Editorial: Closer to military equality
Word that women in the American military will be allowed to fight is surprising, but justified. It reflects the reality that female soldiers have long been exposed to front-line dangers. It will end the discrimination that prevented their equal participation.
The policy change, made by Defense Secretary Leon E. Panetta, was based on recommendations from within the military, although lawsuits may have hastened the decision.
Panetta’s decision to overturn a 1994 policy banning women from combat came on the heels of a Jan. 9 letter from the Joint Chiefs of Staff that stated, “The time has come to rescind the direct combat exclusion rule for women and to eliminate all unnecessary gender-based barriers to service.”
We hope that because this groundbreaking change in policy came from within the military, implementation will proceed with determination and care — and success.
The reversal was inevitable. When the march toward equality goes forward within an institution, however slowly, it cannot be stopped. In some ways this 2013 decision harkens back to President Harry Truman’s 1948 move to integrate the military shortly after World War II. It also calls to mind the 2011 repeal of the discriminatory policy known as “don’t ask, don’t tell” that allowed gays to serve in the United States military as long as they were closeted.
Both those history-making changes did no harm to the military’s stability or the discipline of troops. The same will prove true of this latest change.
It is now up to each branch of the military to create a plan to implement the directive allowing women in combat; the branches have been given until 2016 to develop those plans.
No doubt this decision is most heartily applauded by the many female troops who have already endured the risks of combat with none of the career gains, namely the chance to hold high-ranking positions.
More than 280,000 women have served during the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Many of them have been part of ground combat in roles such as medics and photographers.
Unlike military policy, the battlefield takes no notice of gender. Though women have been banned from combat duty, many have sacrificed. During the recent wars, 800 women were wounded and 139 killed.
At the Jan. 24 press conference explaining the change, Panetta had this to say: “Not everyone is going to be able to be a combat soldier, but everyone is entitled to a chance.”
Though the decision seemed sudden to outsiders, Panetta and Joint Chiefs Chairman Martin E. Dempsey had been meeting weekly for a year discussing the idea of lifting the ban — in part because both men had personal experiences that led them to believe the ban was unfair and unnecessary.
Lifting the ban opens up more than 200,000 jobs — including elite special operations forces — to female troops, providing they meet the qualifications for those roles. Just as with male troops, some women will make the cut, others will not. Military officials say the standards will not change. Women will have to show their ability to withstand the same rigors as men.
But the point is, they’ll now be able to try. All women in the military wanted was a fighting chance, and a chance to fight.
Now they’ve got both.