LOS ANGELES, April 4 (UPI) -- No event in the entire war has electrified Americans like the daring rescue of the young soldier Pfc. Jessica Lynch. The vast outpouring of emotion sheds new perspective on the often-debated question of women in combat.
A 2001 Gallup Poll found public widespread support for women in combat. More than 70 percent of those polled endorsed women's rights both to fly combat aircraft and sail on submarines. A solid 63 percent majority favored women serving behind enemy lines in Special Forces, such as the Navy SEALS and Army Rangers, who were key to saving Lynch. And 52 percent backed women in combat ground troops.
No explanation was readily available for why more Americans thought it was a good idea for women to serve in elite commando units conducting extremely dangerous commando missions, but not in regular infantry units.
Currently, women are allowed to fly in combat, but not serve in the other roles. Following a 1994 decision by the Clinton administration, however, gender-integrated support units like Lynch's 507th Maintenance Company, which made a wrong turn into an ambush in Nasiriyah, are no longer prevented from engaging in high-risk activities near the frontlines.
One other American woman is known to be a prisoner of war: Spc. Shoshana Johnson, a single mother. A third woman from the 507th, Lynch's roommate, Pfc. Lori Ann Piestewa, a Hopi Indian divorced mother of two, is listed as missing in action. No American woman is officially categorized as dead.
Despite the advanced views on gender equality put forward in that Gallup Poll, this week's age-old tale of gallant knights rescuing a damsel in distress touched American heartstrings like nothing else in the war.
The great storm of joy and protectiveness that the photos of the West Virginia beauty contestant elicited highlight a general shortcoming of opinion polls. While calling 1,000 people on the phone and asking them questions about whether women should serve in high-risk military situations is a useful tool, it's worth bearing in mind that respondents can't fully anticipate how they'll actually feel about a novel situation until it actually arises.
From a traditional perspective -- supported in recent years by the new science of evolutionary psychology -- it makes sense for many men to risk their lives to try to free a beautiful young woman. Humans evolved over hundreds of thousands of years in small bands. Fertile females were the critical resource. Even if all the males in the band but one died, he could still face up to his tribal duty and impregnate all the women in the band.
But if too many younger females were killed or stolen by an enemy group, the band's survival was in doubt. As University of Florida zoologist Laura A. Higgins wrote in 1988, "Because fewer of them are needed to produce and maintain offspring, from a population maintenance perspective, males are more expendable than females."
On the other hand, this primordial instinct can get in the way of rational war fighting. In the opening months of the 1947-1948 Israeli War of Independence, women were fully integrated into frontline ranks, but later in the war, the government began withdrawing women from combat. City College of New York sociologist Steven Goldberg pointed out, "The argument that clinched Israel's decision to not use women in combat was the experience of male soldiers taking militarily unwarranted risks to save female soldiers in trouble." Israeli women were then banned from combat roles until a 1996 Israeli Supreme Court ruling.
Lynch's rescue was extremely well planned and executed, and the risks were kept to a minimum. But risks there were. And the political bonanza it reaped shows the pressures and temptations commanders face regarding the fate of nice-looking female soldiers.
The Washington Post reported that Lynch bravely "fought fiercely and shot several enemy soldiers." This will no doubt boost the bidding for the movie rights to her story even higher. It is not cynical but realistic to note that Hollywood long ago discovered there was a large audience for movies showing pretty girls shooting big guns.
So it seems unlikely that Americans will seriously rethink the changes made by the Clinton administration in 1994 that allowed female support troops such as Lynch, Johnson, and Piestewa to be ordered into high-risk roles during ground combat. As reflected in the low overall death rate, less than five Americans killed per day on average, American forces have been so dominant that the troubles that the Israelis ran into in the 1940s with men engaging in excessive heroism to protect women are unlikely to be a major drain on operations.
But how did we arrive at a situation in which we place young women in harm's way in the first place?
Enlisted women have shown little enthusiasm on average for getting into combat. And the civilian wives of soldiers and sailors tend to dislike the military deploying their husbands in cramped quarters with servicewomen, fearing that their man will father another woman's baby. (The pregnancy rate among enlisted women is about the same as among civilian women of the same ages). Still, the desire for ambitious female officers to get as close to the front lines as possible to advance their careers has resonated forcefully with ambitious career women in other fields, and their voices have spoken loudest.
Nonetheless, the remarkable reaction all across America to the pictures of the girl-next-door from Hometown, USA, is a reminder that polling often fails to plumb the deepest human passions. And, fortunately, on this occasion, these passions include joy and relief at her deliverance.