The U.S. Defense Department’s decision this week to drop the ban on women serving in direct combat positions is being received as a victory for women’s rights. It’s also a triumph for men, who shouldn’t have to shoulder the most dangerous tasks alone. And, not least, it’s a breakthrough for the military, which will be made only stronger by this reform.
The U.S. has been easing the rules against women in combat for 20 years. Yet a prohibition remained against women in frontline ground combat units, especially in the infantry and artillery. In modern warfare against irregular forces, however, the front is often impossible to define. The more than 150 uniformed women who have died in Afghanistan and Iraq testify to that.
Defense Secretary Leon Panetta’s decision should now open up the 7.3 percent of positions in the military previously closed to women.
This is only fair. Female soldiers and Marines should have the same opportunities for advancement as their male peers, and combat experience is a big plus for promotion. More important, women can’t achieve equal standing in American society unless, as a class, they are prepared to take up all the duties of citizenship, including the most onerous -- risking one’s life for one’s country.
Commanders will have until January 2016 to make a case to the defense secretary for exclusions, but we urge the military not to exploit this loophole.
Most of the arguments made against having women fight alongside men -- notably that their presence would disrupt the male bonding necessary for unit solidarity -- belong to a bygone era. The same point was made to keep black and gay soldiers out of the military. Several studies have shown that diversity in the armed forces, including gender diversity, has led to improved leadership and group cohesion. And the entrance of significant numbers of women into the military in recent decades has helped sustain a healthy all-volunteer force, which commanders much prefer to coping with reluctant conscripts.
The more challenging argument is that women aren’t physically equipped for the rigors of certain combat roles: the heavy gear, long marches, fast runs. It’s a biological fact that women, as a class, are smaller and less muscular than men.
It’s also true that smaller and less muscular men are smaller and less muscular than bigger, buffer men. And the Defense Department doesn’t bar small men, as a class, from any jobs in the military. Surely the issue ought to be whether an individual woman qualifies for a given job, not whether her entire sex could perform it as well as men do.
Finally, as women celebrate this victory for equal rights, they should remember that with rights come responsibilities. Whether the Defense Department preserves some exclusions may have repercussions for a potential draft. The Supreme Court in 1981 upheld Congress’s decision to exempt women from registering for the Selective Service only because they are excluded from combat. Thus, removing all gender-based combat exemptions ought to mean women ages 18 to 25 will have to register.
The odds are slim that the U.S. will resort to a draft. But signing up to serve just in case is a civic obligation for anyone who is able.
As the 20,000 American women now deployed demonstrate, that includes both sexes.