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Deja Vu

January 24, 2013

On the Front Lines


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2012: Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta announced this week that the Pentagon will lift a 1994 ban that prohibits women from serving in combat. Many senior military officials and government representatives laud the move as both necessary and important, while others question the motives of the Department of Defense. The New York Times reports:

Senator Kirsten E. Gillibrand, a New York Democrat who has pushed for lifting the ban, called it “a proud day for our country” and an important step in recognizing “the brave women who are already fighting and dying.”

But the leadership of a conservative Christian group, the Family Research Council, immediately weighed in with its opposition, sending out a statement from Jerry Boykin, a retired three-star general with a long career in Special Operations Forces.

General Boykin said that “the people making this decision are doing so as part of another social experiment.” He especially criticized the concept of placing women into Special Forces units where “living conditions are primal in many situations with no privacy for personal hygiene or normal functions.” It remains unclear if women will be permitted to fight in Special Forces and other commando units.

1862: Sarah Edmonds, a Canadian-born woman living in Rhode Island at the start of the Civil War, was not content to serve as a hospital nurse or cook—the only Union Army occupations open to women. Disguising herself as a man and taking the alias “Frank Thompson,” Edmonds served as a medic, a soldier, and a spy. Her memoir, Nurse and Spy in the Union Army, describes a scene in which she rushes to battle and is later rewarded with a special prize:

I put my horse, poor little “Reb” over the road at the very top of his speed until he was nearly white with foam, then plunged him into the Chickahominy and swam him across the river. I met General G. about a hundred rods from the river making the best of his way toward the bridge. Engineers were at once set to work strengthening the crazy structure, which was swaying to and fro with the rushing tide. The eager, excited troops dashed into the water waist deep, and getting upon the floating planks went pouring over in massive columns…

The day after the battle of Fair Oaks, a splendid sword was presented to me. It has been struck from the arm of a rebel colonel, while in the act of raising it to strike one of our officers after he has fallen from his horse. Oh, how proud I felt of that beautiful silver-mounted trophy, from the bloody field of Fair Oaks, which had so recently been wielded by a powerful arm, but powerless now, for he lay in the agonies of death, while his splendid sword has passed into my feeble hand. I presume if he had known this, it would have added another pang to his already agonized spirit.

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  • The words of a warrior

    Posted by Ander Broadman on Thu 24 Jan 2013

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Lewis H. Lapham is Editor of Lapham's Quarterly. He also serves as editor emeritus and national correspondent for Harper's magazine.
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