Ninety-four years after women won the right to vote, 64 years after being formally allowed in the armed forces, and 16 years after the release of GI Jane, women can finally fight on the front line of battle. It is a truly historic occasion.
The announcement came at a press conference on Thursday, January 24. Pentagon Defense Secretary Leon E. Panetta and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff General Martin E. Dempsey formally rescinded the 1994 ban on women serving in combat roles in the military.
As far as contemporary civil liberties go, it is one thing to fight for free birth control, unisex bathrooms, or genderless pronouns. However, it’s an entirely different ballgame to fight for the right to live in a muddy hole while being shot at. There is no ulterior motive to be employed in the world’s most dangerous profession. The right to fight on the front line is a right won completely without pretense; it is a right to protect America and the freedom it represents.
It is important to note those who opposed the inclusion of women on the front line are not all curmudgeonly Archie Bunkers in uniform. These are people genuinely concerned with the safety of the troops. Sure, their reasons can be occasionally misguided and even misogynistic (re: all that drivel about menstruation and bears). Some are concerned about romantic relationships and the heightened risks of rape. However, both risks must be viewed in perspective. It takes a somewhat dubious stretch of the imagination to imagine seriously disruptive trench gossip about who likes whom when people's lives are at stake. Moreover, women who enter the military at all know there is a higher risk of rape just as they know there is a higher risk of combat-related death by being in a combat zone. There is also a higher chance of harassment, but women should not be punished for it.
Yet most arguments about why women should not be on the front line were ruled out 64 years ago when women were allowed in the armed forces at all. All arguments made about the physical capabilities of women are irrelevant because women will still have to pass the same physical standards. The front line is the most dangerous position one can take. The inclusion of women does not come as a courtesy. There is no mulligan in the military. There are no handicaps or chivalry when the stakes are life and death.
However, it is important to note, the admission of women to the front line comes a little late. The term “front line” is somewhat past its prime, and women have already been fighting on it for many years. In modern warfare, threats are ubiquitous. The use of biological and cyber terrorism facilitates remote attacks. The “front line” is not necessarily in “front,” nor a “line,” nor “ontli,” for that matter. Though I suppose, “combat orbs” probably didn’t get far in Defense Department meetings.
Subsequently, women have been fighting on the front line for years. John McCain, who publicly acknowledged his support of Panetta’s decision, noted, “The fact is that American women are already serving in harm's way today all over the world and in every branch of our armed forces… Many have made the ultimate sacrifice, and our nation owes them a deep debt of gratitude.”
As far as we’ve come, there are still many places to go. Secretary Panetta, in addition to repealing the ban on combat, stated, “we are moving forward with a plan to eliminate all unnecessary gender-based barriers to service.” Women are still barred from elite Special Operations, including the Navy SEALS, Army Rangers, Delta Force, and the 160th Special Operations Aviation Regiment.
Moreover, 80 percent of generals have served in front-line combat. Clearly, experience on the front line is important for leadership. It is harder to follow orders when there is doubt that the person giving them has not experienced firsthand what those orders might entail. Opening up the front line can move women up the chain of command.
Women make up only 14 percent of the 1.4 million American military personnel. However, it is not the percent but the principle that counts. Each and every woman has the right to work, though many choose to stay home.
As a woman who plans to join the Navy after graduation, I am proud of the Secretary’s decision. It’s a milestone for the extension of civil liberties. In the words of the president, “valor knows no gender.”
Sarah R. Siskind ’14 is a government concentrator in Adams House. Her column appears on alternate Fridays.