The recent announcement by Defense Secretary Ashton B. Carter, who declared that the Pentagon would open all combat jobs to women, marks a watershed moment in American military history.
“There will be no exceptions,” Carter said. That includes driving tanks, firing mortars and leading infantry soldiers into combat. “They’ll be able to serve as Army Rangers and Green Berets, Navy SEALs, Marine Corps infantry, Air Force parajumpers and everything else that was previously open only to men.”
It truly is about time. Women have been a fixture on battlefields. Hardly a cannon-shot fired without the presence of a woman, whether disguised in men’s garb during the Civil War, or participating full-fledged and in the open dating back to ancient times.
Many – men and women – would rightly argue that women already in combat in Iraq and Afghanistan have performed their duties with honor and excellence. They have found themselves in today’s wars face to face with some of the most dangerous and deadly circumstances, having been injured and captured and killed.
Women have been paying a price on the battlefield for long stretches, and without the ability to move up the ranks because of a type of tacit gender discrimination. The military has had a history of exclusivity, only getting to racial integration in 1948 and lifting the ban on gay men and lesbians serving openly as recently as 2011. This was a change that needed to happen.
Exclusion dismisses important contributions by marginalized groups and ultimately – especially in a volunteer military – adds up to profound discouragement. Carter, faced with the sort of military challenges not even considered a little more than a decade ago, must understand this reality.
Keeping women from combat jobs also kept them from rising up through the ranks. The decision will open up about 220,000 military jobs to women.
There is also the expected argument that women are physically unable to fill all jobs, especially in the infantry. That is a debate that will live on, despite whatever evidence to the contrary exists or may be produced. Note: Two female soldiers marked a first earlier this year when they graduated from the Army’s Ranger School, no small feat regardless of gender. But there is undoubtedly an argument to make about combat roles being a key to career advancement.
The Obama administration three years ago made it plain that women were to be integrated into all combat jobs by January and if not, any objecting branch must ask for specific exceptions. The Navy and Air Force had opened almost all combat positions to women, and the Army had increasingly done so. The Marine Corps, a male bastion of sorts, remains an outlier in that regard and sought a waiver. It was denied. Still, there is optimism that even the hard core will adapt to a new norm.
The Republican chairmen of the Senate and House Armed Services Committees have reportedly cautioned that, by law, Congress has 30 days to review the decision. Opposition could have a negative effect on implementation of “related policies,” as has been reported. Members should consider well, given the impact on the lives of countless women already serving this country.