After 65 Years, U.S. Military to Drop Ban on Women in Combat

BY Cristen Conger / POSTED January 24, 2013
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Two female soldiers in Afghanistan. (flickr/The U.S. Army) Two female soldiers in Afghanistan. (flickr/The U.S. Army)

In 1993, then-Defense Secretary Les Aspin handed down a directive to all military branches to open up some — but not all — positions to female soldiers. Aspin made clear that women should still be barred from “units engaged in direct combat on the ground, assignments where physical requirements are prohibitive and assignments where the costs of appropriate berthing and privacy arrangements are prohibitive.” In other words, the “combat exclusion policy” was to be left firmly in place. Then, a couple decades later, in February 2012, the Pentagon began dismantling that longstanding policy, opening up a sliver of active-duty combat roles to women, and a spokesperson for Defense Secretary Leon Panetta said “this is the beginning, not the end of the process.”

The following year, on Jan. 24, 2013, Panetta made good on that promise, and officially rescinded the no-girls-allowed-in-combat rule, freeing a potential 250,000 new jobs for women in the military, particularly in the infantry. For a number of reasons, including concerns over upper body strength disparities between men and women, fears that women’s presence distracting men on the battlefield and protectionist reservations about placing members of the fairer sex in the line of fire, it took sixty-five years since women were first enlisted in the regular Army to finally be given the green light to fight alongside their male brothers in arms – although soldiers in the Afghanistan and Iraq wars would likely point out that this was already happening. The military also has been publicly prepping for women’s already-stepped-up responsibilities on the front lines by developing body armor specially designed for the female body, among other things. Consequently, to some military personnel, lifting the official combat ban is more of a formality than a revolutionary policy change. As reported in USA Today, 290,000 women have already served in the Middle East combat zones:

Women are serving and have been serving in uniform alongside their male counterparts in Afghanistan and did so in Iraq for much of the past decade, even as their theoretical fitness to serve was debated back home. Although officially in support roles, the distinction ultimately made little difference to the 152 female U.S. troops who have died while deployed in those two wars.

The U.S. military, which only revoked its “Don’t Ask Don’t Tell” policy prohibiting gay soldiers from serving openly in 2011, also isn’t the first developed nation to open up gender-neutral combat positions by a long shot. For instance, Demark has allowed female soldiers in all military roles since 1988, and a recent study confirmed that the gun-toting ladies haven’t disrupted the military’s functioning in the least. And as Buzzfeed reports, the Danes are among the ranks of 12 other countries that already allow women in combat (interestingly, the UK has made clear that it will likely keep women out of combat for the foreseeable future):

  • Canada
  • France
  • The Netherlands
  • Norway
  • Israel
  • Finland
  • Poland
  • Denmark
  • Romania
  • Germany
  • Sweden
  • Australia
  • New Zealand

So what does this mean for the 203,000 female soldiers who comprise 14.5 percent of the active-duty force? The Pentagon given a May 15, 2013, deadline for all branches to determine whether any positions must remain men-only; NPR reports that specialized units such as the Navy SEALs and Green Berets may hold out. Combat changes must also take place by January 2016.

The news also comes as a victory to the four plaintiffs in a lawsuit brought against the Pentagon by the American Civil Liberties Union. The female soldiers involved initiated the case in hopes of forcing the military to withdraw its combat exclusion policy. Why? Because, they argued, they were already fighting in combat roles under the guise of “Female Engagement Teams” — without the recognition and potential for advancement.

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