The times they are a changing. In February, the Pentagon lifted the ban on women serving in submarines; in December, DADT was repealed and signed by President Obama, ending a 17-year-old policy against gays and lesbians serving openly in the military. Now a Pentagon commission on diversity is recommending that women be allowed to serve in combat roles.
The Military Leadership Diversity Commission was established by Congress in 2009 and “tasked with assessing opportunities for the promotion and advancement of minority members of the military.” The commission’s members are ” senior military officers, businessmen and academics.” Their recommendations are, for now, just that. They will need to release a final report on their findings and this will be sent to President Obama and to Congress before any action can be taken.
But it’s a start.
The barriers are falling away one by one. If we are all equal in the eyes of the Constitution, many of the age-honored excuses used to keep women and minorities from enjoying the bull benefits and obligations of citizenship must now be cast aside.
The report says,
“Service policies that bar women from gaining entry to certain combat-related career fields, specialties, units, and assignments are based on standards of conventional warfare, with well-defined, linear battlefields,” the report said. “However, the current conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan have been anything but conventional.”
Some old soldiers (and some new ones) will say women lack the size, physical strength, the stamina, to serve in front-line roles. I knew an old Vietnam-era Marine sniper, who was vehemently opposed to the idea. He did not want his life riding on what he saw as a “weak link.” But just as obviously, those who are unfit physically will not be on the front-line. Just as every man is not physically equipped to serve as an infantryman, so to not every woman will be.
Some of the excuses used were the same as those which kept DADT in place: the threat to unit morale and cohesion. But this excuse, once it no longer held water where gays and lesbians are concerned (according even to soldiers polled), it could no longer be used to keep women down.
It is not as if women have not been exposed to combat in various roles in recent years. Since the U.S. invaded Iraq and Afghanistan, better than 200,000 women have seen duty in those countries (by contrast, some 150,000 women served in the Women’s Army Corps in WWII) and 132 have been killed and another 721 wounded. In modern unconventional war, there are no front lines and there are no rear areas where personnel are safe (even as a relative term). And the nature of this type of war, the commission says, blurs the line between combat and non-combat roles.
In other words, this isn’t your grandfather’s World War II.
Women are already facing many of the same risks as men. As Admiral Mike Mullen, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said in November:
“I know what the law says, and I know what it requires. But I’d be hard pressed to say that any woman who serves in Afghanistan today, or who served in Iraq over the last few years, did so without facing the risks of their male counterparts.
“In a war where there is no longer a clear delineation between the front lines … and the sidelines … where the war can grab you anywhere, this will be the first generation of veterans where large segments of women returning will have been exposed to some form of combat.”
In a sense then, the commission’s findings are not revolutionary but simply a grim recognition of changed fact. And that reflects another complaint: that the American people will not tolerate seeing women returned home in body bags. Well, they should not tolerate seeing men brought home that way either. And if old-fashioned feelings about gender roles should serve to reduce the likelihood that we’ll jump recklessly into wars, then all the better.
Either way, we live in a changed world, and we can’t collectively as a society bury our heads in the ground and pretend it is not so. It is, and our policies and our actions must reflect this. Women are the equal of men; their place is not in the kitchen, barefoot and pregnant, but wherever they must be to defend our shared values as a people, our country, and our freedoms. And if they’re going to get shot at like the rest of us, they deserve to do so on a level playing field.
That’s what America is all about.