Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta is expected to announce this week that the Pentagon will formally lift its ban on women in combat roles, giving each military service until 2016 to develop and implement the policy change. The 1.4 million women currently on active-duty probably shrugged off the news; women have already been serving in insurgent-heavy combat zones for nearly a decade.
By the end of 2012, more than 20,000 female service members had served in Iraq or Afghanistan (or both) since the wars began in 2001. More than 130 have been killed and over 800 have been wounded.
Despite the so-called “ban” on women in combat, the fact is that women have been participating in combat patrols, flying Blackhawk helicopters, and serving as medics under fire for over a decade. Army Specialist Monica Lin Brown, while attached to an infantry brigade combat team, earned a Silver Star for heroism after her convoy was attacked in 2007.
Practically speaking, the lifting of the ban isn’t very remarkable. Rather than simply being “attached” to combat units, women like SPC Brown will soon be able to actively serve as regular unit members. While out on patrol, it’s a distinction many male-soldiers might not even notice.
Some conservatives understandably expressed skepticism at the announcement. Republican Rep. Duncan Hunter, a former Marine veteran, lamented, “The focus of our military needs to be maximizing combat effectiveness . . . What needs to be explained is how this decision, when all is said and done, increases combat effectiveness rather than being a move for political purposes.”
The President of the conservative Christian group Concerned Women for America expressed similar sentiment, suggesting the move was more about “social experimentation and political correctness” rather than combat readiness.
Truth be told, the military has been experimenting with women in combat units for months, while keeping an eye towards the broader effects of lifting the ban on combat effectiveness.
For example, the Navy ended its ban against women on submarines last summer, and the Marines began enrolling females in its infantry officer course last year also. In what should be welcome news to conservative skeptics, the fact that the first two female volunteers washed out of the grueling course (as do 25 percent of all officers) can be taken as evidence that the Marines refused to lower their physical standards on account of gender.
The Obama administration might indeed be pleasing a few key interest groups with the announcement, but at the end of the day, there’s no sense in ignoring the reality on the ground in Afghanistan: women are already serving in combat roles.
Interestingly (and unbeknownst to most women), formal equality in the eyes of the Department of Defense isn’t relevant only to women who volunteer for military service. Now that the combat ban will formally be lifted, there is absolutely no Constitutional justification for discriminating against women under the Military Selective Service Act. The throngs of liberal-minded females who supported Obama due to a perceived GOP “war on women” might get an ironic surprise in the mail sometime during the next four years: a draft card.