Approximately 210,000 women are currently on active duty in the U.S. military, and many of them have exchanged fire with the enemy in Iraq and Afghanistan. Soon they will officially be allowed to take on combat roles.
This probably goes to show that while it often takes time for policy to catch up to reality, it eventually should and, at least when things are working right, does catch up.
Defense Secretary Leon Panetta announced the expansion of women’s military opportunities last week, at the recommendation of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. The new rules will end the military’s nearly two-decade-old combat exclusion policy, which bans women from taking part “directly” in combat operations.
Modern warfare has made the distinction between combat and non-combat roles blurry at best. Despite the ban, 152 American women have died while serving in Iraq and Afghanistan. But because women’s roles could not be acknowledged as combat-related, many female military personnel have been denied opportunities for advancement because they nominally lacked combat experience.
Under the new policy, women may still be prevented from serving in some positions, but the services will have to provide justification as to why those jobs should be restricted to men. The individual services chiefs have until 2016 to designate such exceptions.
Although the change followed fairly quickly after the end of the “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy, which prevented gays and lesbians from being open about their sexual orientations while serving, there is a key difference. The end to “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” required congressional action. Many in the military continued to oppose repeal even as legislators endorsed it. The push to end the combat exclusion policy, on the other hand, has come from the military itself.
The Pentagon has an unfortunate history of dragging its well-polished heels when it comes to social change. Soldiers served in racially segregated units through World War II. Despite an executive order from President Harry Truman in 1948, integration took years and was largely forced on the military from the outside.
The move to open combat positions to women is a positive sign that the military is ready to take a more modern and open-minded view of the capabilities of its recruits. This really is not too surprising, since the armed forces ultimately reflect the rest of our society, from which officers and enlisted personnel alike are drawn. Today’s younger officers grew up in a world in which women expected to have the same professional opportunities as men. This expectation applies to military life as much as to civilian life.
The foot-dragging over “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” was often rationalized with the argument that many of our troops were not ready to share close quarters with homosexuals. These are the same troops who have the courage to face bullets on the battlefield; I always thought it was demeaning to assert that they lacked the maturity to deal with diversity in the barracks.
As the military offers a path for women to take on riskier job titles, it is also trying to address the unofficial professional hazards that its female personnel encounter. A recent study concluded that around half of all women deployed to Iraq or Afghanistan were sexually harassed. Gen. Martin Dempsey, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs, has said he hopes the end of gender-based professional restrictions will foster greater personal respect for women in uniform. It will take consistent and firm enforcement of anti-harassment and anti-discrimination policies, however, to make that hope a reality.
Giving women the opportunity to pursue positions which they desire and for which they are qualified is not the same as arbitrarily setting target gender ratios for those positions. As I have written before, even when men and women have the same opportunities, they don’t always make the same choices. There is nothing wrong with this. It may be that there will be few female candidates for some of the positions that open up under the new policy, but the women who do choose to take on those roles will now have the chance to do so.
As more women head to the front lines, those of us on the home front should prepare for changes as well. While women have not been formally barred from most civilian positions for years, unofficial barriers continue to lock women out of certain professions. One day we may see women on major league baseball teams, for example. (Baseball, in fact, has an archaic rule against women in the major leagues, which dates to the 1950s.) In the end it all comes down to putting the best-qualified person in the job, whatever the job may be.
The military’s policy change shows how the convergence of women’s career goals and organizational staffing needs can bring barriers down. In doing so, Panetta’s announcement gives us another reason to be proud of our men and women in uniform.