Large numbers of U.S. servicewomen have been engaged in combat for at least the past decade. Last week, the Pentagon belatedly acknowledged that fact.
On Thursday, Leon Panetta, now in has last days as secretary of Defense, officially lifted the ban on women serving in combat. He said, after signing the memorandum ending the 1994 ban, that women have become integral to the military’s success and have shown they are willing to fight and die alongside their male counterparts.
“The time has come for our policies to recognize that reality,” Panetta said.
In truth, the time for such recognition is long overdue. All the old arguments against allowing women to serve in combat have long been either disproven or made obsolete by changing social mores.
Again, even with the ban in place, women have long served in combat, notably in Iraq, where an urban insurgency bore little resemblance to the traditional battlefields where front lines and combat zones could be clearly distinguished. Servicewomen who did the same jobs as men – driving transport vehicles and helicopters, working as mechanics and technicians, even accompanying armed patrols – faced the same hazards as male troops.
The combat ban didn’t protect women; it merely held them back. Promotions often are earned on the battlefield, and, until now, that path up the professional ladder has largely been closed to women in uniform.
Not all positions in the military will open up immediately, and the services will have until January 2016 to make a case that some should remain closed to women. But the end of official gender discrimination in the military is in sight.
It took too long. Other nations have long demonstrated that women were suitable for combat.
Women are both mentally and physically capable of serving in combat. And when strength is an issue in whether someone has the ability to perform a certain function, capabilities can be determined without regard to gender.
The United States likes to view itself as a bastion of fairness and equality of opportunity. Yet its military for too long has dragged its feet in recognizing reality, as Panetta put it, and letting women serve to their full capacity.
Lifting of the combat ban is late but nonetheless welcome.