Paul Greenberg: The turret gunner was a she

BY PAUL GREENBERG Published: February 11, 2013
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Martin Dempsey, the Army general who's now chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, was a division commander when he got to Baghdad in 2003 and climbed into a Humvee for his first trip off base. “I asked the driver … who he was, where he was from,” the general remembers, “and I slapped the turret gunner around the leg and I said, ‘Who are you?' And she leaned down and said, ‘I'm Amanda.'

“And I said, ‘Ah, OK.' So female turret gunner protecting division commander.”

One of the things that makes a good commander is the speed with which he can adjust to changed conditions, and the general had just been introduced to another reality of the ever-new U.S. Army.

The general told that story the other day as he stood next to the country's secretary of defense to formally lift the Army's ban on women in combat units. No, not every woman — or man — may be fit for combat, but now every trooper has a chance to qualify for it. Which is as it should be — at last.

Dempsey, it turns out, is a rich source of instructive stories. Not to mention comments that apply to more than their immediate subject. It was during this same news conference that he discussed the considerable problem of sexual harassment, not to mention outright abuse and rape, in the service. He traced it to treating women as less than equal. To quote from his remarks:

“When you have one part of the population that is designated as warriors and another part that's designated as something else, I think that disparity begins to establish a psychology that in some cases led to that environment. I have to believe the more we can treat people equally, the more likely they are to treat each other equally.”

When you have one part of the population that serves in the military and another part that doesn't, a rift is likely to develop between those who have defended the country in uniform and those who have never had that privilege. And it is a privilege. As well as an education, not just an obligation. It's also a necessity in a democracy. For the divide between citizen and soldier may only grow greater as the years pass, and develop into mutual suspicion, even mutual contempt. And divided we fall.

Unlike generations of Americans, this one may be remarkably ignorant of military life and the military virtues, not having been exposed to either. Which is why every citizen of a republic should serve in the military for at least a time. In order to understand that freedom does not come without obligation — including a military obligation. And to realize anew that discipline, far from being the antithesis of freedom, is one of its requirements. They go together, like liberty and law.

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