|Training. U.S.Army photo: SSG. Russell Lee Klika|
“You’ve come a long way, baby.” That was the battle cry of the 1960s Virginia Slims cigarette brand. Now, courtesy of Defense Secretary Leon Panetta, women can get their own M-16. Or F-18, depending on which military branch they serve. Panetta, in a joint statement with Army Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, rescinded the 1994 Pentagon policy that effectively banned women from direct combat. If this reads like a celebration, it is – but only in the narrowest terms. Here’s why.
At a practical level, the policy change merely updates on paper what already was happening to female military personnel in the field. The dirty little secret is that in Afghanistan and Iraq, soldiers of both genders have been serving in combat environments. Gone are the days in which battle lines were drawn with the good guys on one side and the enemy on the other. In the war on terror, the bad guys are everywhere. Snipers, roadside bombs and suicide attacks place all American soldiers at risk, not just the ones assigned combat duty. For females, it all put a whole new twist on the term, ‘right to bear arms’. And the toll has been significant.
Women make up about 14 percent of active-duty personnel in America’s armed forces, and to date, 152 of them have perished in Iraq and Afghanistan. Nearly 1,000 more have been wounded. If those factoids are upsetting, they should be. It’s what happens in war. Military policy has just finally caught up to the realities found in modern-day war zones.
This begs an important question: who in their right mind would want to fight for the right to fight when they didn’t have to? Um, let’s see: African Americans and gay Americans immediately come to mind. So do Japanese Americans. Each of these groups were either banned or otherwise restricted from combat duty, or serving outright. In each case though, they proved themselves capable, patriotic and willing to die for their country – despite the dehumanizing segregation and humiliating discrimination policies they faced. So how did this latest battle, the one centered on gender exclusion, come to a head? Job opportunity.
Last year, four female soldiers filed a lawsuit seeking to end the Pentagon’s ban on women serving in direct combat jobs. All the women involved served tours of duty in Iraq or Afghanistan. Among other things, the suit contended that women who were ‘attached’ in support roles of male-only combat units but fought in battles alongside men were unable to attend combat leadership schools, and/or they were denied assignment to positions that were pathways to promotions. The suit also contended that 80 percent of Army general officers rise from combat arms positions, which women were barred from holding. In short, their argument was essentially this: what’s good for the goose should be good for the gander.
As this whole affair continues to unfold, I can’t help but reflect on how central the armed services has been in helping change the policies, laws, perceptions and attitudes of Americans around social justice issues relating to race, sexual orientation and now gender roles. Interesting how the military, one of our oldest, most conservative institutions, has revolutionized the way the American mainstream thinks about some of the most important and culturally relevant matters. I wonder if such profound change occurs there first because it’s one of the few places where life and death situations force people to recognize what really matters – like the fundamental similarities we share as human beings. A pity it takes national security issues to recognize that truth.