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Do US women belong in the thick of the fighting?

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Illustrating this point is an Army Reserve unit based in Richmond, Va., which will soon go to Iraq to train Iraqi soldiers. They will leave behind some 20 female drill instructors because of such sensitivities.

"I understand each culture has different morals and customs, and I have to respect that," Staff Sgt. Stefania Traylor told the Richmond Times-Dispatch. "But on the other hand, it's quite different from our culture, so I do have a problem with that. If you are getting experience, knowledge, and guidance from an individual, it shouldn't matter whether you are male or female."

Those who argue otherwise note the physiological differences between men and women - for example, the upper-body strength necessary to operate some heavy weapons effectively or to pull a fallen comrade out of harm's way.

"To pretend that women would have an equal capability of doing that is a dangerous philosophy, and lives could be lost as a result of it," says Elaine Donnelly, president of the Center for Military Readiness and one of the most outspoken critics of current military policy on women in war zones.

Validating violence against women?

For some, part of this concern involves the number of women killed and wounded in combat, which is accumulating at a much higher rate than in previous wars. (Only one American woman was killed by hostile fire in the 10-year Vietnam War.)

But there's more to it than that. In a way, there are similarities among US political/cultural conservatives and Islamic traditionalists, both of whom are opposed to women as "war fighters."

"If we as a nation endorse the idea of women in combat that engages the enemy deliberately, we would be saying that violence against women is OK as long as it happens at the hand of the enemy," says Ms. Donnelly. "That would be a setback for our civilization."

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