No perfect equality is acheived, but it’s a good start.
A legal and professional hurdle to equity for women in the U.S. armed forces was rightfully removed last week when Leon Panetta, the U.S. Defense secretary, ended the official ban on women serving in ground combat units. Though the ban dates only to 1994, Panetta’s decision marked the very first time in the history of the American military that women were sanctioned to take up combat roles and serve on a war’s front lines.
Far from being a radical, cultural, or ideological shift in policy, the ban’s end actually reflected the long-standing realities of military service. The order was also necessary to end a condition of structural discrimination in the armed forces’ hierarchy, where the accumulation of combat experience is an important factor in determining rank and promotions. Clearly, in this situation, the ban unjustly put women at a clear professional disadvantage.
Servicewomen were previously barred from being placed in combat arms units—that is, they were kept from being given unit assignments that would have expressly had them fight on the front line of a violent conflict. But since the start of the millennium, with the U.S. mired decades-long wars on terror, the nature of battle and the clarity of a “front line” changed to a point where even the regiments that women were cleared to serve in faced conditions that no one could mistake for anything but combat.
In other words, the restriction of late existed in name only. Meanwhile, about 150 women lost their lives in the war on terror. “They did, in fact, perish in combat,” the Boston Globe wrote in an editorial, highlighting the disconnect between the official refusal to acknowledge the existence of fighting women even as they lose their lives in battle.
With the ban’s end, women have gained, in effect, the right to fight, to kill, and as one student veteran noted in a correspondence with the Foghorn staff, “to be killed”. The consensus may be low as to the legitimacy of the use or mission of the U.S. armed forces, but there should be a clear agreement that the increasing contribution of servicewomen to the field of combat should be validated with the recognition of their ability to fight. The reality that the average servicewoman is physically inferior to the average serviceman is not lost on the Foghorn, but this fact should not categorically bar women from the opportunity to engage hazardous military duty. No one is under the impression that Panetta’s order achieves full cultural or even professional equality for women in our armed forces, but, along with the repeal of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,” it is a proud moment of concrete progress for our military.
-Opinion Editor, Vicente Patino