Earlier last week, the Pentagon announced a major change in policy—one that allows women to serve in combat roles previously unavailable to them. The Joint Chiefs of Staff unanimously supported the move by the Department of Defense to open up to 230,000 new jobs to women between 2013 and 2016, many of which are in infantry. Jobs in the special forces are being considered, as well.
The decision is a controversial one. Opponents say that women aren’t physically or emotionally equipped for combat, that they will be a distraction to their male counterparts, and that privacy is an issue. The Pentagon disagrees, however, even going so far to say that lifting the ban on women in combat will actually reduce the incidence of sexual harassment in the military. According to Defense Secretary Leon Panetta: “[Women] are serving in a growing number of critical roles on and off the battlefield. They have become an integral part of our ability to perform our mission.”
So, why are these changes being made now, and can the challenges be overcome?
Women Already in the Line of Fire
A major reason why the Pentagon is making this move is because women have already served in combat, though not officially, for the past ten years in both Iraq and Afghanistan. However, they have been excluded from appropriate training, recognition, and the opportunity for combat-related promotions for which they are qualified. In fact, before the change was announced, the ACLU had filed suit against the Defense Department, arguing that combat exclusion for women was “unfair and outdated” and compromises the safety and efficacy of the U.S. military.
Women who have served in combat in Iraq and Afghanistan have already proven their capability for such jobs. According to Panetta, not all women will qualify to be combat soldiers, but all should have the opportunity to try. In addition, the change will open up crucial combat training that is currently closed to women who need it because their official jobs are currently labeled “support” instead of combat—even when they are in the line of fire.
Privacy and Sexual Harassment
Many opponents argue that it’s impossible to maintain appropriate separation and privacy between the sexes, and that sexual harassment in the military—already a huge problem—will only increase if men and women are thrown together in close quarters. Proponents agree that cohabitation will have to be addressed but, according to Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman, General Martin Dempsey, privacy issues were figured out right away when women served alongside men in Operation Desert Storm. In the last year, women have been allowed to serve in submarines, where privacy issues have been successfully addressed.
As for sexual assault, Pentagon generals argue that including more women in these roles could reduce sexual harassment and assault by doing away with the traditionally male-dominated military culture that subordinates women. Creating equality between the sexes in the military, Dempsey says, will likely result in fewer sexualized displays of power on the part of male soldiers.
Implementing the Change
The new policy does not mean all positions will be open to women immediately. Instead, it will be a gradual change between now and 2016, beginning with an “assessment phase” wherein each branch of service will look at every non-integrated job and come up with a timetable for integration. The goal, according to the Pentagon, is to find ways to open the maximum number of positions to women; however, there will be an exemption option for jobs that are determined to be completely unsuitable.
Though some male troops may have a problem with the change at first, the Pentagon is confident that it won’t take long for gender equality in the military to seem normal—just as was the case when women began to be admitted to previously all-male institutions such as West Point.