U.S. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta’s decision to remove the last remaining bars to women in combat merely codifies reality: that over the past decade, women have been serving in combat.
In doing so, the United States joins Australia, Canada, France, Germany, Israel, and others in allowing women into combat arms.
In Iraq, Afghanistan and elsewhere, American women have walked patrols as military police, manned machine guns on convoys, flown combat aircraft, conned warships and now even serve on submarines, but haven’t been allowed in infantry, artillery, armor, or special operations jobs.
The change will be gradual, through 2016, and services can argue why select career fields, like special operations, should be immune from change. What’s unclear is whether women might be forced into battlefield jobs they never wanted. Female medics, for example, serve in hospitals behind the lines; male counterparts also go outside the wire.
Since women have served under fire with distinction, losing lives and limbs, this change won’t raise many eyebrows but will present challenges.
First, women must meet the same physical standards as men for the jobs they want.
Second, the strong male-dominated cultures in these fields must change.
Third, enough qualified women must seek these new jobs to keep them from becoming isolated tokens in all-male units and enable them to eventually break gender barriers for command and other senior jobs, given that it takes 18 years to train a sergeant major and 23 to prepare a colonel for a brigade command.
Fourth, the sexual harassment and assault epidemic plaguing military women is an inexcusable disgrace that must be stopped.
Success depends on setting high standards for all troops and uniformly and fairly enforcing them, while ensuring that all troops abide by strict codes of conduct or face tough disciplinary consequences.