign men, for obvious reasons."
Jones said commanding a war-zone unit with up to 50 percent women caused other problems, such as sexual and emotional entanglements. Also her truck convoys routinely came under fire during her tour. "My male soldiers told me they felt more protective of the women in the unit," she said.
That's normal human nature, she added, but noted that the shift in priorities can change the outcome in battle.
Obama's contention that women should serve in direct combat roles echoes that of feminist groups that have long complained men and women in the U.S. military should serve in identical capacities. Elaine Donnelly said that view reveals the Democratic candidate's "ignorance on the purpose of the military," which is to defend the American people, not serve as an equal-opportunity employer.
"In the fierce environment of direct ground combat, like Fallujah in November 2004," Donnelly said, "women do not have an equal opportunity to survive-or to help fellow soldiers survive."