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Showing the colors

By Vin Suprynowicz
web posted December 17, 2001

U.S. Air Force Lt. Col. Martha McSally was among the first seven American women to train as fighter pilots. She became the first to fly combat sorties, in an A-10 "Warthog" over Iraq in the mid-1990s. She has served as a trainer of combat pilots deployed to Kosovo and South Korea, and was promoted to the ranks of major and lieutenant colonel two years ahead of her peers, in what her lawyer calls "a rare endorsement that is given to the most capable, competent and professional officers, and only to those who are identified as future leaders of the Air Force."

Now, she is suing the Defense Department for requiring her to wear Muslim clothing when she leaves her Air Force base in Saudi Arabia.

In a suit filed in federal District Court in Washington, Lt. Col. McSally says U.S. military women have been ordered to wear black head-to-foot robes called "abayas" and ride in the back seat of vehicles when off base. They can only leave base if they are accompanied by a man.

The suit says the policy undercuts her standing as an officer and violates her constitutional rights to religious freedom and due process of law.

Male military personnel in Saudi Arabia are not subject to the Muslim strictures. Furthermore, no such restrictions apply to female employees of the State Department in Saudi Arabia or to other foreign women in the country, according to McSally's lawyer, Thomas S. Neuberger.

Mr. Neuberger also argues the policy has been applied inconsistently. Women stationed in Saudi Arabia during the Persian Gulf war "drove Jeeps, did their jobs, wore the same uniforms as men," he tells the Providence Journal. (McSally is a native of Warwick, R.I.)

A Defense Department official, speaking on condition of anonymity, responds that the policy is a security measure, explaining that "whether we like it or not," Saudi religious officials are empowered to physically punish women who appear in public in violation of Muslim dress codes.

Really? And let us suppose U.S. troops were stationed in a nation which still practiced chattel slavery, or at least outright racial prejudice. In order to honor local standards and avoid giving offense, in such a case, would black American officers be ordered to dress up in tattered clothing and frayed straw hats, made to walk behind their white subordinates when off base, instructed to ride in the back of the bus and lower their gaze and respond "Yassuh, massa" whenever addressed by a white person, all "whether we like it or not?"

Hogwash. The automatic deference shown officers in the military isn't "just to be polite" -- it's to inculcate the habit of immediate obedience, so no one wastes time on discussion when the sound of incoming evokes an order to hit the dirt. Does anyone really believe it strengthens this habit to snarl at one's commanding officer "Walk behind me, woman" upon returning from some off-base beanery -- as Lt. Col. McSally says she has witnessed?

Showing a modicum of respect for local sensitivities is merely polite -- if the locals eat with only one hand (don't ask why -- this is a family newspaper), find it rude to show the soles of one's feet in public, or are embarrassed by public signs of affection, then military personnel should of course be appropriately briefed, and expected to make reasonable concessions. Any trooper stationed overseas is, to some extent, an "ambassador of good will."

But the American military presence in states like Saudi Arabia serves to prop up those regimes. We (like armed forces in most of the civilized world) have female officers, and will continue to, and that is a 21st century fact to which they must adjust.

Our female officers' dress -- uniform or off-duty -- is not designed to be unduly scandalous or provocative. Surely a far better remedy, in keeping with our tradition of liberty, comes easily to hand: If strange men are going to take it upon themselves to physically "punish" duly assigned officers of the United States armed forces who appear bareheaded in public, any officer likely to encounter such behavior should be issued an effective sidearm, and instructed to use it.

"She understands it's going to destroy her career," explains attorney Neuberger of his client, Lt. Col. McSally, "but she's doing this so that other women won't have to take the hit."

What a sad commentary on our denatured defense establishment. Do the U.S. armed forces no longer have room for promising young officers willing to put their careers on the line, willing to "rock the boat" in the interest of truth, progress, and the American way?

Innovators Jimmy Doolittle and George S. Patton each got into some trouble, in their day, for challenging the brass. But America soon found herself mighty glad to have them.

Lt. Col. McSally is proud to wear the uniform she earned ... and America should be proud of her.

Vin Suprynowicz is assistant editorial page editor of the Las Vegas Review-Journal, and author of "Send in the Waco KIllers." Subscribe to his monthly newsletter by sending $96 to Privacy Alert, 561 Keystone Ave., Suite 684, Reno, NV 89503 -- or dialing 775-348-8591.

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