Women in Combat

A Welcome Shift by the US Military

By Jacob Fass


When Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta announced that women would be allowed to serve in combat roles in the military, shattering a barrier that had been in place for the entirety of American military history, there was a conspicuous silence. A decade ago, this change would likely have been accompanied by a furious and sustained backlash. Like President Clinton’s 1993 attempt to lift the ban of gays and lesbians serving openly, it would have put the President in direct opposition to the leaders of the armed forces; it would have been a political disaster. Certain organizations and members of Congress raised concerns about the policy, but the vast majority of the military and general public remained silent. Panetta’s decision has been greeted with emotions ranging from acceptance to enthusiasm. Polls show that the the American people overwhelmingly support the change.

What turned an issue that powered the culture wars into such a non-controversial policy shift? In this case, as they did two years ago in repealing “Don’t Ask Don’t Tell,” policy makers seem to be codifying changes that have already occurred on the front lines. In our current wars, in which the definition of a combat zone is vague at best, women have informally and consistently served in combat roles. As military police, intelligence officers, military photographers, medics and logistical technicians, female soldiers have long been embedded with troops on the front lines. When the bullets fly they are forced to respond to crises in the same way as their male counterparts. In these situations, which have occurred almost daily in Iraq and Afghanistan, they have proved their skill and fortitude to the men they serve with.

Opponents of the change argue that there is a difference between incidental combat, in which women circumstantially respond to violence, and the sustained task of hunting down an enemy in a permanent combat unit. They claim that women are physically weaker than men, that the presence of women in units will provide unwanted distractions, that men will feel obligated to protect women instead of charging ahead with their missions. Mostly, they argue, as many did with “Don’t Ask Don’t Tell,” that the military exists to fight and win wars; not to serve as as a testing ground for social engineering. They feel that these changes will be a distraction in wartime, undermining the combat readiness of our forces.

Obviously the military exists to fight and win wars. But this change, by allowing the military to use the best talent from all corners of society, will only further that goal. In order to become a combat soldier one must go through rigorous training and pass intense physical fitness examinations; most men and women alike are unable to meet such standards, why shut out the women who are up to the task? The experiences of nations like Israel and Canada, which have long allowed women to serve in combat, shows the complications of carrying out this change are hardly insurmountable. As Canadian Brigadier General Shelia Hellstrom said in a recent interview, “People are bringing up the issues we had to deal with then. We have shown that we can do it. What was a contentious change in the 1990’s has since faded from the national consciousness and female Canadian officers commanded American troops during NATO missions in Iraq and Afghanistan without incident.” There is no cultural reason that our experience in America will be dramatically different.

Indeed, the positive reaction in recent days is a byproduct of changes in our own culture. Just as growing acceptance of gay and lesbian Americans made it seem ridiculous that talented soldiers, airmen and marines were being turned away because of their sexual orientation, attitudes toward the status of women in the workplace have changed in recent years as well. These attitudes have even seeped into the United States Military, one of the most conservative of institutions. It is no accident that the driving force for the policy change came from Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Martin Dempsey instead of President Obama. The military itself has recognized shifting realities and been forced to deal with them.

The success of this new policy is not inevitable. The military will have to adopt a rigorous gender neutral fitness standard and make certain crucial decisions about the integration and setup of certain combat units. But, as the repeal of DADT came and went without incident, we should have confidence in the professionalism of the armed forces and their ability to manage the change, which will be of enormous benefit to the country. It will allow combat units to take the best snipers, tank drivers and paratroopers, regardless of gender, and put them in positions where their skills can best be utilized. It will be an incredible opportunity for all female members of the armed forces, who will now be able to advance to high ranking positions in the military without the stigma of not having served in a combat units. These changes will not only be a boon to women serving our nation in uniform right now, they will be a source of greater security and justice for our nation for years to come.

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