There it was, at the top of page one, the picture that was used to illustrate the lead story in last Sunday's New York Times. "Soldiers from the Army's V Corps in Germany yesterday before taking off for joint exercises in the Persian Gulf," the caption said, and when you read it your first thought was that the Times had developed a sly sense of humor. It was sticking it to conservatives and anyone else who thought the military was for men only. The story, after all, was about preparations for a war with Iraq, and the three soldiers in the picture were girls.
Two were white, and one was black. One of the young white women looked pensive, but the other was smiling. The young black woman was looking appreciatively and cheerfully at someone or something slightly behind her and off to one side. They all had flashlights with red filters clipped onto their fatigues, and American flags on their right sleeves. In dress and gear, at least, they were indistinguishable from the boys.
Coincidentally I spoke that day with an old friend, a veteran newsmagazine journalist, and asked him if he had seen the Times picture. "The one on the front page," I said. "You mean the one with the soldiers," he said. "What about it?"
My old friend, the veteran newsmagazine journalist, said he saw nothing unusual about the picture; it only showed some soldiers. But he is, of course, a serious liberal, and it is an article of faith with him that boys and girls are interchangeable. Deep in his heart he may know that if the Army goes house-to-house with the Republican Guard in Baghdad, it would be better served by young men than by young women. It would be a breach of his liberal faith, though, if he had to admit it.
The thinking at the Times, I suppose, is much that way, too. On the other hand, the Times has long favored opening up more combat jobs in the military for women. So it may be that in the paper's uppermost reaches, where the publisher and his high editors dwell, and where pictures are chosen for page one, it really is believed that gender in war is irrelevant. A Beth or Lisa apparently can go house-to-house just as well as a Charlie or John. This may defy thousands of years of military history, but times have changed, according to the Times, so there you are.
Anyway the Times is growing increasingly eccentric in its institutional thinking, and it is something of a game now to identify its latest aberration. Thus the new issue of Newsweek notes that late last month the Times had a front-page story -- "CBS Staying Silent in Debate on Women Joining Augusta" -- on whether women would be allowed to join the National Golf Club, the host for the Masters Tournament. It was, as Newsweek pointed out, the 32nd piece on the subject Times had published in less than three months.
The Times story, Newsweek reported, criticized CBS, which will televise the Masters, for "resisting the argument that it can do something to alter the club's policy" on admitting women as members. But as Newsweek also reported, "it was unclear who -- other than the Times -- was making the argument."
That issue of Newsweek arrived in subscribers' mailboxes last Monday. Then on Tuesday the Times raised the Augusta issue again. It noted, on page one, of course, that Thomas Wyman, a former chief executive at CBS, had resigned from the golf club to protest its refusal to admit women.
The Times has not yet published an editorial praising Wyman for his brave stand, or at least it hasn't as this column is being written, but chances are you may see one soon. It will be of absolutely no interest to anyone other than the publisher, high editors and a few feminists, but it is better the Times concerns itself with that than a more serious issue like war.