Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta’s decision, taken at the recommendation of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, to lift the ban on women in combat is hardly “radical social engineering,” as some critics claim. It is, more than anything, a recognition of what is and has been the status quo.
Roughly three-quarters of military jobs have already been opened to women. They are serving in combat zones as pilots, intelligence analysts, logisticians, military police officers, and in other specialties that expose them to considerable risk—all the more so because the kind of war we are fighting today is a guerrilla war in which the enemy can strike anywhere and there are no defined front lines. In the army and Marine Corps women are still forbidden from serving in combat units at the battalion and below level, but there are many women—not just military personnel but also contractors—on Forward Operating Bases where brigades and higher headquarters are to be found. This means that there is plenty of interaction today between men and women in uniform.
This has, in truth, created some issues with “fraternization” and sexual assault, but those are being dealt with by the chain of command. On the whole the integration of women has been a positive experience for the armed forces, expanding the pool of talented individuals who can contribute to the fight.
It is not clear how radical the change imposed by Panetta’s decree will actually be. He is not mandating, as I understand it, that every service open every job to women; he is simply shifting the burden of proof by requiring the services to make compelling arguments as to why women should not serve in certain jobs instead of assuming they will be excluded. There could very well be a strong case made that women should still be kept out of small infantry and Special Operations units where accommodations and hygiene are primitive and where sexual tensions could harm esprit de corps.
And opening up jobs to women doesn’t necessarily mean that they will flock to fill those slots or, even if they volunteer, that they will be found qualified. It is vitally important that physical standards not be watered down in order to increase the number of women in certain units. Being a grunt is still hard, physical labor—you have to hump 80 pounds or more of equipment and to walk long distances in punishing heat or cold. That is not something most men could do, let alone most women.
But as long as standards are enforced evenhandedly—along with rules against sexual harassment, assault and other offenses—the new Department of Defense policy should be implemented with little difficulty and is likely to win the support of most service personnel, as has been the case already with the lifting of the “don’t ask, don’t tell” rules.