The U.S. military, often seen as a conservative organization, has recently become a trailblazer in social progress with forward-thinking decisions that embrace (or at least begun to accept) the position minority groups have within its ranks. Importantly among these is the milestone decision in gender equality and equal opportunity.
On January 24th, 2013, Defense Secretary Leon E. Panetta, with a unanimous recommendation by the Joint Chiefs of Staff, announced that women would no longer be excluded from direct ground combat. This announcement revokes the Department of Defense policy, revised in 1994, which made it so that “women may not be assigned to units, below the brigade level, whose primary mission is to engage in direct combat on the ground. Primarily, this means that women are barred from infantry, artillery, armor, combat engineers, and special operations units of battalion size or smaller.” This announcement follows a pattern of modernization in our military policy that in many ways reflects the changing position women hold in our society.
In 1948, Congress passed the Women’s Armed Services Integration Act which permanently incorporated women into military, albeit with caps on the proportion they were to constitute. In large part because of the equal rights movement and the end of the draft, the role of women expanded and throughout 1970s a patchwork of incorporative legislation moved through Congress. But the ongoing war in Afghanistan and recent war in Iraq have shown a spotlight on the contributions of female service members and is thought to have catalyzed the recent changes.
Department of Defense data shows that as of late February 2012, a total of 20,062 females were deployed constituting 10.92% of total forces. The LA Times comments that “Panetta’s decision was seen as a recognition of women’s contributions to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Because of the demand for troops, women often found themselves on the front lines serving as drivers, medics, mechanics and in other roles when commanders attached their units to combat battalions. They didn’t receive combat decorations or other special recognition, however.” President Obama also commented on this occasion saying, “This milestone reflects the courageous and patriotic service of women through more than two centuries of American history and the indispensable role of women in today’s military.”
Although some occupations may be closed to women by exception, and only based on the approval of the respective defense secretary, the lifting of the ban on women in direct combat roles opens significant doors for enlisted females. This decision is to make available up to 237,000 positions and remove the obstacle of not having combat experience, often a hindrance to promotions and climbing military rank.
Interesting questions have arisen in this debate and often focus on the responsibility for equality on both sides. Particularly intriguing is if women should now be required to register with the Military Selective Service Act, as almost all men aged 18 through 25 are currently required to do. Additionally will women and men be held to the same physical standards deemed necessary to complete their duties? It will be interesting to see how our representative address these issues as this policy change comes into fruition.