For the first time in the history of the U.S. military, women will be allowed to serve in combat alongside their male counterparts without any gender-based discrimination. Outgoing Secretary of Defense Leon E. Panetta made the historic announcement last Thursday, effectively lifting the ban on women serving in ground combat roles. By rescinding the ban, the military is taking a crucial and long-awaited step to align itself with core American ideals of equality. Furthermore, a fully inclusive military will allow for the most talented service members to be recruited without taking their gender into account, thereby improving the quality of the military.
Historically, the contributions of the women in the U.S. military have been devalued by an institutionalized gender bias against them. The specific ban that is being rescinded was established in 1994 restricting women from serving on the frontlines of the battlefield. Not only did this prevent capable women from serving their country to their fullest capacity, but the lack of battlefield experience also inhibited women from rising up the ranks in the military to the same degree as men.
However, particularly over the last 10 years of conflict in Iraq and Afghanistan, women have proven their value time and time again. Although they weren’t officially allowed to serve in combat roles, the reality of the battlefield in these theaters of war led to women often being drawn into combat. Their performance in these situations convinced Secretary of Defense Panetta and the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, General Martin E. Dempsey, that there was no longer any reason to proscribe women from serving in these roles.
In the past few days most people have welcomed the change. However, a few have continued to speak out against women in combat. Among the opposition is Senator James M. Inhofe of Oklahoma, a member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, who said that the committee might “introduce legislation to stop any changes we believe to be detrimental to our fighting forces and their capabilities.” Those that oppose the ban have echoed the Senator’s sentiment, suggesting that any gains in equality in the military would be overshadowed by a decrease in effectiveness. Although the transition to opening more high-level roles to women will surely not come without any obstacles, the opposition’s argument is baseless because the evaluation for these new positions will be gender neutral. Thus women and men will be held to the same standards.
All the branches of the military will proceed in developing plans to phase in women by May 15 of this year. Although the initial stages of this new era of equality in the military surely won’t be free of unforeseen consequences, overall we should welcome this change as one that will not only allow our military to realize the full potential of its members, but also to achieve a level of equality that reflects the ideals of our country.